Unity and variation in the sculpture of Michael Shaw

The predominant concern in Michael Shaw’s sculpture is the concept of ‘singular sculptural form’ and how this can be extended through the language of sculpture. Singular sculptural form owes its existence to Minimalism and to the theories of Donald Judd, who was one of its leading proponents. The essential characteristic of the concept of singular sculptural form requires that the sculpture is not made up of parts, but is instead, a single enveloping form. The whole is therefore not greater than the sum of its parts; the part is indeed the whole. Judd saw singular sculptural form as the antidote to what he termed ‘relational composition’, meaning a sculpture that is created through the juxtaposition of one component with another. The degree to which Judd’s sculpture attains singular sculptural form, is however questionable, as indeed is the concept itself. For instance, merely positioning the configuration of a sculpture according to a mathematical progression, such as the Fibonacci series, is no guarantee that singular sculptural form will be achieved. Further to this, even the change in the direction of a plane, through the consequence of a corner, can suggest the coincidence of two planes and therefore two elements that are ‘related’ to one another. Judd was also opposed to notions of illusion and perceptual ambiguity in sculpture. Given these restrictions, the inevitable question arises – can sculptures that are faithful to the concept of singular form be aesthetically significant? In Judd’s case, and despite his protestations to the contrary, the success of his work really does rely on illusion in for instance his use of Perspex and steel in his box constructions of around 1964, or relational composition in his wall reliefs.

Over the last eight years Michael has been persistent in the pursuit of those sculptural qualities that signify singular sculptural form, and how they might attain aesthetic significance. Early on he was quick to realise the importance of Gestalt psychology in this, and how it defines and interprets what might be the predominant visual qualities of an object in terms of, for instance, roundness or triangularity. Helpful though this might be, it is dangerous ground for the sculptor because Gestalt theory is based on two-dimensional recognition, whereas, sculpture is essentially three-dimensional. Therefore if it is to be of any use to a sculptor, it must be continually transposed from the two-dimensional to the three-dimensional. Michael has recognised this and therefore a triangle becomes a cone or a pyramid, a circle a sphere and a square a cube etc. According to Gestalt psychology, the circle is the most complete form because there is no perceptual joining in its configuration and its contour is consistent. It is this very completeness that has resulted in the pervasive roundness that is so essential to Michael’s sculptural language. This in itself however, may not necessarily lead to the creation of sculpture that is aesthetically significant. Whilst nevertheless respecting the strict tenets of singular sculptural form, Michael has been exploring the contribution that surface and particularly ‘edge’ might make to his work; how it can be subtly deflected so that instead of subverting its geometry, it almost paradoxically reinforces it. Explorations such as these are becoming increasingly important to his sculpture, as he seeks to establish qualities of unity and variation, as central themes in his work. In consequence surface has become both transparent and opaque, in the resin sculptures such as Untitled (c), 2004, light almost appears to radiate from inside the actual surface. In some views this surface is allowed to become transient, almost indistinct, only to have the nature of its contour visually reinforced when the actual ‘end’ of the sculpture becomes visible, and the subtle deflection from the geometry of the circle towards the ellipse is evident.

More recently, Michael has become interested in the possibilities of inflatables, this can be seen in INF1, 2004, and INF4, 2005, where the actual surface is transparent or at least translucent. In so being the sculpture becomes defined by a what might be described as a spatial envelope in which reflections on the surfaces of the sculptures play a major role. Thus the sculpture literally reflects the surroundings in which it is located. This engagement of the sculpture with the surroundings heightens the notion of variation and unity. As in a recent installation of INF3, 2005, in St Nicholas’s Church in Gloucester, the myriad reflections in the sculpture resulted in it possessing a compelling unity with its surroundings, whilst at the same time suggesting variation as the reflections that helped define its contours constantly changed. This might suggest a further engagement with the surroundings, which is both tactile and visual, resulting in the sculpture responding through movement to air currents etc. Consequently, movement could become real, instead of implied and make apparent to us the patterns of movement that are hidden in the most delicate air currents.

In Michael’s work I am increasingly aware of its capacity to acknowledge the language of sculpture, its distinctive history, and how it can be articulated in a contemporary context. Although Michael continues to be interested in the possibilities that singular sculptural form has to offer sculpture, his work strikes up a resonance with that of Gabo as well as with Brancusi, sculptors who treated space very differently, the former more as a continuum, the latter as something to be displaced. More recently his circular inflatables, – those that are indebted to the circle, such as INF1, 2004, suggest an association with Noguchi’s ‘Sun at noon’ of 1969, or his ‘Sun at midnight’ of 1973. Meanwhile, his most recent inflatables could seek to extend the patterns of movement that Calder explored. This does not mean that the work lacks originality, it is quite the opposite, since it recognises the historical development of the subject and its achievements. To paraphrase Greenberg and to take a timely lesson from his seminal essay of 1960 entitled ‘Modernist painting’, Michael’s work could be said to recognise the ‘use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself - not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence’.

Andrew Stonyer

November, 2005