PETER HIDE: ART AND FEELING
The power of Peter Hide’s sculptures derives in large part from his willingness to exploit aspects of feeling and subtle references to emotional states in his sculptures while avoiding any suggestion that feeling is the subject. The subject of his sculpture is ultimately the artwork itself and although Hide makes abstract sculptures, he is not reluctant to exploit reference to the body and bodily postures to create movement, tension, suggestion of kinetic change - even to suggest mood and other aspects that we normally link to human experience.
You could say that his art is “expressionist,” but without the aspect of focus on self that we usually attach to the term. Nonetheless, Hide’s art does reveal a very clear connection to his personality that is as important to his art as Beethoven’s was to his. This particular aspect of “personality” was there in his art from the start, but its development as a powerful and integral part of his sculpture’s quality evolved gradually.
My introduction to the sculpture of Peter Hide came in 1977 when he moved to Edmonton to teach at the University of Alberta. He had already established a certain level of experience as well as something of a reputation for artistic maturity in his native England, helped possibly by a receptive and stimulating climate that existed for young sculptors in the United Kingdom at that time. In fact, the 1970s, when Hide began his career, was a comfortable period for the creation of serious modernist art worldwide and public and critical support was – compared to today – easily available for ambitious artists working within the tradition. Its legitimacy and continuity was securely endorsed by the ripe success of established contemporary masters: artists like the painters Kenneth Noland, Larry Poons and Jules Olitski and the sculptor Anthony Caro. Challenges to the established position of late 20th century modernism in the form of contemporary manifestations of Dada and Pop Art with their critical theorists and apologists, continued to dominate and to obfuscate art discussion. But serious art, that is, art as visual rather than theoretical experience, had managed to establish its own small place in the mainstream where it could continue to attract the kind of attention and energy necessary to ensure its renewal and vitality.
In fact, given the security of this acceptance – limited as it was – the main challenge facing serious artists, including Hide and his British contemporaries, was to avoid the risk of falling into imitation and/or mannerism. For sculptors working with welded steel, the task was to enlarge the expressive scope of abstract sculpture, to take it beyond the conventions of open attachment that had developed logically out of the abandonment of the traditional methods of modelling and carving that had dominated sculptural art throughout much of its history.
In the 20th century, constructed sculpture had been explored by the Russian avant garde, but it had been most fruitfully developed by the welder Julio Gonzales, Pablo Picasso and the American, David Smith. Later, welded steel sculpture found fuller expression in the abstract work of the English artist Anthony Caro. Working in the wake of Caro’s success and acceptance, sculptors in Britain during the 60s and 70s grappled with the pervasiveness of Caro-style “pictorialism” (the term, when used in relation to sculpture, usually refers to low relief and its dependence on design arrangement more appropriate to two dimensional picture-making. Hide and his colleagues adopted it as a slightly pejorative term to describe the emphasis on openness, drawing and line that characterized the art of Caro and his immediate followers). Reflecting a conviction that pictorialism was more appropriately a part of painting than sculpture, the concern was that in its evolution to abstraction and away from representation, modern sculpture had abandoned essential sculptural attributes – specifically, mass and volume.
In the 70s at St. Martin’s, where Hide had studied and later taught, students and faculty began to experiment with the reintroduction of traditional subject-matter, which saw expression in an exhibition that was mounted shortly after Hide’s move to Canada called “Have You Seen Sculpture From the Body.” The exhibition, presented at the Tate Gallery with accompanying catalogue essay by Alan Gouk, examined the work of a group of students, among them Katherine Gili and Anthony Smart, who were working with figuration as a starting point for sculptural exploration. The idea was that by returning to the forms of the body – and the related examination of massed volumes rather than open attachment – they could bring their art back to something that they saw as more fundamental to its nature. This “movement,” at least the programmatic figurative aspect of it, was relatively short-lived, but it illustrated something of the anxiety of artists with respect to what really amounted to the unexpected emergence and revitalization of an art form that had to a large extent sat in the background since the Renaissance. It also illustrated something of the theoretical milieu that surrounded art creation in Britain in the mid 70s.
