TEXTS & CRITICISMS
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David Sweet (1979)
… to compare Michael Lyons and Lee Grandjean offers an opportunity of reporting the latest score in the match between the supporters of Wimbledonian mass versus the old guard of the Caro/Cubist tradition. At its most trivial it is of course merely a stylistic contest, now incidentally between two numerically unequal terms, but there is also something more important at stake. Many younger artists like Grandjean, who favour solid bulky forms are prompted by a desire to redeem sculpture from the insidious pictorial drift of the Sixties. But they have made a rather serious miscalculation. The distant sculptural tradition which these artists wish to revive – Archaic Greek statuary for instance – is essentially figurative, that is it actually takes the form of living individuals instead of picturing them in their surroundings as a painting does. Encountering this kind of art is not just a confrontation with matter, like tripping over a corpse, but like meeting an alert being, solid enough of course but also, more significantly, equipped with senses. Current English sculpture, especially at its worst, extracts the physical solidity from this tradition but, maybe because of the pressure to stay abstract, leaves behind the figure’s most crucial attribute, not its gestalt but its sentience. It’s little wonder that so many works end up like twisted and buckled cadavers.
It may be that the roots of all sculpture lie in the figure, but the subject of Greek art is not human physique but human consciousness. Sixth Century BC statues are not just weighty objects consisting of bone, sinew and gut. They also have perceptiveness – eyes, skin and facial expressions which radiate outwards from their central material cores. Though no longer physically as substantial, it seems to me that the great achievement of Smith and Caro is somehow to have found equivalents to the figure’s sense of itself and its space. The planes, colour, horizontal and vertical balance they use are almost extra-skeletally deployed facilities. One can take the plane as the physiognomy, the features composed in the characteristic act of facing; the colour perhaps corresponds to the eye and the gaze, while horizontality/verticality may be likened to the mind’s awareness of the body’s pose.
Lyons’ work continues these preoccupations by holding, against the metropolitan fashion, to a style which is derided either as ‘formalist’, meaning devoid of human interest, or ‘pictorial’, meaning contrary to the traditions of sculpture. Unless Grandjean and his colleagues can find a way to endow solid forms with the same quality of sentience possessed by post-Cubist constructions they are doomed to repeat the boring mistakes of the Fifties. Like the return to a feudal conception of picture-making advocated by [David] Redfern and [Laetitia] Yhap, an uncritical infatuation with mass will be a backward step, not just for painting and sculpture, but a backward step for us.
Extract from ‘Serpentine Summer Show I’ [exhibition review], published in Artscribe (1979), 54–5.
David Sweet, a painter and Head of Painting at Manchester Polytechnic, has written extensively on painting and sculpture since the 1970s.
John Clark (1985)
In the North of England there is a living sculptural tradition. That is, there are enough ambitious and serious sculptors working in the North to form three generations of artists, making for an unbroken lineage. The persistence of sculpture is, of course, partly sustained by the historical importance to the area of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Sculpture is also actively supported by such institutions as the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Henry Moore Study Centre in Leeds and the Grizedale Forest residency programme. These and other factors make it viable for sculptors to live in this area and natural for them to aspire to work of high quality.
The Northern Sculptors such as Austin Wright and Kenneth Turnell, of the older generation, Brian Thompson and Brian Fell from the younger and Michael Lyons from the middle generation are not a group in any formal sense, but in one important way they continue the Moore-Hepworth tradition: they retain an interest in working from nature and particularly landscape. They also find in their working process and important role for drawing.
In this exhibition Lyons shows twenty recent charcoal drawings. All are of landscape subjects, some from Grizedale, where he was artist in residence, and others, mainly single trees, from the area of North Yorkshire where he lives. This interest in landscape as inspirational subject matter and the dynamic use of drawing distances Lyons from much London-based sculpture, especially the St Martins-Caro tradition which excludes drawing as a starting-point and is more architectural in concept. It declares itself strongly as a romantic and expressionist reaction to nature.
