In his sculptures and photographic works London-based artist Richard Wentworth often focuses on the physical character of objects, distorting their conventional forms and uses with humour. His work has employed both specially fabricated objects and ‘found’, or unaltered, objects (such as, here, an inverted window cleaner’s ladder and eleven white ceramic plates standing upright in slots on a glass shelf, which rests in a groove cut into the gallery wall). Together the disparate elements of his sculptures frequently appear poised in delicate suspension. Curator Simon Groom has observed that the objects Wentworth brings together provoke a form of ‘displacement … resulting in an estrangement that makes us look at familiar things through new eyes’ (Simon Groom, ‘In Medias Res’, in Tate Liverpool 2005, p.73).
The objects used in Cumulus feature in a number of contemporaneous works by Wentworth. 35°9, 32°18 1985 (Tate T07168) – the title of which references map co-ordinates for the place where the Bible states that Jacob dreamt of a ladder connecting heaven and earth – features a twisted steel ladder leaning against a wall with a fragile cable ladder drooping behind it. A similar doubling effect is evident in Cumulus, via the shadows produced by the ladder on the gallery floor and wall. For Algebra 1986–7 (reproduced in Warner 1993, p.60) Wentworth used an almost identical ladder to that in Cumulus, but propped it against a wall with its tapered end at the top, with a nearby crutch offering a point of comparison. In addition, the combination of the glass shelf and the plates seen in Cumulus is repeated elsewhere in Wentworth’s work. In Stonehenge 1992 (reproduced in Tate Liverpool 2005, p.67), for example, a single porcelain plate stands – impossibly, it seems – upon a sloping glass shelf, again highlighting the precariousness of Wentworth’s sculptures.
Although Wentworth has claimed, ‘I rather object to the fact that I title [my sculptures] at all’ (Richard Wentworth and Mark Lythgoe, ‘The Prehistoric Smile’, in Tate Liverpool 2005, p.53), the title of Cumulus – in referring to the technical term for a low-lying cloud – offers an apt metaphorical description of the ceramic plates. In 1993 the novelist and cultural historian Marina Warner suggested that the work also ‘rhymes on ascension and heaven with a … light mimicry and economy of means’ (Warner 1993, p.14), an interpretation which suggests that the ladder promises, perhaps ironically, to lead us to a transcendent location.
Wentworth’s work can be considered in the broader context of New British Sculpture. Emerging in the early 1980s, this loose movement, in which Wentworth is often positioned alongside Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon and Bill Woodrow, combined an interest in abstract forms, domestic equipment, industrial items and waste materials with a playfulness reminiscent of pop art.
Indeed, Cumulus was shown as part of a group exhibition titled Objects for the Ideal Home: The Legacy of Pop Art at the Serpentine Gallery, London in September 1991. The catalogue for this show referred to it as both The Weather (the only time this alternative title appears to have been employed) and Cumulus (Serpentine Gallery 1991, p.21, reproduced p.25). Cumulus was also shown as part of Wentworth’s major solo show at the Serpentine Gallery in 1993, and it was later included in the first retrospective of Wentworth’s work held at Tate Liverpool in 2005.
Objects for the Ideal Home: The Legacy of Pop Art, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 1991, p.21, reproduced p.25.
Marina Warner, Richard Wentworth, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 1993, pp.14, 122, reproduced p.109.
Richard Wentworth, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool 2005, reproduced p.16.
Supported by Christie’s.