Abstract Critical

Katherine Gili: Abstract and Figurative.

Written by Sam Cornish

Katherine Gili was one of a small group of abstract sculptors, working out of the Gonzalez-Smith-Caro tradition of constructed steel sculpture, who in the early eighties attempted to reinvigorate their approach though an active return to the body. Her work from this time and her attitude toward it formed a distinctive attitude toward the body and to how it could be understood in relation to abstract sculpture.

Through the seventies Gili and her contemporaries had been driven by a desire to make sculpture as physically present and as spatially rich as possible. This had lead them away from the openness of sixties abstract sculpture toward denser, more physically massive and closely worked structures. Alan Gouk, who explicated and encouraged the group’s work, suggested that the goal of sculpture was the achievement of structure through the terms of the medium and so consequently the divide between abstract and representational sculpture was an artificial one. What is more, that medium and structure needed to be brought together in relation to knowledge of the body; ‘the problem in sculpture in the absence of representation is to find a true principle of unity and one which offers the same degree of intensity as pertained in our identification with bodily relationships’. Though the abstract’s abandonment of the body had opened up a freedom for sculpture – giving to it the ability to assume a multitude of shapes and structures – Gili and her contemporaries began to see the abstract as itself a trap and the body as containing the potential for release.

The most obvious outcome of Gili’s engagement with the body were two sculptures made in the early eighties that were life-sized and clearly figures. Less easy to classify are the sculptures she has made since. On one hand they are certainly not figures, whilst on the other they are closer in many respects to her figure sculptures than to the sculptures she made during the seventies. This possible ambiguity can be partially explained, at least within the terms of Gili’s approach to her work, by her understanding of the body not as ‘a pose – a position’ but as a ‘kaleidoscope of physical experiences’. That is she understood – and understands – the body not as an external thing to be represented with anatomical exactitude, but as an internally felt structure comprised of successions of reciprocally acting forces and strains. For Gili, I think we can say, this structure gained its strength both through the certainty of its limitations and the extent to which these limitations were in perpetual flux; a kaleidoscope whose particular parts could be twisted into infinite permutations.

This understanding of the body can seen – in advance of her seeming return to the abstract – in a figure sculpture such as Leonide. In it the heavily worked sections of forged metal which we identify as arm or leg, hand or foot extend beyond the points at which they would terminate on an anatomical model; the strength of the sculpture springs from the coherence with which these forces are structured across it. This understanding can also be seen in the way in which Gili used life-models, something well illustrated in a photograph of her interaction with Karen Leslie, a dancer who she worked with extensively. Pulling up Leslie’s leg Gili played an active role, one that is both destabilizing and supportive. Though Gili could see across Leslie’s body this visual information, we can imagine, was supplemented – both heightened and complicated – by a physical awareness of the strains and readjustments necessary to maintain the difficult pose, one which was communicated through Gili’s own body.

Armed with this insight into Gili’s production we can see how the ‘abstract’ sculptures she has made since the mid-eighties originated in the body, specifically the body felt as a ‘kaleidoscope of physical experiences’. Their flowing, mutating structures correspond to both to the idea of the body as a structure ever in flux and to the necessarily nebulous nature of the internal body. Where the external body is both knowable and somewhat opaque, our sense of our own body is perhaps both unavoidable and difficult to translate, a complex of powerful but vague and interlinked sensations rather than the arms, legs, torsos we see around us or understand in analysis. In a fair number of Gili’s post-1985 sculptures the approach to this nebulous thing seems to me to result in a structural uncertainty, a vagueness which seems unresolved and uncompelling. Others of her sculptures combine structural coherence and doubt in much more positive tension. In these a great variety of structural possibilities are forced or coaxed into effective coherences, coherences that are themselves called into questions by new possibilities, new configurations, so that each is only attained momentarily.

Yet beyond these general ideas of it as a structure in flux, how much do we recognize the specifics of the body in Gili’s sculpture? How does the thickly curving band found in Llobregat and its intermeshing in the sculpture’s wider coherences relate to the body? Or how is this relation contained in the diverse movements which thickly flood across Ripoll (the most recent, and for me the most successful, of Gili’s large post-1985 sculptures)? And anyway what would it mean to recognize the sensation of our internal coherence in a structure outside of ourselves? Or to look at the sculpture with the intention of attaining this recognition? To partly return to Gouk’s formulation, how could we tell when an intensity such as found within bodily relationships had been attained? If it is there, would it not be a submerged thing resistant to analysis? Or rather could not any principle of unity extend beyond the body into its interactions with the environment, to combine with our sense of visual and in other nameless directions, so that any bodily awareness becomes part of a much richer kaleidoscope?

Perhaps then we can see Gili’s particular use of the body as just a tool or orientation; one which she needed to free her work from her previous ways of working, to expand her range and give her focus but one we do not need to return to in order to engage with her sculpture. It seems to me that seeing or naming the body or instances of it in these structures is an inhibition before it is anything else. The point of the works – the role that for Gili the body played in them -  is not to allow observers to tie intention to result or to witness a process of abstraction (too much contemporary abstraction is concerned with a fading away, a duck / rabbit vacillation that at a stretch carries interest but has little visual force). Instead Gili’s structures though based in her knowledge of the body invite a visual and physical working over that extends beyond it. This is a process that is an end in itself and which involves an encounter with vital and energetic structures both strange and familiar over which any moves to certain verbal identification are deferred. Here then their use of the abstract is not something to be explained away, a loose end to be tied up and fully accounted for as attending to or allegorizing a particular condition or set of sensations. Rather it is an opening up of a potential, a state in which structures exist that demands attention but resists interpretation.


  1. Robert Persey said…

    The duck-rabbit vacillation is of course a result of imperfect perceptual information being presented as an image to the eye and thence the mind. To be confronted by the real presence of a duck or a rabbit no such confusion arises. Playing with such vacillating images is essentially to indulge in mind games wherein which the body plays no part. It also gives rise to concepts such as “opticality” which remove the experience of art from the corporeal. Some sculptors have long understood that there is no seperation of eye, mind and body, all are active agents in perception.