The most important group of sculptures in this exhibition are the six pieces that make the Pisces series. They have landscape references but are about natural forms in a wider sense. They are medium-sized sculptures that stand on plinths made from sheets of half-inch steel that have had leaf-shaped triangular cuts made in their surfaces. The cut-out shapes have then been welded back onto the plane at an angle to the holes from which they came, giving the impression that the steel has been simply manipulated; pieces pulled out from the plane and bent back. The interpenetrability of positive and negative forms and the flow of space gives this series a delightful lightness and expression which is in contrast to the rough textural solidity of the actual material.
The techniques of cutting, bending, and folding are an important new development in Lyons’ work. An advance on his earlier more constructed work, the Pisces sculptures have become more subtly homogeneous; as if one thing were being manipulated in a multifaceted way. Lyons’ work has freed itself from a lingering reliance on Cubism. The cutting and folding of planes seems to have a reference to late Matisse cut-outs, particularly the Blue Nude series. There is a similar feel for positive and negative forms. The edge of metal which is read sculpturally as a line in the Pisces pieces gives Lyons’ work the same line-to-plane relationship that occurs in the Blue Nudes where a thin cut becomes an outline. It is the freedom that conventionality provides that Lyons’ Pisces series celebrates with a rare lucidity. Materials move and dance through space with an airy lyricism impossible in the banal object-orientated sculpture currently so much in vogue.
‘Michael Lyons: Sculpture and Drawing – Arcade Gallery, Harrogate’ [exhibition review], published in Artscribe, 53 (May–June 1985), 53.
John Clark, a painter and writer, was from 1986 until his death in 1989 (at the age of forty-nine) Associate Professor in the Department of Fine Art at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada.
Sui Jianguo (2002)
The Chinese art education system of the past few decades has almost completely neglected abstract art. However, since his first trip in 1993, Michael Lyons has taught many Chinese students to understand and produce works of abstract sculpture. Watching the artist in the process of making small models of his sculpture measuring less than an metre and then enlarging them to full scale works, has rendered abstract sculpture more approachable to Chinese students. At the same time the artist has absorbed many qualities of Chinese art. His ink-wash drawings for example, exhibit obvious Chinese influence. Similarly, working in clay on a steel armature was not part of his practice before his experience in China.
During Michael Lyons’ formative years as a sculptor, abstract art from America had an enormous influence on Europe; an entire generation of British sculptors eschewed the use of traditional materials. However, during his stay at Bei Gao, Lyons started to work with clay. After a period of re-acquaintance with the material (he had periodically used it since his student days) he engaged fully with the process, finally producing a whole series of works in clay which were subsequently cast in bronze. In two of the large pieces displayed in his solo show, it is also possible to detect signs of Chinese influence. These works, with their multi-layered and complex arrangement of space, are typical examples of Michael Lyons’ particular style of abstraction. If these sculptures had been made in Britain, they would have been made from formidable slabs of steel, exuding a powerful aura of industrial technology. But here [the Chen Shen Bing metal fabrication factory], these two works were made from copper sheet only 2mm thick welded together to give the outer appearance of solidity. In the Chinese factories which make the stainless steel sculptures seen all over the country, workers who come from Jiangsu and Zheijiang provinces fabricate complex abstract or realist sculptures up to thirty metres in size almost entirely by hand.
Michael Lyons created these sculptures using plaster to scrape, carve and chisel out the shapes he had imagined. However, when the works were taken to the factory for the final phase of their production, the workers also used their own interpretation and techniques in converting them from plaster to metal. The result was very unexpected. Through the workers’ hands, the rough plaster forms were given a new life, wherein the rudimentary shapes of the original had been transformed into the precise elements of the finished work in copper. Without actually knocking on the sculpture, no one can tell that the works are not solid, but made from hollow sections. Moreover, the complex arrangement of the sculpture in space was duplicated without a flaw. When Michael Lyons first saw these sculptures in the factory he was amazed at the quality of the craftsmanship, and full of praise for the workers’ abilities.
