Abstract Critical

Peter Hide and Walter Early Protesting Time

Written by David Sweet

Protesting Time installation view

Protesting Time installation view

There was a time, (and yes, it was in the sixties) where the ‘box’ was a popular motif in art. It featured in the work of Joseph Cornell, Louise Nevelson, Robert Morris, Don Judd, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and even Frank Stella, whose deep stretchers gave his paintings a box-like feel. Empty boxes became minimalism’s signature form, but the device was also useful to others literally interested in content. It’s this latter interpretation that is titularly referenced in an exhibition of recent sculptures by Peter Hide.

Peter Hide, Drop Box, 2013.

Peter Hide, Drop Box, 2013.

Formally this means that the outer profile of many of the pieces is cubic, in a general way, while the elements that lie within its six-sided confines appear loose and separate. Drop Box, 2013, and Jewel Box, 2010-11, exemplify this container/contents idea quite explicitly. The artistic challenge of this dichotomy comes from the fact that boxes are boring and contents are interesting and the success of the individual sculptures seems to rest on denying this fact. For that reason Jewel Box is less satisfactory because the contents are too recognisable, too anecdotal, while the surrounding sculptural fabric is too anonymous. The Drop Box contents are more shapes-without-a-name than figurative objects and there is more going on in the rest of the work to complicate the dichotomy, including a large hollow that concludes in a circular hole in the confining plane.

Peter Hide, Jewel Box, 2010-11.

Peter Hide, Jewel Box, 2010-11.

Box Valley, 2011, is better still. The outer structure is far more active and it supports fewer, blanker elements so, despite the title, the central relationship registers less as a ‘box plus contents’ metaphor and more like a ‘mother and child’. This also suggests a dependency and continuity between formal elements that is certainly emphasised by the material unity of the medium used in this work and in most of the other exhibits.

Peter Hide, Box Valley, 2011.

Peter Hide, Box Valley, 2011.

On a small scale, rusted mild steel has legibility problems. In compact arrangements it’s hard visually to pick out the structural events that constitute the work. Tonal shifts offer the best clues and Hide’s sculptures benefit from the strong overhead lighting in the gallery. Shadows become very important to the work’s visibility but, given that the viewer is often looking down at the pieces, the upper areas, where the ‘contents’ collect, catch more light and attention than they perhaps should. One begins to value the forms produced by chiaroscuro, the unlit vents, fissures and gaps, particularly in the vertical planes, as in the especially effective scooped lacuna in Crown Royal, 2009.

Peter Hide, All-Round Circle, 2012.

Peter Hide, All-Round Circle, 2012.

All-Round Cube, 2012, though haunted by a hexahedron, gets away from the dichotomy of container/contents and, perhaps, opens up a possibility for Hide that might be worth exploring further. It seems to belong to a world where the space between atoms has contracted, where already solid and compacted material has progressively collapsed in on itself, producing a super-density, like that at the centre of a dark star from which no light escapes. A language of inward compression goes against the grain of sculptural developments that have followed from Picasso’s ‘experiments’ with guitars and absinth glasses of 1912-14. In that narrative, a whole, compact object is turned into a sculptural artefact by being expanded. The sculptor’s problem then is, how to keep the bits from flying off in all directions. The forces in All-Round Cube, travel in the opposite, centripetal direction. The sculpture feels not just heavy but more condensed or compressed than an ordinary object. That fits with its smallness, a characteristic that otherwise might speak of timidity or faintness of heart.

Protesting Time installation view

Protesting Time installation view

The other artist showing at the Piper Gallery, Walter Early, also works small, but if he is timid and faint hearted he is determined to cover it up. Colour is Early’s USP, a seven hued spectrum from red to purple: Not just colour, but high gloss, oven-baked enamel colour, which forms a hard shell over the underlying material. That turns out to be metal, a sort of found metal, a waste product of a working process that one assumes involves sufficient heat to soften and curl the detritus into the shapes which he then joins together to make sculpture. (I really don’t want to know if that stuff is called ‘jonnycake’.)

Walter Early Jonnycake, 2002-2012.

Walter Early Jonnycake, 2002-2012.

The bright, multi-colour coating may be an attempt to propel the work well beyond the cultural sphere of steel sculpture readily acknowledged by Peter Hide. Its extreme shine couldn’t contrast more vividly with the surfaces of that tradition, even if one includes Caro’s painted work, but it’s difficult to know what other artistic category might accommodate it, even that cute one to which the work of Jeff Koons and Youtube cats belong. 

Walter Early, Jonnycake 6018, 2012.

Walter Early, Jonnycake 6018, 2012.

