18th May - 11th June 2011

Opening: 18th May 2011

Katherine Gili:
A Career Survey


sculpture 1974-1990

sculpture 1991 - present


Katherine Gili: A Career Survey

Katherine Gili: a career survey.
Extracts from the catalogue essay by Sam Cornish
1977 was a very big year for Gili. As well as her fourth Stockwell Depot exhibition, her sculpture Alope was included in a survey of British sculpture at Battersea Park. The first in-depth article was written about her sculpture (albeit in a special edition of Studio International on women artists – a category that has given Gili some problems in past) and her first British solo exhibition was held at the Serpentine. The sculptures she made during these years are correspondingly ambitious. Gili has expressed a desire to aim at ‘simplicity, clearness, directness, discarding anything extraneous’ [Escultura Nueva: Reino Unido, Centro Cultural del Conde Duque catalogue, 1988, p.47].

This desire accords well with her sculpture of the first half of the seventies, though those made in 1977 call it into question, or at least shows her willingness to allow extravagance, complexity and caprice alongside simplicity. The extravagance of the 1977 sculptures reflects a richer understanding of spatial possibilities and a growing con-fidence in handling material on Gili’s part. The sculpture of Tim Scott, who returned to teach at St Martin’s in 1975,  was an important  influence on this development, adding to Gili’s continued study of González and Matisse. Since the early seventies, in part under the influence of Indian sculpture, Scott had introduced a great variety of increasingly complex forms into his work.

The freely cut planes of Jive or Bolero play a different role in the 1977 sculptures, from which the thin lines of the 1976 works almost completely disappear. In the earlier sculptures these planes had been given relatively isolated and central positions; this enabled their clarity, their sense of being images silhouetted and suspended within a broader three-dimensionality. In Chillida, Cobra and Alope this sense of isolation is lost as more and more planes are combined in each sculpture. There is a corresponding increase in the range of shapes; curves, and bounding loops (and a circle in Column that seems like a quotation from David Smith), a variety of leaf-like shapes, as well as some that are markedly less organic. Most are fairly simple and the sculptures’ complexity comes as the planes are slotted and tilted against each other. They tilt together in a manner which brings them into space, without the sense of isolation observed in Jive. Cut Out suggests a transition between the two modes, its leaf-like pointing double arch flatly stated within the more clearly spatial arrangement of the rest of the sculpture’s planes. The difference between the 1976 and 1977 work becomes more clear in the successions of cut planes that circle into each other at the top of Roundalay. Instead of being exposed as images removed from space, they tilt into breadth and depth as lively suggestions of space skim across their surfaces.

With this variety Gili began to introduce enclosed or partially closed volume into her sculptures. Space is suggested – or perhaps created – by being partially boxed in by or beneath a bent piece of plate; whereas the planes of a sculpture like Shift or Jive implied a volume that it existed in, in these sculptures volume was created much more directly, contained more tangibly. Cobra provides a dramatic example of this containment with its central ‘hood’ rising theatrically to frame its other parts. A form similar to Cobra’s hood is also found in Tilia, by far the most dense of Gili’s sculpture at this point. Partly under this hood, a succession of near-pyramidal boxes cut and slice into each other, allowing closed volume to be played off against open. As the sculpture is circled a surprising sequence of profiles and expanding and contracting views and volumes are encountered. The hood in both sculptures points to a urge to remove sculpture, to enclose it within itself; though the compact bulk of Tilia is a more certain presence in the space it and the viewer share, its boundaries are more insistently demarcated than those of, say, Jive. In a sense – though this is much easier to say with hindsight – the enclosure of  volume seems a natural outcome of the cohering together of planes that was seen in Shift or Splay.