These skilled Chinese workers had used the techniques and methods learned with hyper-realistic public sculptures to imitate the effect Michael Lyons’ welded sculpture, and managed exactly to express the complex characteristics of abstract steel sculpture. Chinese workers using pre-industrial methods of beaten and moulded copper metal work reproduced the industrial language of his sculptures. Although the results were similar, the process was extremely difficult. This difference can only be grasped by those who have reached a certain depth of understanding of Chinese society. In an important way Lyons has arrived at a fusion of genuinely Chinese working methods and a Western sensibility. Michael Lyons has embraced the real China when producing the works at Bei Gao.
Extract from ‘Foreword’ to Michael Lyons: Sculpture and Drawings (Beijing 2001–2002) [exhibition catalogue], Pickled Art Centre, Beijing, 2002.
Sui Jianguo, who exhibited with Li Gang at the Red Gate Gallery, Beijing, in 1997, is one of China’s most eminent sculptors. Beijing’s Pickled Art Centre was founded by Li Gang in 2002, evolving from his own bronze-casting studio to offer facilities, expertise and support for the creation of sculpture.
Ken Scarlett (2002)
Undoubtedly, Lyons is at his best unhindered by the real or implied restrictions of public commissions, in works such as The Lake Afire (2000), which, after a long gestation period, has emerged from his own experience. It is a major piece of sculpture that builds on the traditions of both East and West. Caro may be credited with taking sculpture off the pedestal and placing it on the ground, but in Lake Afire Lyons has actually moved his point of view to beneath the surface of the water. Mountains burst up from the earth’s core, pushing through the waters of the lake, emerging beside sailing vessels, all caught in the golden rays of the setting sun. As the artist has written, ‘This driving energy, Chi, which permeates all things is particularly symbolized in China by water, clouds and mountains.’ With obvious parallels to Chinese landscape painting, in which mountain peaks are placed above banks of clouds, it is nevertheless a recognizable piece of Western sculpture developed from 1960s British steel sculpture. A memory of sunset on the West Lake at Hangzhou has been made manifest in copper sheet, a tangible amalgam of past and present, of East and West. As Lyons has written, ‘The sculptures sweep up and down history, seeking a cultural as well as an artistic identity.’* Michael Lyons has renounced his insular British background to become one of the rare, but perhaps increasingly large group of people who transcend national boundaries.
Extract from Ken Scarlett, ‘Michael Lyons: Liberating Possibilities / Cultural Connections’, Sculpture [Journal of the International Sculpture Center], 21:2 (March 2002), 37.
*Michael Lyons, ‘Reflection of China’, Michael Lyons [exhibition catalogue], Yorkshire Sculpture Park (1998).
Ken Scarlett, a curator and writer based in Melbourne, Australia, has written extensively on sculpture and is a contributing editor to the US journal, Sculpture.
Li Xiu Qin (2003)
[Lyons’] visit to Hangzhou was the first stage in his understanding of Chinese culture, and a starting point for new works of art. In the past ten years he has attended workshops and academic conferences throughout China including those at Guilin, Tianjin, Beijing and Changchun, and in 2000 he was invited once again to visit Hangzhou to attend the International Sculptors’ Symposium. The result of this is one of his masterpieces, The Lake Afire. Since ancient times, the West Lake has been considered a beautiful jewel in China, its charm and magnetism attracting many Chinese and foreign writers who have produced legends, romances and poetry in its honour. Moreover, many visual artists have been inspired to produce large numbers of traditional Chinese landscape paintings and western oil paintings. Despite the lake’s popularity, Lyons’ The Lake Afire is the only artwork to respond to it in sculptural form. Su Dongpo, the greatest poet of the Song Dynasty (960–1279), wrote his finest work eulogizing the beauty of the West Lake:
The sun shines over the ripples of the lake
Against the mountains and beneath the shedding drizzle
The West Lake is an image of Xi Shi
Even the slightest embellishment is inappropriate.
(Xi Shi was a famous beauty in ancient China.)
