"STEEL HIDE AWAY," REVIEW OF PETER HIDE EXHIBITION AT THE EDMONTON ART GALLERY
Originally published in Border Crossings, Issue # 69, Vol. 18, No. 1, January, 1999.
British born sculptor Peter Hide arrived in Canada in 1975 to teach at the University of Alberta. A graduate of St. Martin's School of Art, where he studied under preeminent British sculptor Anthony Caro, Hide's attitudes towards making sculpture were formed in the overheated atmosphere of theoretical discussion that characterized St Martins during the period. Ideas related to the nature of sculpture were hotly debated by students and faculty, much of it focussed on the modern tendency of Caro-influenced abstract sculpture towards a kind of openness and "non-sculptural" pictorialism. Ambitious young sculptors fretted about the abandonment of traditional elements such as mass and enclosed volume and sought to find ways to return these things to modern sculpture without abandoning abstraction.
In his role as senior sculpture instructor at the University of Alberta, Hide transplanted some of this debate to Western Canada. With the example that he offered through his own artistic struggle, he created for his students a climate of self-criticism and challenge that, combined with other factors, led to a flourishing of abstract sculptural art in Edmonton. In the end--for Hide, at least-- it turned out that the problem was not so much one of purging sculpture of decadent tendencies as it was one of meeting the challenge of Caro's art, that is, of finding a personal way of working through Caro in order to continue the rigorous tradition of sculptural art.
Peter Hide's art has not been extensively shown in Canada despite his international reputation. Exhibitions of sculpture are difficult to mount and if the works are large and heavy, as is the case with Hide's sculptures, they can be very costly. For this reason, the exhibition "Peter Hide In Context: A Retrospective Exhibition," mounted by the Edmonton Art Gallery was particularly welcome.
Peter Hide's working method is slow and methodical. While he may put together a 10' high section of a sculpture within a matter of days, he will often rework a piece for years before it is finally finished. None-the-less, his output over the last two decades has been enormous. As a consequence, any retrospective of his work will inevitably miss something. Hide has created many important works over the years, several of which for one reason or another were not in the exhibition, but no matter. The show includes some very beautiful and striking sculptures, many of which had not been seen before in Canada and curator Bruce Grenville should be commended for assembling a very representative collection of works that provides a good overview of Hide's oeuvre.
To anyone who has followed Hide's work over the years, a chance to look again at some of the earlier works is illuminating. The works made in Canada shortly after his arrival, including "Oddball,"(1977-78) and "Left Arm Chinaman," (1979) were created during a period when Hide was reacting against Caro's openness by making his sculptures dense and massive.
Some of these works, in their references to roughly edited human torsos, showed Hide looking to Rodin for inspiration ("Left Arm Chinaman" and "Stromboli," both 1979, evoke memories of Rodin's savagely edited figures, such as "Flying Figure" and "Iris, Goddess of the Gods," both 1890-91) A slightly earlier work, called "Oddball," is more radical. Squat and more-or-less ball-shaped, the sculpture is purged of any reference to human form. Assembled out of tightly packed pieces of very thick steel that appear to press together and fuse, the work is opened up in places with channels that reveal the sculpture's interlocking architecture.
Heavy and graceless, these works appear to be straining a bit to make their point, weighed down by their "artistic intent." That said, it's remarkable how good they still look, and how well they hold up in the context of the other works in the exhibition. The fact is, though, in order for Hide to find his real originality, he realized he had to stop trying so hard to be original. This meant reappraising his attitude toward how his art related to the art of Anthony Caro. Speaking about that period, Hide says, "I think a lot of sculptors, especially those who were taught by Tony Caro, decided deliberately to move as far away from him as possible so as not to be seen as his disciples. The problem is that if you do that you move away from extremely fertile territory." (1)
Hide began to abandon the density of these works made in the late 70s in favour of a new openness and began to admit a kind of pictorialism into his sculpture. Not the drawing-in-space Caro variety, but something more tied to Cubist collage and the relief-like arrangement of planes. As he began to worry less about making his art original, his own personality began to assert itself.
Contrasted to Caro's poise and balance, there is an agitated quality in Hide's mature work, a sense of conflicting forces straining against each other. Occasionally conjuring the impression of architectural fragments, his sculptures combine the soaring lines and planes of carved Gothic relief with a particularly mannerist eccentricity in which large, simple forms are contrasted with clustered shapes and the weight shifts in contraposto movement. Often, as in the towering "Happy Outlook" (1987), his sculptures will twist and lean, drawing attention to the massive weight of the elements held in cantilevered balance. In others, such as "Dark Indeterminacy" (1989-95) and "Equus" (1990), heavy, rough-cut steel sections or distinctively shaped found forms will be set high into composition to act like dynamic hubs.
Hide's art reveals a powerful artistic personality that sets him apart from anyone else making abstract steel sculpture today. It's a personality, too, that can accommodate an impressive breadth of sculptural expression, and this is demonstrated by the range of works in the show. While Hide seems to work most comfortably in a vertical format, one of the most impressive pieces in the exhibition is a large horizontal sculpture that has been installed on the front deck of the Edmonton Art Gallery. Spreading laterally in a frieze-like configuration, "Malevich Extended" (1990-95) is over 8 metres long. Essentially an arrangement of semi-enclosed geometric shapes, the sculpture is remarkable in its almost brutal clarity and in the forceful way that it manages to integrate its multiple forms into a grand, unified whole.
The most recent works in the exhibition, and in some ways the most intriguing, are a pair of wall-leaning sculptures, "Southdown Landscape" (1996-97), and "Southdown Landscape Suspend" (1995-98). Both works employ a propping leg to support a clustered configuration of steel that rests against the wall plane. In each, the leg is slightly offset to create again a sense of imbalance that emphasizes the feelings of conflicting dynamic tensions played against firm rigidity. With its dramatically simplified contour shape, "Southbound Landscape Suspend" is probably the most powerful of the two.
Hide In Context" was a major exhibition that deserved to be seen nationally. Unfortunately, the show's only scheduled venue was Edmonton, and there are probably practical reasons for this. With 25 works, including seven very large pieces that could only be accommodated in an exterior plaza adjacent to the gallery, the exhibition would have been extremely expensive to tour. As a mid-career exhibition of Hide's work, perhaps it can be regarded as a prelude to something more expansive sometime in the future.
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