The Debate
The next stage in Gili’s work arrived through a desire to extend both the direct and partially enclosed approach to volume and the cutting and bending of material seen in Cobra or Chillida. Or, to look at it from a different angle, the move toward more contained volume and to a greater involvement with material had provided a glimpse of ‘a richer and more intense spatial experience’, a fuller meeting between material and illusion [Robert Persey, Notes on Katherine Gili’s career, unpublished, December 2010]. Gili felt that this experience needed to be developed.
There was a gradual realisation that to achieve this richness there was a need not just to extend the approach to volume and to manipulation but to fuse the two together; that material and volume could not be thought of as separate. Further, it was realised that there was much to be gained in making volume and space present through an active manipulation of the stuff of material. In planar constructed sculpture the particular quality of material could almost be considered separately from the volume or space that the sculpture created. The chief action on material was arrangement not manipulation; on the one hand there was a rightness of the composition of material which existed through space and on the other there was a sort of corralling or partitioning off of space. Neither option was now felt to be fully sufficient.

Gili began to work with heavier, thicker pieces of steel that had to be heated before they could be bent. In Tilia or Chillida the bent steel remained more or less a flat thing curved, a partition or an edge, whereas the weightiness of the thick beams in Rise or the fat oval that hangs off Blow contain volume within them. The focus of the sculpture shifted away from the edges at which planes meet and terminate and onto surfaces themselves; it is necessary to visually feel your way around each surface and the impressions of volume contained within it. Though the sculptures were still constructed from identifiably different parts, the distinctions between them became less clear. Welds were made thicker and more assertive, not just a ‘magic glue’ that absents itself whilst fulfilling its function, but an active part of the space and volume-creating work of the sculpture.

More importantly, as volume could now be more emphatically felt through the whole extent of each element, the effect of transitions became equally spread out. As Robert Persey has suggested, the ‘junction between broader volumes… carries much more three dimensional potential and influence within a sculpture than the junction of two planes which meet at an edge’ [Robert Persey, Notes on Katherine Gili’s career, unpublished, December 2010]. If we look at the central part of Stem – the area at which the two halves, pushing downward, meet – this effect is clearly visible. Instead of a defined meeting point or an edge, there is a succession of volumes that take and expand upon the pressure being forced down from each side. These all need to be accounted for, slowly worked around and understood. A certain slowness of execution and of comprehension is a feature of Gili’s work of 1978-79. There is no longer any place for the abstract images, flattened, clarified and removed from the give and take of space, that were important to Jive or Bolero. Parts may impress on the viewer with immediacy but this is more insistently bound up in three-dimensions.

The use of closed volume and pressurised and spread out transitions between parts completed the break from ‘openness’ and pictorialism. The adoption of thicker, clearly worked material was also contrary to the tenets of constructed steel sculpture. Rather than seeing this change in Gili’s work as operating between 1977 and 1978-9, these sculptures should be seen as the culmination of a decade long questioning and debate. As this debate and the sculptures it involved moved further and further away from planar orthodoxy, the discussion about how to move abstract sculpture on became more urgent. The arguments Tucker had put forward in The Condition of Sculpture – that sculpture should stand free, that it would not rely on the easy resolution of an imaginary picture-plane – arguably find a more complete resolution in Stem or Rise, than they did in Shift or Kinchin. Tucker’s The Language of Sculpture, published in 1974, provided an even more vital example, though one which, perhaps because of its complexity and its originality, took a long time to digest. Tucker suggested a vision of sculpture that instead of weightlessly defining gravity, freely expressed it, and was fully worked and insistently plastic rather than arranged and lightly fixed together.

Tim Scott played an important role in this development into a fuller plasticity. Since the beginning of the seventies he had experimented with forging pieces in his sculpture, partly after fully encountering Smith’s sculpture. For Scott this brought him closer to the ‘very nature of the material itself’ but more crucially allowed him to generate a much greater variety of three-dimensional forms. The influence of the variety that Scott generated could be seen in a general sense in the 1977 sculptures but the influence is much clearer in sculptures by Gili such as Pistil and Pollen (both 1978). However by the late seventies the increased sense of material that Scott’s forging gave was felt insufficient and too subservient still to a vestigial ‘pictorial’ framework. This lead to an increased massing of parts together, particularly in the sculpture of Smart and Hide, with ‘form compressed and rooted to the ground’. The result was ‘a massive, coagulated lumpish sort of sculpture’, in which almost all the openness of earlier constructed sculpture was lost [Peter Hide quoted in Veronica Sekules introduction to Sculpture from Stockwell Depot, Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, 1982, p1].