During this period, Peter Hide was also searching for an appropriate and authentic strategy to take his art forward. While his concerns paralleled in some manner those of the other British artists, he responded in an intuitive way that was less prescriptive than that of many of his peers. He began to exploit the structural capabilities of steel, but without playing up the medium’s potential for delicate, open attachment. Sculptures such as Zenith (1975) and Night Tower (1976) exhibited a design motif that drew the welded elements together rather than allowing them to spread out, and arranged them in a vertical configuration, permitting the material – long, sliced sections of steel plate – to reveal the architecture of the structure. This general layout, with forms physically or dynamically oriented in relation to a central core, often arranged on a vertical axis, put forward a different approach to welded attachment, one that side-stepped the alluring potential of “openness” which had been so successfully mined by Caro. The idea of compression implied in the clustering of forms around a central core would receive a more intense investigation after Peter Hide moved to Edmonton and started teaching at the University of Alberta.
The move to Edmonton proved to be a fortunate choice for Hide and his development as an artist. It would turn out to be good for Canada as well, and particularly for Edmonton, where a sympathetic cultural milieu had already begun to flourish under the encouragement of an energetic university art department. Edmonton, too, was home to a public gallery that had evolved a serious exhibition and collection program, one focusing on the collection and display of modernist contemporary art. In Edmonton, Hide was removed from the theoretical storm that surrounded sculpture production in Britain and could concentrate on simply following his own path. He would also have the opportunity to develop another valuable aspect of his artistic personality – that of a teacher. Teaching would afford him the security and time to make art, and would also give him opportunity to immerse himself in a milieu of art-making and discussion that was practical without being overly theoretical. The to-and-fro interaction with his students, many of whom proved to be very talented, was and continues to be challenging and energizing. On the other hand, Hide has been a forceful inspiration, virtually creating catalyst for the development of a small community of serious sculptors.
In Edmonton, Hide immediately set to work. Partly as a carry-over from what was occurring in England at the time of his departure – where the emphasis on brute mass and weight had become a preoccupation of many of his British peers – but also in response to the availability of thick sections of scrap steel and access to heavy moving equipment, he began to create a group of small-sized, but massive pieces composed of slab-like sections of rough cut steel. These works communicated a fierce physicality and weight and can be seen as a more emphatic departure from Caro-style pictorialism than his previous work. Instead of drawing in space, the new sculptures aggressively displaced space, allowing no – or only occasional – penetration into their interiors. Movement was minimized, subsumed into a tight, muscle-bound expression of clenched tension.
Hide’s production during this period included a small group of remarkably original artworks. Oddball (1977-78) in particular, revealed his willingness to step outside of the constraints of conventional sculptural taste. A more or less spherical cluster of fused steel parts with a carved open centre and interlocking arrangement of concave and convex sections, the sculpture had a vaguely figural association, like a crouching figure. It also sat precariously on the divide between sculpture and object.
Echoes of the figure, and of Hide’s admiration for the sculpture of Rodin, can be seen in other works from this time, in Stromboli (1979) and Left Arm Chinaman (1979), for example. His debt to Rodin is revealed particularly clearly in Gothic Height, made in 1978. With its long, sweeping curves and slight off-axis lean, the sculpture has the same general profile as Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac. The slab-like quality of the steel and its fused, unified surface creates a steel equivalent of the modelled bronze, adding to the association. Gothic Height illustrated an aspect that had appeared in some of Hide’s earlier sculptures but would come to dominate most of his mature work. This involved his engagement with the potential of figural form, and particularly the dynamism of body postures, to animate abstract composition.