Despite the special pleading of the colour, it still looks much like a type of steel sculpture, but unfortunately lacks any of the art form’s virtues. It might be that the eccentric material out of which it’s constructed comes out already configured as we see it, like clinker from a furnace. However, at some point one feels that Early has had to engage, however briefly, in sculptural activity, choosing and assembling a few promising elements, making compositional decisions about the horizontal or vertical axis, and so on. In Jonnycake 5002, 2012, (blue) and Jonnycake 2002, 2012, (purple) there seems to be an effort to set up a rhythmic flow between the elements and, on the very limits of critical generosity, one can possibly discern something like a rise and fall counterpoint in the tangled short-crust lumps of Jonnycake 2004, 2013, (orange). 

Mostly, however, what one assumes to be individual, constituent parts are formally inadequate. They do not seem able to summon up enough energy on their own, nor when casually interacting with adjacent forms, to contribute meaningfully to a credible sculptural entity. 

Walter Early, Jonnycake 2011-2012.

Walter Early, Jonnycake, 2011-2012.

I’m not sure this exhibition tells us much about where the enterprise of steel sculpture currently stands. Though worthy, Hide’s pieces feel slightly grumpy and unadventurous. All-Round Cube, as I have said, might dissent from the expansionist tendency that is so much part of modern sculptural grammar, shared even by contrarian artists like Tony Smart and Katherine Gili, but it may prove hard to follow up. Early’s arriviste attitude should be bracing and exciting, even if wrong-headed, but his intervention in the tradition results in clumsy and rather immature solutions which do not develop or renew its vocabulary, despite the colour. That doesn’t mean that this particular enterprise is exhausted. It only shows how difficult it is to make good art.

 Peter Hide and Walter Early: Protesting Time, Piper Gallery, London. 15 October  – 22 November 2013.


  1. John Link said…

    Judging from the JPEGs, it is clear Peter Hide is pretty damn good at making sculpture, period.

  2. ahab said…

    Despite the lack of expressed interest in this thread, I said I would, so I shall…

    Walter Early’s painted steel might be said to be like Peter Hide’s unpainted work by virtue of a shared inside-out quality. But Early’s are rather more tangled things than fitted or composed. They have the feel of girthy Mobius strips that by way of a deeper truth have survived the hydraulic forces of an industrial scrapyard. But, as has been touched on by Mr. Sweet and Sam and myself (and others outside the hearing of this post), the coatings are not in tune with the truth.

    And I do feel it is the coatings, not the colours exactly, that are in conflict with the nature of Early’s ‘Jonnycakes’. Powdercoating is an electromagnetically applied and baked layer of tinted plastic powder that has the advantage over aerosols by coating even those invisible surfaces that are untouchable by a direct line of spray, and over dipping in their range of colour and gloss. Besides being highly durable, powdercoating can, in the hands of the most skilled technicians, achieve a wide range of thicknesses: fom microns to millimeters.

    As I recall, the royal blue one came out matte and I remember saying I thought for that it was not as successful as the glossy ones. With more reflection (mine, not the sculptures’), and evidenced by the otherwise very good photography above, I feel the shiny-ness was unsatisfactorily resolved; but more importantly, where the painted surface is a problem I’m thinking it’s the thickness of the paint that is at issue.

    There is no going back in these painted ones. Sandblasting cannot strip the hidden areas of powdercoat, and although repainting is an option, from this point the surfaces can only get doughier. Apparently there remain some sandblasted but unpainted ones… these would be worth reviewing in this regard. Actually, I think it may be worth the sacrifice to overpaint one of the more troubled ‘Jonnycakes’, and it’s no less likely that a partial uncovering of some areas (by sandblasting or sanding) might lead to heightened distinction between interior and exterior surfaces.

    And all that is just ‘brushing the surface’ of a full consideration of Early’s work in this show. As exhibited, they need not be presumed done and done but perhaps just getting underway, which would be more overt fulfillment of Sweet’s expectation: that what sculptors make contribute to the history of the world of sculpture.

  3. ahab said…

    I was glad to see that “Protesting Time” had garnered a review here on AbCrit, since it is a site for some bit of debate about abstractness in sculpture – which brushes rhetorically against the relation (or relevance) of abstract sculpture to the rest of contemporary art practise. I was immediately dismayed, though, by Sweet’s referring to Nevelson, Morris, Judd, Johns, Warhol and Stella as the masters by which Hide’s sculpture is introduced then measured against. And via the highly-extant issue of ‘boxes’, no less.

    Really? There are no sculptors Hide’s work is more in the vein of than that contentious covey of boxed-in literalists whose sculpture really is boring to look at? (Though I admit to having seen a Nevelson or two that interested me.) Not David Smith, or Eduardo Chillida (just to name a few giants of boxy, metal sculpture)? And is there no more pressing context for Hide’s things than a box, it being in that extra-special category of a thing containing other things? Not their carven solidity, or vacuum-packed density, or crushing gravity, or worried and ‘felt’ surfaces… or, more associatively, as things from a way-back time that have eroded from the inside out?

