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A focus on the figure


In the mid-1970s Joel Shapiro made sculptures of houses: pitched- roof single-volume archetypes of the kind that Aldo Rossi repeatedly drew and that Herzog and de Meuron realised with the Rudin House at Leymen, France (1993).

Unlike the concrete-walled Rudin House, however, Shapiro's houses are blank and windowless. They are small enough to be held in the hand but, made of cast iron or bronze, have palpable weight and solidity. Shapiro places these miniaturised dwellings directly on the floor in such a way that each commands (or is isolated in) a considerable space, so reinforcing the impression of compacted mass.

A New Yorker, Shapiro is of the generation that matured in a climate of Minimalism and sought alternatives to it. With the houses (and other miniatures - a bridge, a ladder, a chair) he returned human associations to sculpture.

A few of these early works are installed in the gently curving Bothy Gallery as part of Shapiro's current retrospective at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (ysp). One house variant, for instance, is attached to the wall. A cast-iron 'pathway' extends in front of and then abruptly drops down at the point where a line projected from the sloping roof-ridge would intersect it. Geometry determines what at first seems an arbitrary move.

But the bulk of the ysp show, indoors and out, is devoted to later, much larger sculptures by Shapiro, where the figure predominates. 'It's tough to find a more engaging subject,' he says. 'The human body conditions how we see landscape, experience architecture, and perceive space.'

Shapiro's figures are either assembled out of long rectangular blocks of wood or cast in bronze. Dispersed around the Formal Garden at Bretton Hall, invariably dynamic in posture with their angled oblong limbs, they signal and celebrate the human body's great expressive scope.

A few are rather facile: too ready for the corporate plaza where of late they can be found. They are better when references to the figure are more allusive than exact - when Shapiro foregoes anatomical correctness, omits a limb or two, or joins the body parts together in an unorthodox way. But even the triter pieces have incidental virtues in his attention to surface: the bronze vivified by the grain of the wood from which it was cast, the wood painted sometimes in a careful even monochrome (red, yellow, black) or elsewhere in a looser, gestural way.

One work from 1993-4 in the Pavilion Gallery combines both house and figure - but in disarray, for the figure is collapsing and the house has overturned. Drips and splashes of rapidly-applied paint accentuate the turmoil. Shapiro's art isn't always affirmative; and the overturned house recurs, teetering on one of its gables, in his two-part sculpture Loss and Regeneration outside the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Two related works in the Formal Garden, largely forsaking the figure, are especially successful. The first, from 1987, is almost out-of-sight among the trees. It resembles a tall skewed tripod, with three slender legs keeping a bronze block aloft - but apparently only just. This impression of precariousness, allied to structural audacity, is still greater in a large, complex work from 1998-9 where several elongated aluminium boxes soar high over the lawn on oddly-angled skeletal supports. It is possible to walk inside this sculpture, gaze up and silhouette its geometry against the sky; while from outside, its silvery aluminium responds acutely to the changing light.

It's a shame that none of Shapiro's drawings are included at the ysp. Often large in scale, in charcoal and chalk, with squares or oblongs of black and red on a smudged white ground, they could be heirs to 1920s Constructivism. In these, figuration has a keen abstract edge, as it does in all of Shapiro's best work.

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