You love paint, you love pencil – but how do you feel about plaster? As Plasters: Casts and Copies at The Hepworth Wakefield demonstrates, it’s been central to the history of sculpture since the fifteenth century, when plaster copies of classical statues were mass-produced for use in art academies, including the Royal Academy of Art School, to train students in draughtsmanship and anatomy. More recently plaster has become more associated with fresh creation rather than mere copying. We spoke to curator Sam Lackey. 

Where did the inspiration for the show come from?

From the Gift of plasters and prototypes by Barbara Hepworth that are on permanent exhibition at the gallery. The plasters have a really interesting status in Hepworth’s oeuvre; they’re the plasters used for casting her late bronze sculptures so in one way they are simply part of her working process. On the other hand Hepworth carved and painted the plaster, the hand of the artist is directly visible, unlike the twice-removed relationship to the finished bronze. I have been thinking about how we could explore this material in a dedicated exhibition for several years and ideas have moved around topics such as the indexical, formlessness, the classical, to name but a few. However, a clear focus became the reproductive status of plaster.

Plaster has played an interesting, and shifting, role in the history of sculpture. Where does the exhibition begin?

Our exhibition begins with the history of the plaster cast and the idea that reproduction and dissemination of a canon of classical sculpture was dependent on the reproduction of a physical object, basically a prototype of the photograph. In fact, there’s something really interesting that happens when the photograph and the plaster cast intersect – the photographs of Rodin’s sculptures taken by Steichen are a case in point – I would have loved to include them in the show but didn’t manage to borrow them.

What are the major turning points in that history? Is there a moment at which plaster passes from being a material for copying into a material for creating in?

It seems that there isn’t a clear shift in which plaster passes from being a material for copying as opposed to creating. There has always been a certain amount of creativity involved, even in the classical plaster cast; the Laocoon famously was ‘completed’ by sculptors who made the casts that were disseminated around Europe after its discovery. On the other hand, that moment of the invention of photography did herald the beginning of the end of the reproductive cast. I was really interested too in how plaster signalled a lack of fixity – again particularly visible in the work of Merdado Rosso and Rodin (neither of whom are actually in the show). There seemed to be something really sculpturally interesting in creating an object out of a material that was initially liquid – a kind of formlessness in the material. More practically, though, for Hepworth and her contemporaries plaster was a cheap, readily available material during the privations of World War II.

How did you choose the more contemporary works in the show?

Through studio visits and conversations with other curators. Anthea Hamilton’s work, Luke Perry, for example, is a completely wonderful sculpture that I had wanted to show for a long time – and its use of casting, plaster and connection to ideas around dissemination of ideals of beauty made it perfect for the show. Many of the contemporary artists are people who I would love to work with on a solo show too.

How is the exhibition arranged?

The exhibition is not chronological but rather brings together the contemporary and historic works in direct physical relationships. Its spatial organization was conceived specifically in relation to the space in which it sits – the back wall which is painted pink is intended as a visual contrast to the white plasters. As such the whitest of the sculptures is highlighted in this space. Unusually for me there is a ‘back’ to this exhibition in that many of the sculptures have a clear front-facing orientation – something that is obviously far more ambiguous than installing abstract sculptures by Hepworth, for example.

Plasters: Casts and Copies’ runs until 8 May at Hepworth Wakefield

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