Sculptural Subjects: Figures and Encounters in Space

Throughout June, July and August I visited a number of exhibitions where sculptural representations of the human body dominated the presentations. Although each showcase was distinctive, the unifying aspect was the way the artists and/or the curators had installed the works to provoke powerful encounters between the sculptures and the moving bodies of the visitors interacting within the architectural settings of the galleries. Below is a review of a selection of the works, with additional details about the venues where they were most recently displayed.

Desrie Thomson-George’s ‘Jilo: The Survivor’ (2018) – Borough Road Gallery, London

Jilo: The Survivor was the title of a solo retrospective by the Guyanese-born British contemporary visual artist Desrie Thomson-George, displayed at London Southbank University’s Borough Road Gallery (July 2018). Several of the drawings and sculptures presented in this exhibition featured representations of the artist’s alter ego, Jilo. Collectively, these works conveyed aspects of the life struggles experienced by black women over many generations throughout the African diaspora(s) worldwide, particularly in relation to challenging racism, sexism, inequalities and injustices in order to achieve a liberated sense of self.

Contemporary visual artist Desrie Thomson-George photographed next to a sculpture displayed as part of her exhibition ‘Jilo: The Survivor,’ London Southbank University, Borough Road Gallery, 12 July 2018. Photo: Carol Dixon

Desrie’s figural sculptures are often created using Jesmonite embedded with recycled materials (such as metal, glass, latex and textiles). and many of them present the realisation and maturation of the liberated female self in a series of stages, so that the process of achieving a positive sense of identity and wholeness is visualised as a life-long journey. In her artist’s statement written to promote the exhibition, Desrie explains:

“My work is driven by political, social and cultural issues of being a Black woman living in the West… Through the creation of figurative sculptures and installations I tell the story of Jilo, a Black woman, her struggles and her journey. Her invisibility, while being visible, and the irony of this. I experiment with recycled metal, glass, paper and textiles… selected deliberately to symbolise different states of being. For example: metal for strength; latex – invisibility and vulnerability; glass – fragility; and paper – media or propaganda.”

Antony Gormley’s ‘Subject’ (2018) – Kettle’s Yard Gallery, Cambridge

Antony Gormley’s exhibition – ‘Subject’ (2018) – was displayed at Kettle’s Yard Gallery in Cambridge (22 May–27 August 2018). The main part of the exhibition was a series of single-figure works positioned vertically and horizontally in the corners of two expansive galleries. An additional installation of two horizontal steel bars fixed just above head height ran through these rooms and intersected at 90 degree angles in the adjoining corridor to simultaneously create a physical connection between the exhibits and also a disruption of the limits of the architectural space.

Edge III (2012) by Antony Gormley. Cast iron. 191 x 52 x 27cm. Displayed at Kettle’s Yard Gallery, Cambridge (22 May-27 August 2018). Photo: Carol Dixon.

Given that many of Gormley’s figural works are cast from the artist’s own body – as in the case of the cast iron sculpture, Edge III (2012), positioned at a 90 degree angle to the gallery wall as though the figure was lying horizontally in an invisible bed – this might suggest that the “subject” of this exhibition is himself. However, my impression was that the artist deliberately chose the title to imply that each visitor was also the subject of the exhibition, and our bodies were as integral to Gormley’s interrogation of human corporeality in space as the exhibits.

Subject, 2018, by Antony Gormley. 10mm steel bars, 185 x 52.3 x 40 cm. Exhibited in the Sackler Gallery at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge (22 May-27 August 2018). Photo: Carol Dixon.

This was most evident in the main gallery where a single, life-size standing sculpture made from hundreds of small steel bars stacked at right angles to create a porous, grid-like frame was positioned facing the window. The angularity and the openness of this structure conveyed a sense of fragility and precarity just as much as giving the appearance of solidity and strength, encouraging us to reflect on the ways our own bodies can project different (sometimes conflicting) messages to the outside world that are not reflective of what is felt internally.

Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Figure for Landscape’ (1960) – Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield

One of the most visually arresting artworks on display at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield was the sculpture Figure for Landscape (1960), created using plaster applied thickly onto an aluminium armature. This piece was one of several versions of the work, later cast in bronze, which the internationally renowned British sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) produced during the early 1960s. This imposing work features two curvaceous apertures hollowed out of a larger-than-life-size structure that has the rounded outline of a human body – perhaps, in this case, the classical combination of a mother and child – shrouded in a cloak.

Figure for Landscape (1960) and Hollow Form with Inner Form (1963-8). Two plaster sculptures by Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) on permanent display at the Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Although minimalist in form, the size, shape and texture of this piece rendered it a highly complex artwork that held my attention for a very long time as I projected thoughts of ancient standing stones, religious statuary of the Virgin and Child, and other iconic imagery onto the framework. Like a blank canvas, the hollowed out interior of this un-pigmented and understated object opened up opportunities to fill the voids and colour the surfaces with an infinite number of imaginings and possibilities…

For further information about the above-mentioned sculptures and the wider portfolios of the artists, please visit the following websites:

* Desrie Thomson-George: artist’s site –

* Sir Antony Gormley OBE: artist’s site –

* Dame Barbara Hepworth DBE (1903-1975): biographical information compiled by the Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield –

Title image:
‘Nubian Reverie’ by Desrie Thomson-George (Ceramic sculpture; dimensions 60cm x 40cm), photographed on display at Borough Road Gallery, London, as part of the exhibition Jilo: The Survivor (July, 2018).









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