In a way, Hide was exploring a “subject” – the human body – that had preoccupied his associates at St Martin’s. But in Hide’s case, the exploration arose out of his engagement with the material and the expression of his own artistic personality rather than by working directly from the model through a programmatic plan of action. Glancing back at his previous production – works made while he was still living in England – it's evident that references to the figure had appeared quite early on in Hide’s art. Zenith (1975) and Sodium (1975)– resembling standing and crouching figures, respectively – surely express a sense of structure derived from, or at least paralleling that of, the body and body movement. Of course, any vertical structure of closely grouped elements will conjure up figural associations. Nonetheless, Hide’s interest in figural poses and body movement seems early on to have provided inspiration for his work. Even High and Over (1976), Hide’s most overtly “open” sculpture from the seventies presents a kind of “contraposto” in the way that the arrangement of the planes suggests a twisting in relation to a central axis.
The heavy, massed steel sculptures that Hide produced in his early years in Edmonton allowed him to reconnect more directly with the mass and volume of traditional sculpture, and also with the physicality of his material. Working in this way, though, was limiting, particularly in terms of scale. The sculptures had to remain small in order to communicate their sculptural – and not be dominated by their literal – force. And even in small scale, the physical character of the material – its inherent weight and density – threatened to dominate or displace other aspects. Hide began to work with thinner sheet, exploring motifs that resembled architectural sections or fragments, transposing the fan-like passages that had appeared in some of the heavy massed pieces into sculptural arrangements that sat higher in space and connected to the ground in a constructed, more architectural manner, as opposed to the somewhat perfunctory way of the massed steel pieces. Bases took on a more essential as part of the sculptural arrangement as Hide explored a variety of structural possibilities: an apron-like curving section supporting the vertical arrangement in The Watchtower (1981) evolves into a stepping forward “foot” in Ramilles (1982) and Conquest of Happiness (1983/84), the foot in turn playing off an essentially straight “hind leg” support to set off a lively development of forms rising vertically above.
Throughout the eighties, Hide explored the possibilities of this main format. His sculptures during this period included a number of beautiful mid-size to slightly larger works that reveal an exploration of vertical development with stacked forms that shifted dynamically along a central axis like an arrangement of building blocks set slightly off centre (Conquest of Happiness, and Gothic Ascendant, 1986) or sometimes complex vertical arrangements of interlocked forms that played off against simple wing-like sections (Masterbend, 1985-86).
Architecture and architectural detailing, too, began to assert themselves more as subject/inspiration after a trip to Italy in the mid-nineties. In addition to Donatello and Roman portrait sculpture, Hide was impressed by his exposure to the grand, occasionally flamboyant forms of Borromini’s baroque architectural detailing, aspects of which surfaced in a group of very large outdoor sculptures that the artist created during the mid to late nineties (Modernist Man, 1994 subsequently modified; Green Between, 1994-97). These works pushed the limits of scale and occasionally seemed weighed down by a kind of drama expressed in the sweeping forms and occasionally massive weightiness, an effect that in his smaller-scale works had seemed less overwhelming and altogether more appropriate. A shift to simpler, clearer design arrived at through working from scaled up maquettes brought more success and led to a small group of larger scale works that included a couple of public commissions (King of Clubs, 1993; Full House, 1998; Plainsong, 2000).
To this point, verticality had been a predominant aspect of Hide’s sculpture, but his conception hadn’t, and still hasn’t, precluded other options: he has often worked in lateral arrangements, for example. In these, there is often reference to the reclining figure (eg, Odalisque, 1993/4), or with sculptures like United Front, 1978/91, and After Michelangelo, 1994, a suggestion of surging energy locked into straining immobility. Occasionally, too, Hide has explored the possibility of cantilever structures to create a kind of off-kilter kineticism, suggesting a potential for movement within the sculpture. Similarly, works that lean against the wall, touching the floor via tiptoe-like appendages (Southdown Landscape, 1996-97; Southdown Landscape Suspend, 1997-98; Southdown Sideways, 1997-98) exploit a kind of delicate balance that adds emphasis to the physicality of the massed steel forms of the piece, hovering in seemingly haphazard, lateral passages. The essential thing with these, as with all of Hide’s work, is the idea of energy generated and transmitted within a close arrangement and interrelation of parts, with movement, or the potential for movement superseding balance and stability.
