“My images are a search for the possibility of living in harmony with each other and with nature, in which contrasts and contradictions should be cherished.”
Unwitting victims of the modern age must burrow a way back to an almost ancient mindset in order to deal with the sculptures of Pablo Atchugarry. Irrepressibly, he continues a tradition recognisable since the beginning of carved sculpture but which has recently fallen into neglect and desuetude. At the foundation of all his work is what has been for centuries considered the basic motivation for making all art; namely, the sharing with others of the beautiful and imagined through demonstration of unique practical ability.
In my view, this remains a valid reason for making art today, although you might not think so upon entering that charlatan’s paradise where so much of fashionable contemporary art resides. Carving in marble is not subversive or ephemeral, clever or ironical, glib or throwaway. It is not the chosen art form of the theorist or the contemporary art scribbler. On the contrary, the unblemished white marble used by Pablo Atchugarry is inappropriate for the quick or catchpenny. Built-in obsolescence or the conspicuously sensational are alien to it. Marble implies permanence and the addressing of a message to a distant future. It requires absolute belief by the artist in the permanence of the meaning it contains.
As little as thirty years ago it would have been inconceivable to propose that a day was imminent when artists would no longer need to exhibit their slowly acquired skill in order to be taken seriously, let alone a day when such artistry might be considered a positive encumbrance. Indeed, it is worse even than that; craft skill in sculpture has become a cause for superior derision dispensed by those who have found a way around it and whose own “skills” have largely to be taken on trust. It would have been doubly inconceivable a generation ago that an artist might delegate the craft component to another before passing off the resulting artefact as his own on the dubious pretext that the idea behind the work was all that mattered and that the mere execution of it was of negligible account and virtually unworthy of mention. Thus it was that the ‘idea’ in the form of the written statement became king, and art schools have been rendered more or less redundant as anything but talking shops peddling casuistical theories little more convincing than medieval relics. Sculpture of any ancestrally recognisable description has more or less ceased. Few are left to keep the flame alight, and those who do are precious indeed.
Of course, the delegation of execution in the artist’s studio is not the invention of your average post-modern chancer. The famous left hand of a youthful Leonardo has been found in Verrocchio’s panel paintings and the imprint of a juvenile Michelangelo are regularly proposed in assorted frescoes and statues. Those two contemporary studio boys, Giorgione and Titian, conspicuously assisted Giovanni Bellini, who, presumably, couldn’t believe his luck in acquiring two such apprentices at the same time. There are even those who can find the signature flourishes of a teenage Van Dyck in studio pictures by Rubens. And, of course, in 18th century London the works of jobbing portrait painters so often looked more alike than dissimilar because the same drapery painter had been employed by different face painters. But at least then the unifying, finishing touches were applied by the master and the buyer received a work conceived, executed in whole or in part, and certainly completed by the person whose name was on the cartellino. And as for sculpture, we know the author of the Parthenon marbles as Phidias, but on this massive project swiftly executed he was in truth little more than a foreman overseeing scores of masons, some poor, some average and some others possibly as highly regarded as himself.
In recent decades so many corners have needed to be cut in order to meet the voracious appetites of a ready market for a score of internationally promoted artists, that the artist has become little more than a commissioning agent, his works more akin to the tradeable securities and bonds of investment. It was recently calculated that a well-known conceptual artist enjoyed an exhibition somewhere in the world every six weeks. Every six weeks! How might an artist whose work must gradually mature compete with such ubiquity? What might a carver by hand like Pablo Atchugarry realistically achieve in a month and a half? One smallish piece?
In order to satisfy investor demands for their work, few of the big brand names in contemporary art need little more skill or dedication than is required to operate a mobile telephone, first to commission a work’s making and then to arrange its despatch. At their most hands-on, many contemporary artists are clerks-of-works supervising factories with the results showing all the hallmarks of soulless, mechanised industrialism. The notion of uniqueness, of the unrepeatable, is one entirely antagonistic to the modern market and the greed underpinning it. Such an approach is not comparable to the product of an artist’s hand. The idea that craft skills can be taught is virtually dead, not least because so few students are prepared to allocate the time, the years, required to evolve mastery. The fledgeling artist today requires quick results for a minimum of effort and a maximum of short-term gains: there is in many young artists a distasteful urgency for acclaim at all costs. A recommendation to hone skills patiently over a traineeship of years would elicit gales of laughter among today’s art students who have seen their immediate predecessors lauded for reproducing ad nauseam nothing very much. We have become lazy; lazy makers and lazy lookers. The few who transcend this stand out.
As a result of the practices and attitudes here described, at least one crucial ingredient in sculpture has been downplayed or sacrificed; this is the touch of the artist, the sense that the artist gave life to this thing, this inert block of stuff, here, with his own hand. The loss of the artist’s charged touch has never seemed as important as it does at a time when shallowness and vulgar superficiality reign and disappoint. In sculpture, the proximity of the artist is there in every detail and makes for precious encounters beloved by any devotee of sculpture. The best way to suggest the loss of what happens when the personal presence of the artist is absent, or progressively diluted, is seen in the late career of Henry Moore, arguably the last of the great carvers in British sculpture. His intense attention to form and surface is almost tangible in the tiniest maquettes he made with his hands and fingers in later life while sitting semi-invalided at his work table. As these autograph maquettes were passed down a line of workmen for scaling up, the greater the expansion of the bronzes the further from the artist’s wellspring of touch the object became. Brittle, fragile precision in the original was first thinned then lost, sacrificed on the altar of demand and turnover. Thus, in late Moore an exponential inverse relationship establishes itself between the size of the work and its aesthetic impact.