Bai Juyi, a great poet of the Tang Dynasty (617–907), was similarly inspired:
The lake is such a painting in the springtime
It seems the Lake has arranged the surrounding hills.
Pine trees cover the slopes and make them green,
And the moon alights on the centre of the lake like a giant pearl.
Paddy rice turns ripe in the green blanket,
The lace of a pretty skirt gently touching the sides of new boats.
Hangzhou is what I am longing for,
For the elegance and beauty of the West Lake I live.
Lyons’ sculpture brings together the elements of lake, mountain and water in an abstract composition. It seems that one is immersed in the water of the lake and looking up through the lotus leaves at the sunset. One’s mind is made molten by the heat of the blazing sun, combining people, rocks and water. This poetic response gives the people of Hangzhou a new way of envisioning the lake. The Lake Afire is now part of the collection of the Hangzhou Taizi Bay Sculpture Park.
In recent years, Lyons has lived in Beijing, a city where the ancient and the modern, the powerful and the democratic, the political and the academic, the poetic and the mundane, and the materialistic and the spiritual all co-exist. Lyons thinks in a Chinese way in his daily life, accepting Beijing as it is and enjoying its paradoxes, visiting examples of both contemporary and traditional architecture, using both the fast city streets and the old lanes that zigzag through parts of the city. It is from these diverse experiences that two particularly striking works have developed – Unity of Opposites: Vortex (2001) and Energy of the Mountain: Echo and Revelation (2002). These two works of art can be interpreted as exploring the tensions that exist within modern society between materialistic cravings and spiritual needs. According to Zhuang Zi, and ancient Chinese philosopher, the journey towards self-knowledge is the ultimate goal of human existence. Self-destruction is the result of seeking fame, wealth and power at the expense of this spiritual pursuit. Unity of Opposites: Vortex is a profound work of art, expressing the way in which human brings exist in a whirlpool of spirit and matter, with movement both forwards and backwards. From within these contradictions comes the search for balance, order and harmony.
Unity of Opposites: Vortex makes exceptional use of space and movement, a use that coincides with the philosophy of Lao Zi who states that, ‘inaction means no progress’. He writes that, ‘the “way” is the emergence of substance from dizziness; one begins to grasp substance and spirit and from them possibilities open up’. Unity of Opposites: Vortex conveys this vertiginous state, from which we glimpse moments of clarity and truth but, because of the dynamic nature of life, are unable to take hold of completely.
Extract from ‘Integration’, Under Heaven: A Chinese Odyssey, sculpture and drawings by Michael Lyons [exhibition catalogue], commissioned by The Whitworth, The University of Manchester, 2003. Li Xiu Qin, a sculptor, is Professor of Sculpture at the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou.
Gail Deayton, ‘ARTIST OF THE WEEK – MICHAEL LYONS. SCULPTOR’ (2013)
‘MICHAEL LYONS: THE MITHRAS SUITE’ (by Paula Jackson and Robert Teed, New School House Gallery, York, 2013) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mz7EzFCnzrA
Judith LeGrove, ‘Close encounters of the three-dimensional kind: an experiential biography of Michael Lyons’ Green Bronze IV (1980), unpublished (winner of the 2010 Henry Moore Institute MA essay prize)
‘Scale Appropriate: Sculpture by Michael Lyons’, exhibition in One Canada Square and Jubilee Park, Canary Wharf, London E14, 31 March–23 May 2014, presented by Canary Wharf Group as part of its Sculpture at Work programme by Ann Elliot
Aesthetica (online) ‘Freeze Frame’ at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds. Dan Potts, April 2016.
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Gerry Turvey ‘Dance in the Gallery’ filmed during Michael Lyons’ ‘Freeze Frame’ Exhibition at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds 2016. http://vimeo.com/176910824
‘Full Circle’ – a film by Agata Wasiewska commissioned by Wolverhampton Art Gallery 2017
Louise Plafreyman’s article ‘How Sculptor Michael Lyons uses Poetry to visualise his