    Sweet’s language is, I found, accurate when writing about the interior and exterior relationships of the elements comprising one of these Hides, and the paragraph dealing with “All-Round Cube” is a decent mini-essay that touches nicely on that piece’s evocation of dark-matter mass. But I take umbrage with the way Early’s pieces have been brushed off with vague language: “it’s difficult to know what other artistic category might accommodate it” – does it need a ‘box’, perhaps? And: “it still looks much like a type of steel sculpture, but unfortunately lacks any of the art form’s virtues”, which are what, exactly?

    I agree that the colours used in the Early sculptures under discussion are rather more dissonant than resonant with their forms, and bely their material reality; however so do the very forms of the steel, for of steel they’re made – found, welded and ground into supple soft-feeling things that surely ought to melt yet further, and even while under observation. Instead, they seem caught either just ahead of or after the moment of bounce.

    Here my little bit of descriptive vernacular has yet to valuate the things as sculpture among sculptures, but even the little I’ve teased out attests to the show’s deeper attraction. I understand intimately how very difficult it is to write clearly and interestingly about how we see and are affected by such particularly unique objects – it is perhaps harder even than making art that’s good to the eye. But to so stretch the low “limits of critical generosity” comes across, to me at least, as a grumpy and clumsy endeavour.

    • Sam said…

      Hi ahab, I’m glad you said this, as I so feel that David has been unfair on Early’s sculpture. Of course Hide’s sculpture is more sophisticated, but he has been doing this for quite a lot longer than Early has been alive!

      I do think that the colour is a problem – less the hue, but rather its thick materiality, and its high gloss. Both of which disguise much of what is good about the work (which I have seen pre-painting). What is partly disguised is not the steel itself – in that I don’t think ‘truth to materials’ is interesting – but rather what David calls ‘sculptural activity’.

      There are lots of plays with how parts can meet at an edge or with lines which allow us to trace paths across the sculptures, and a good feel for the containing edges of a sculpture, and how these edges relate to a sense of movement within the work (the different handling of containing edges is perhaps characteristic around which Early’s and Hide’s sculpture could be directly compared?) I think this is particularly visible in the red and green sculptures pictured above.

      As you’ve pointed out ahab, it is a bit disconcerting to not elucidate the values of the sculpture tradition which Early is judged not to have added to. I also find the words arriviste and contrarian slightly disturbing – as if adherence to the tradition was a value in and of itself.

      • ahab said…

        Hi, Sam.

        Mayhaps I’ll be repeating or embellishing your comments, but…

        I can’t help further pointing out to Mr. Sweet that there’s so much more sculpture being sculpted out in this wide, wide world than he gives credit for — post-sixties, painted or not, boxy or otherwise — and I feel well-tempted to further critique his criticism. “Arriviste”, “contrarian”, “wrong-headed”, and “immature”, “unadventurous”, “grumpy” and “clumsy” are specious, ad hominem accusations of the artists themselves and avoid the works at hand… so it may be better if I were to ignore the writing and narrow in on the sculpture itself.

        Peter Hide’s decades’ of work encompass a surprising latitude, when considered for its range of size and stylistic effect. Much of it may indeed seem stand-offish, initially. It is burly stuff that only reveals its most tenderly worked junctures from very close up, which are often then revealed to be heavy-gauge welds, industrially scribed with 350 amps of mark-making — or, obversely, a line-weight drawn between parts that are not actually joined at all.

        Burly-big and burly-small can have radically differing effects, but in both plinth’d and monumental modes Hide has hardly wavered from testing his hypothesis (as I take it) that gravity, with time, has a softening effect on us and on most everything we live with. His are not computer-generated and machine-made, but right-sized, hand-worked things; yet, they also evoke the tectonic, properly scaling our human impression upon the earth’s favoured, breathing mineral-body (see: Ruskin on iron).

        Every Hide sculpture’s outer profile is married to its internal contours (a kind of inside-out relationship of parts-to-whole), but not by static silouhette. The result is a sort of drawing-by-mass: heavy form. His sculptures have an initial attraction via their contoured lyricism and staying power by way of internal compaction.

        I’m highly fortunate to have been acquainted with Hide’s work over some years in its varying states of completion (inside and out of the studio), and perhaps have the unfair advantage of an insider’s knowledge… but upon rereading, still feel the previous paragraph decently descriptive of those sculptures he’s contributed to Ms. Piper’s “Protesting Time” exhibition.

        I have more thoughts to posit regarding Walter Early’s pieces, but no more time this evening in which to compose and post them. Tomorrow, perhaps, or protesting the late hour, tomorrow-tomorrow…