Bob Law Tall Obelisk with Two Holes and a Notch 1981

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Artwork details

Artist
Bob Law 1934–2004
Title
Tall Obelisk with Two Holes and a Notch
Date 1981
Medium Bronze
Dimensions Object: 3210 x 1090 x 290 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Purchased 2006
Reference
T12179
Not on display

Summary

This narrow, bronze spike over three metres high stands just off centre atop a thick, brick-like slab which also serves as the sculpture’s plinth. The work’s title, Tall Obelisk with Two Holes and a Notch, explicitly describes the ‘inscriptions’ with which the artist has treated the shaft of the sculpture; at two points, one approximately half-way along its length and the second just below its pyramidal tip, a small square window has been punched through the bronze. The visual effect of these two punctures is to destabilise the integrity of the metal as well as to open up the form’s density at eye-level and above, which, because of its thinness, begins to read as a line as much as a three-dimensional object despite its towering height. Finally, between these two minor holes, a small section of material appears to have been chipped away from the body of the spike on one side, leaving the casual impression which a carpenter might when carving a length of wood.

Law’s artistic practice might be associated with minimalism, conceptual art or abstract painting as a result of the artist’s engagement with Eastern philosophy, landscape and carpentry. But unifying his entire production is a consistent recourse to vernacular materials and symbols (if often abstracted), especially derived from primal landscape or pastoral settings including the obelisk, the castle and the field as well as the form of the cross, which Law considered to be the most primitive sign. Law’s not-quite straight lines in pencil, oil and graphite stick and his not-quite platonic shapes in bronze, cast-iron, lead and painted wood thus belie an uneasiness with standardisation and mass-production notwithstanding their own serial, though irregular, production; a concern Law shared with post-minimal American sculptors including Eva Hesse and Robert Mangold. The presence of things and their ‘uncomplicated physicality’ resulted in him making sculptural objects that are ‘nothing special in themselves, but … simple to the point of being universal, basic to the point of becoming mystical’ (David Batchelor, Bob Law: Drawings, Sculpture and Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Newlyn Art Gallery, Cornwall and Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge 1999, p.6). In this sense the sculptural work echoes his paintings in their unceasing exploration of the phenomenological: ‘At the heart of the work in general is the manner in which we are asked to feel our way into space to come to an intuition of time and energy through encounters with nothingness or at least through conspicuous absence’ (Anthony Bond, ‘Recalling Bob Law’ in Batchelor, Bond, Lovatt 2009, p.222). Law’s Obelisk with Two Holes and a Notch too is both there and not there depending on one’s point of view; a slender stake which disappears into the architectural scale of the gallery with few eye-catching embellishments on which to focus.

In comparison, Law’s related sculpture Reclining Obelisk 1984 is more anthropomorphic: the obelisks’s plinth reads as a foot while a second prosthesis near the pyramidal tip resembles an arm or elbow. Another comparable sculpture, The Eye of the Needle 1980, is a non-tapering stake ending in a square hole at its very tip, and standing less than two metres high. It was shown at Lisson Gallery in 1980 along with a collection of much smaller, squat obelisk-like objects carved from wood and arranged near to it on the floorboards. This archetypal presentation demonstrated the characteristic slippages of symbolic form across media within Law’s production:

There is a system, but the work is not systematic … Fields become formats and fields become chairs and chairs become houses that perch on obelisks; the backs of chairs become detached and emerge as crosses that alight on wheels; castles arise from fields in blocks that expand and contract. This could go just about anywhere: to specific things or to abstract generalities, to materialism or to mysticism.
(David Batchelor, ‘Bob Law 1999/2009’ in Batchelor, Bond, Lovatt 2009, p.234).

Further reading
Bob Law: Paintings and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1978.
David Batchelor, Anthony Bond, Anna Lovatt and others, Bob Law: A Retrospective, Ridinghouse, London 2009, reproduced p.156.

Kari Rittenbach
February 2012

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