HYPER-REALISM: SCULPTURE and CIRCUS EUROPA at Kunsthal in Rotterdam

The two current exhibitions at Rotterdam’s Kunsthal have a lot in common, deliberately so, I’m sure, providing an exercise in contrast and compare. The primary one is entitled Hyper-Realism Sculpture, the other, Circus Europa. Both could equally be described as freak shows and while I suspect Michael Kvium would be happy with that epithet for his exhibition I don’t think the curators of the Hyper-Realism show would.

All the pieces in both shows are technically amazing, many are provocative, many are funny, some are shocking and some might even be considered offensive.

Many of the pieces in the Hyper-Realism show are resin casts taken from human models. These are all very clever in a waxworks sort of way and often quite amusing, like the two workmen with their stepladder by Duane Hanson. Hanson is famous for his lifelike figures of ordinary people which are left standing around in galleries and museums to confuse and amuse. All great fun, but is it art or just a good joke which bears repetition?

There are some pieces by Pop Art veterans Alan Jones, Mel Ramos and George Segal. The pieces by Jones and Ramos are very much of a time but Segal’s rough-hewn seated plaster figure, like the piece next door at the Boijmens van Beuningen Museum, is timeless and has ten times the impact and artistic merit of the smooth-cast, hyper-real figures by Hanson and others which dominate proceedings.

But smoothness does not preclude the grotesque of which there is no shortage, like Ron Mueck’s five meter long new-born baby and the life-size gun-pointing crouching marble female nude adorned with Nazi regalia. And grotesque does not preclude humour, as demonstrated by the sweet little half human, half elephant, half goodness-knows-what baby by Patricia Piccinini which nestles in its glass case on a cosy fur rug.

There are two really beautiful pieces, both small, less than a meter tall, one of a patinaed naked lady with a white turban and another piece of similar size of a pair of all-white ladies standing side by side, one clothed, the other not.

There are a lot more naked ladies on view. There are maybe eight or ten life-size cast nudes painted to look absolutely real. And amazingly life-like they are too, right down to the wrinkles on the soles of their feet – no imagination needed, either to view or execute. Almost the focal point of the exhibition is a group of three such figures sitting on plinths, legs apart with their equally smooth naughty bits for all to see – although it was conspicuous how many people chose to look discreetly from the side rather than taking advantage of the full-frontal aspect. Oddly, there was a notice asking the visitors not to photograph the pieces out of consideration for the models.

While adolescent boys and dirty old men will no doubt enjoy these exhibits I found them more gynaecological than artistic. It’s not that I am offended, I like a naked lady as much as the next man – well, perhaps not as much as the dirty old man – it’s just that I don’t see the point.

Nevertheless, this is a novel exhibition which is certainly worth seeing but if you do go I advise you not to stand still for too long otherwise people might gather round to stare and take pictures of you.

 

I nearly missed the Michael Kvium exhibition which was accessed only by a dark, narrow, badly signposted passage.

I suspect this Danish artist’s Circus Europa took pride in its ability to disturb. Although there were many of his large paintings on view it was the life-size figurative sculptures that dominated the space – those and an actual old circus wagon used for cruelly housing and transporting wild animals.

Like many of the pieces in the other show, these were hyper-realistic resin human figures – but not humans as we know them. Their faces were grotesque enough but their bodies were transformed into outlandish freaks – but no less beautiful for that. There was the Catholic priest standing in an oil drum, dangling a small choir boy from a string, a baseball-capped man whose waving arms became those of a deformed skeleton below the elbow and there was a naked judge, again immersed in a drum of oil. Perhaps the most poignant piece was in a darkened room in which a deflated, à la refugees, rubber dingy had beached, spilling its cargo of books onto the floor as search lights played backwards and forwards in the gloom.

Technically just as adept as pieces in the other gallery, Kvium’s work had a lot more to say. In many of the Hyper Realism sculptures technique was all they could claim whereas with  Circus Europa Kvium clearly demonstrates that  he has a viewpoint and opinions for which the extraordinary technical skills he employs are the means, not the end.  Michael Hasted   29th March 2018