Another example of the crucial ingredient of touch inducing reverence occurs in the sculpture of Degas. Few finer examples of feeling and sensing the proximity of the master exist than in the tiny sculptures of dancers cast after his death from wax models discovered in his studio. As a student in the early 1970s I came upon an exhibition of these pieces only previously having seen them in unhelpfully small, black and white reproductions. In the originals Degas’s fingerprints were visible on the surface, prodding, kneading, forcing, sliding, curving. On one supporting ankle a taut achilles tendon had been pinched into life between finger and thumb. This small observation delivered an electrifying moment. It was as though one was stood at the alchemist’s elbow, watching him demonstrate how base stuff is fingered into the gold of life.
I beg to differ with those who claim that skill, craftsmanship and personal touch play no part in an aesthetic response to a work of sculpture. Their arguments are mere sophistry and far too much is sacrificed by neglecting these qualities. And how honestly could it be otherwise? Admittedly skill is not everything, and the artisan’s raw craft is nothing beside the expressiveness of the virtuoso. But, for many, skill is still the essential without which scarcely anything remains. It is the securest base from which every ingredient – vision, insight, poetry – rises like a building from its foundation. Remove this fundamental dexterity and the carrier of expression is lost, the one presupposing the other. Imagine the casual eschewing of skills in other arts and activities: the tone deaf tenor; the illiterate wordsmith; the unco-ordinated dancer; the poet addicted to cliché; the designer whose wheels are not quite round; the architect without structural nous; an opening batsman with a sloth’s reactions; the footballer with two left feet... This would all be intolerable. Such people would be politely invited to take up another profession on the grounds that they lacked the necessary basics for their preferred vocation. Mockery is the only response to all of this, except apparently in art, where the sculptor who can’t model, carve or draw is a lauded reality.
In 2001 the preeminent living British playwright Tom Stoppard, speaking at the Royal Academy annual dinner, annoyed the entire contemporary art establishment when he argued persuasively that the skill quotient in making art was non-negotiable. He said: “The term artist isn’t intelligible to me if it doesn’t entail making.” This seems so obvious until you realise that his target was virtually the entire international art establishment.
What has all of this to do with Pablo Atchugarry? Well, in truth, nothing at all except that it serves to highlight his extraordinary abilities and faith in conventions dismissed as dead and unworthy by so many. He is the exemplary exception to the above criticisms and it is the reason why he deserves to be encouraged and cherished. He makes his own work, responding to what he finds in the stone. You can see this is the case, and once you become attuned to the particularities and vocabulary of his style, you can even feel that he makes it. No one else could commune with the material in the instinctive, peculiar way he does. For such is the very essence of serious artistry. His sculpture is entirely authentic and made to last in an undying material. To seek such permanence presupposes a resolute belief by the artist in his personal ability to communicate with others, not just today but in fifty or five hundred year’s time.
Atchugarry’s process would be recognisable to Praxiteles, let alone to Bernini, Gibson or Rodin. His material would be personally recognisable to most sculptors from ancient imperial Rome onwards. Emperor Augustus opened the marble quarries in the mountains above Pisa. He called them Luna; we call them Carrara. Like Michelangelo and Canova before him, Atchugarry treks up the mountain and scales the terraces to select his material. Such reverence for the tradition of his medium and the respect for the materials he uses is at the heart of his practice. And as with the work of all considerable artists, Atchugarry’s sculptures make light of the enormous physical and mental efforts expended to make them.
The essence of any serious art is that it won’t be seen, solved, worked out and parcelled up in a matter of seconds. What would be left for a second look? Where would the great works of sculpture be if they were so superficial there was nothing left to find in them for tomorrow. Discovery through looking won’t be rushed and affecting sculptures, like Atchugarry’s, are the slowest burning of all possible artistic fires. This is surely one definition of art: that to which one is required to return time and again, and no matter how many times you visit there is yet more left. These pieces deserve patience because they refuse facile solutions and meanings.
Atchugarry’s pieces suggest stories and emotions in abundance. Their forms equate to those of human subjects and invite speculation. More organic shapes thrive and compete as in Nature. Symbols and narrative echoes demand that these pieces be taken seriously and refute all attempts to see them as merely pretty or ornamental, for abstract they are not. These sculptures need no grandiloquent explanation of fine words. Sculptures point, strive, escape, dance, embrace, display, entwine, sit, stand, reach, unfold, ripen, love, relax, strain. Some are acquiescent and resigned, others are anxious, pained, struggling, even oppressed. In a few one suspects heartbreak and tragedy. But through all of them runs a deep vein of tenderness in the making.
David Lee is editor of The Jackdaw