Whilst visiting Chester Cathedral recently, I happened upon an installation by Richard Sweeney, accompanied by an exhibition of his smaller works. He was unknown to me before this visit.
Sweeney’s website describes him as seeking to maintain “…an experimental, hand-on (sic) approach, utilising the unique properties of often mundane materials to discover unique sculptural forms. He has lectured at universities internationally and regularly holds workshops to share his knowledge of paper folding and construction techniques.”
Reflecting upon his work raised various questions about art. A subsequent visit to the Towner Gallery (in Eastbourne) to see A Certain Kind of Light raised similar questions. I have therefore, linked the two blogs together. At the foot of this one there is a link to A Certain Kind of Light, where these questions are considered.
The next section of this blog looks at Sweeney’s work, whilst the subsequent considers my responses to his work
SWEENEY’S WORK AT CHESTER CATHEDRAL
The sculptural installation at Chester Cathedral is “…inspired by the theme of Metamorphosis” and also appears to go by the name Metamorphosis. It is large and dramatic. Please refer to fig.1 above, which also serves to give some idea of the scale of the work. The twists and turns of the paper give the piece fluidity, flow and, of course, a sense of transformation. Its suspension above the heads of visitors serves to enhance its size and sense of movement.
It is impossible to ignore the craft of the piece. Sweeney has clearly developed enormous skill in manipulating paper.
The installation was accompanied by an exhibition of his smaller works which, to some extent, defy categorisation. Some hinted at natural forms, some were mathematical/architectural in their structure, some were figurative whereas others were abstract in nature. Most of his work, regardless of categorisation, offers an exploration of the structure and form of paper as an artistic medium. (It should be noted that he has worked with other materials.)
I have since visited Sweeney’s website where he categorises his sculptures into three broad groups; type (two examples of this are “Pleated works” and “Paper Sculpture – Modular”), individual pieces (such as “Miniartextil”) and Installations.
Sweeney’s work is interesting. He is exploring paper as a medium but has developed pieces which warrant judgement as works of art in their own right. I did, however, find making such judgements difficult for (at least) two reasons. Firstly, so impressed was I by the craft of his work that it did obscure my thoughts as to their artistic qualities. Secondly, nothing had any context. Ultimately, I simply judged the pieces by my own sense of aesthetics (i.e. did I “like” them!)
I found the mathematical/architectural pieces interesting (such as figure 2 below), but no more than that. There is quite of lot scientific and mathematical imagery in circulation. These range from fractal images through to various forms of symmetry and mathematical structure. They are interesting in themselves. The result was that I found his mathematical work acted as illustrations, rather than interesting pieces in their own right. As I said above, despite these thoughts, the craft of these pieces is something to behold!
The more natural forms left me a little cold. Again, I marvelled at the skill and intricacy of their construction, but the finished pieces did not interest me beyond that. Fig. 3, below, for example, suggested the construction of heads and skulls. The work on the left hints at something aquatic, whilst the middle one looks decidedly mammalian.
Fig. 4 below illustrates some of his more abstract pieces. I think they are interesting in their own right. Freed of the need to follow a mathematical or natural structure, they suggest flow and fluidity and beautiful movement.
Having been introduced to Sweeney through this exhibition and then his website, I found myself struggling to assess his work. There is little context about his art other than references to the manipulation of the media. I decided, therefore, to search for other opinions on the internet.
By way of advising that Sweeney’s work was touring under the title ‘Above the Fold’, Johnny Strategy (2015) described his work as follows:
Inspired by the organic forms of nature like mounds of snow and clouds, English artist Richard Sweeney creates delicate modular sculptures out of paper. It’s hard to believe that some of these 3D sculptures came to life from just from paper, but the Wakefield, England-based artist works primarily with a ruler and cutter to bend fold and glue together his complex sculptures, which range from table-top size to floor-to-ceiling installations. Especially impressive are his pleated sculptures, which often don’t even use glue to achieve their three-dimensional terrain look.
The emphasis of Strategy’s comments is very much on the craft of Sweeney’s work. The same could be said of this headline from Beautiful/Decay. In an article discussing the same tour, Genista (no date) writes, “Richard Sweeney’s Intricate Paper Sculptures Are Incredibly Made Without Glue”.
I have stated in earlier blogs that I think art is the name we give to people’s creative output. Given that, the comments above prompted an entirely different train of thought for me. How is art judged? How do we compare one of Sweeney’s pieces with one of Barbara Hepworth’s, for example? Is it even reasonable to compare pieces of art on the basis of how “good” they are relative to one another? It did occur to me, however, that galleries make such judgements. What makes a piece of art sufficiently interesting, for example, to warrant acquisition and display by the Tate, say, as opposed to display in Chester Cathedral?
In some respects I think these questions baffle me as much, if not more than, the definition of art itself. At this point I wish to discuss an exhibition I attended after Sweeney’s. Please follow this link:
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Haywood, J. (2017) Metamorphosis at Chester Cathedral. [Photograph] In: possession of: The author: Brighton.
Figure 2. Sweeney, R. (2010) Black Hole. [Paper, adhesive. Diameter 18cm, width 16cm] At: http://www.richardsweeney.co.uk/motion-forms (Accessed on 07 May 2017)
Figure 3. Haywood, J. (2017) Untitled Sweeney at Chester Cathedral. [Photograph] In: possession of: The author: Brighton.
Figure 4. Sweeney, R. (2012) Triptych. [Paper, Dimensions (each): 57x39x20cm. 2012] At: http://www.richardsweeney.co.uk/motion-forms (Accessed on 07 May 2017)
Genista. (No date) Richard Sweeney’s Intricate Paper Sculptures Are Incredibly Made Without Glue At: http://beautifuldecay.com/2015/02/06/richard-sweeneys-intricate-paper-sculptures-incredibly-made-without-glue/ (Accessed on 07 May 2017)
Stategy, J. (2015) Intricate Modular Paper Sculptures by Richard Sweeney At: http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2015/01/intricate-modular-paper-sculptures-by-richard-sweeney/ (Accessed on 07 May 2017)