Over the last decade and a half, Peter Hide has achieved a firmer grasp on scale, allowing him to work more successfully in large size, but in smaller dimensions as well. In the early nineties, he had made a pair of small sculpture, Magma and The Deluge (both 1992), that were impressive in their way, but had not been completely satisfactory. Both seemed heavy and muscle-bound, immobilized in a sense by the visual density of their fused parts. In 2003, though, Hide returned to smaller scale, but by then he was able to approach it with much more success. In a series of shows of medium-sized and smaller works at the Maryann Scott Gallery in Edmonton he demonstrated that size was no longer a constraint, but something he could work inventively with and with real inspiration. By thinking in terms of a structural organization more amenable to small scale – in this case a more or less equal sided cube – he discovered that he was able to create sculptures that could develop from the inside out, to present a variety of lively views that could be seen from normal viewing vantages.
What followed was a series of beautiful small sculptures that form a fine compliment to his larger works – sculptures such as Oddment (2003), Pandora's Box (2007), Barcelona (2002), Boxcut (2007-09), Metropolis (2008-09) and Sculpture and Architecture (2012), among others, all of which combine scale and touch in a particularly unified way.
The ease of expression and confidence that has allowed Hide to achieve a finer control of scale is a part of a more general ripening of his artistic powers. Now in his sixties, He has managed to create a succession of masterful works since the turn of the century. These would certainly include Mariposa (2000-2006), which counterpoises a sweeping cape-like form against a stiff, vertical column or leg, and Endurance (2003), an oddly formed sculpture that seems to be contained by – and struggling against – its its irregular contour. These, and many others demonstrate Peter Hide's continuing vitality and originality, but what is remarkable about these two works is how different they are from each other, and yet how, though different, they both reveal Hide's signature sculptural personality.
Expression of movement and interrelation of forces, pushing and pulling within a more or less compact configuration, are aspects of Hide’s sculptures that have emerged naturally and maintained as constants throughout his mature career. His sculptures exploit concentration, implied kinetic power and physicality as opposed to dispersal and balance and are conceived in a way that is uniquely different from the main thrust of most contemporary welded steel sculpture, which has tended to exploit openness and a kind of spread-out arrangement of parts. Hide’s development has involved a focused exploration of a unique artistic personality, one that coloured by a distinctly expressive (Hide would likely not object of the term “expressionist”) aspect.
Part of this has to do with his willingness to allow reference to emotional states to emerge in his sculpture. Moving, twisting forms conjure up states of feeling – as do kinetic, off-balance structures. The important thing is that Hide keeps these associations subsumed within the formal, sculptural, expression in his works. They are part of what adds liveliness and energy. And part of what contributes to this, too, is the powerful immediacy of Hide’s handling of the material – its weight and solidity, its surface – and the particular way that he works with steel fused to steel to create a physical unity as opposed to an assemblage of parts.
Touch accounts for much of the power and expression in Hide’s work. Whereas Anthony Caro’s sculptures can often seem to have been created as part of a process of choice and decision, with the end result arrived at through some logical process of inevitability, Hide’s art reveals the struggle of its creation, of choices conditionally arrived at, conclusions revised and sometimes reluctantly surrendered to, of distracting debates ended and edited from the discussion.
In Hide’s sculpture, handling and “touch” contribute much to feeling, which is so profoundly important in his art. Like that of Rodin (whose sculpture also exploited an emotional power expressed through handling), Hide’s art offers a challenge for artists who seek to follow in his path and in the tradition within which he has so successfully carved his place. They can take inspiration from the way that he has been willing throughout his career to draw on his own resources, and also from the fierceness of his ambition in the single-minded pursuit of his goals.