On loan to: Nottingham Contemporary (Nottingham, UK)
Exhibition: Think Back! Black Art in Britain in the 1980s
Untitled 1985 is a sculpture by the Caribbean-born British artist Veronica Ryan. Its long, cocoon-like form is made of plaster, which is smooth and undulates, varying in thickness and size and mimicking organic shapes. It is divided into six oval-shaped compartments that reduce in size from largest to smallest. Each compartment has a deep bowl-like interior in which has been placed a single, smaller object cast in bronze. These objects vary in shape and scale, and some occupy more of their bowl than others. It is unclear what these objects might be – all are abstract shapes and seem to represent a mixture of natural and man-made forms. The smallest section of the work lifts slightly from the surface on which it is displayed, suggesting that the sculpture is beginning to curl back on itself. The grey exterior of the plaster contrasts subtly with the darker brown-black of the bronze objects, and plaster and bronze are both soft materials that in this case have be manipulated before hardening, with both showing traces of the artist’s hand.
Untitled was made by Ryan in 1985, when the artist was living and working in the UK. The sculpture appears to represent a large, ripened seedpod, a shape that was inspired by the fruits, pods and other natural forms Ryan had seen during her early childhood in Montserrat in the Caribbean. This sculpture, like many of Ryan’s works, sits directly on the gallery floor. The absence of a plinth or formal display surface is important to the organic meaning of her work. The art historian Eddie Chambers has suggested that Ryan’s positioning of her sculptures on the floor ‘emphasised the association of her works to natural forms, literally growing up from or at ground level, as well as hinting at domesticated or other beasts that eat from ground level troughs’ (Chambers 2014, p.160). The viewer can walk around Untitled and must bend to see it properly; the lack of a plinth also allows for the direct interaction of the sculpture with the fabric of the gallery and enables it to more fully occupy the viewer’s own space.
Ryan’s work often references pod forms – an enveloping, nurturing case in which smaller objects are placed. Untitled is reminiscent of another work made by Ryan that same year, Relics in the Pillow of Dreams 1985 (Tate T06530), particularly in its use of a larger plaster shape in which are embedded small bronze objects. The protective and powerful forms of Ryan’s sculptures have been described by the art historian Adeola Solanke as having
A characteristic aura which is conducive to and induces a feeling of contented being. Pillows and pods with undulating surfaces in which various smaller forms rest; pods with compartments which act as home to a family of smaller creations. These suggest a sense of completeness and peace like that of a foetus in a welcoming womb.
(Solanke quoted in Chambers 2014, pp.161–2.)
Ryan has further linked the juxtaposition of smaller objects with larger ones in her work to experiences she had in Nigeria, the country to which she travelled following the completion of her postgraduate studies at the Slade School of Art in London in 1980: ‘I was struck by votive objects near Ife, honouring the dead. Hair, egg, chalk and kola nuts were some of the objects. Assembled objects tied up on trees as a kind of protection were exciting to see’ (quoted in Himid 2011, p.74, accessed 11 June 2015).
Untitled was sculpted in the early part of Ryan’s career, shortly after she had completed her studies at the Slade and at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London. Ryan had achieved the first formal recognition of her work when she was shown in the Tate Gallery’s Sculptors and Modellers exhibition in 1984 and in a solo exhibition as part of the Thin Black Line show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in 1985. Untitled bears a visual resemblance to the work of Henry Moore (1898–1986) and Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975) and Ryan has firm links with both: in 1987 she received a Henry Moore Foundation Award and in 1998–2000 she was artist in residence at Tate St Ives, working in Hepworth’s studio and responding directly to her sculptural practice.
Richard Cork, New Spirit, New Sculpture, New Money, New Haven 2003.
Lubaina Himid, Thin Black Line(s), exhibition leaflet, Tate Britain, London, and University of Central Lancashire, Preston 2011, http://clok.uclan.ac.uk/5106/22/thinblacklinesbook.pdf, accessed 11 June 2015.
Eddie Chambers, Black Artists in British Art: A History from 1950 to the Present, London 2014.
Supported by Christie’s.