Gili’s reaction to this will be discussed at length in the next section. Here though it is important to differentiate her sculpture of the late seventies from the massiveness of her contemporaries. Where the others – particularly Hide’s – tended toward an almost brutal assertion of weight and mass, Gili combined mass and fully realised volume with great delicacy and a varied approach to form and surface. She hoped to achieve ‘the impression of rolling, turning, holding, putting pressure on the ground or the adjacent parts to create on the one hand an openness, on the other a density of form and expression’ [Typescript of Gili  lecture at RBS18@108 Steel London 2008] This combination of pressure and openness, movement and density is particularly felt in Rise, though the complexity of the parts around Blow’s column also warrants attention. Rise’s parts interlock with a greater sense of three-dimensionality than those of Stem or Peel, which both depend more completely on a sequence of pressures that expand along their dominant horizontal axis. Despite the heaviness of its steel and the rough, carved surfaces with which this is worked, Rise manages to occupy space with a relaxed assurance.

Sculptures from the body

Leonide; a body balanced on one leg stretches both arms forward. Its shoulder rolls over with the effort and its back bends. Its twinned hands grasp and flex the foot of its left leg, whilst its right anchors the whole to ground, taking its weight through a shallow bend and inflection outward at the knee. The foot that anchors the sculpture is twisted by what appears a painful angle, out at around 45 degrees. The precision of that measurement – its traces of dead-geometries – has little or nothing to do with the strength, the subtle though unavoidable physicality with which the foot places itself, or the twisting force of the leg above it that receives pressure from above and by dint of its twisting reciprocates by pushing pressure upward through the rest of the sculpture’s grappling clarity.

The reaction felt in relation to the pose is in part one of direct empathy, built upon recognition; we see the pose and know that holding it is difficult (or for many of us impossible). Arguably, a drawing of the pose or even a verbal description of it could provoke something like these empathetic pangs. But this reaction should not be dismissed because of this possibility. Instead, considered and attentive responses to the sculpture must inevitably include it, as something irresistibly interwoven, merged with consideration of the sculpture’s coherences and through them given its own more certain, more present character. These coherences begin with the body, attain their independence and return to it, giving us a greater understanding of the body and a form of knowledge and of experience which is near totally distinct from it. A review of an exhibition of Stockwell sculpture at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, in which Leonide was first shown, remarked upon ‘clusters of amazed spectators, shifting from foot to foot to reappraise the complex twist of some gouged out detail, some ingenious join between flat and rounded steel.’ [James Faure Walker, ‘Sculpture from Stockwell Depot’, Artscribe, No. 35, 1982, p55]. Perhaps unconsciously this comment reflects this double movement – recognition of a general state of the body and a movement toward the sculpture as a sculpture, as a physical thing.

As with (though in a very important way very distinct from it) the movement up through the bent leg, the arms twist and rotate. This occurs along and through their whole length, so that transmitted through this length is the stretch the body needs to make to gain and hold its position. The twisting and rotating becomes something like a flow pushing itself from one part onto the next. Around the joints there are often interlockings which are not coincident with the body’s joints but instead loop around them; instead of a demarcation between one part and the next, the force of the meeting of two parts is then extended through both of them and in multiple directions. The sculpture is most comprehensible from close up, where it is possible to follow their thickly physical, flowing and looping parts; the thick bar that curves roughly around from the back to the front of the torso just under where the rib-cage ends, a form partly responding to the curve of the rib-cage, but  more a force that moves through this part of the body, something if not abstract then at least with its own vitality; the twist at the top of the left leg, the rhyme it creates with the thick bar that curves at the bottom of the rib-cage (a spread out version of the interlockings that occur elsewhere); and then the particular forces of both forms, and the way their coincidence multiplies these forces across the sculpture.

Leonide was completed in 1982. It was the outcome of almost two years of exploration and experiment following the ‘impasse’ encountered in the weighty sculpture made by Gili between 1978 and 1980. For Gili Leonide ‘carries all the exuberance and energy… I had experienced in the previous couple of years. I am not sure it answers all the questions I had set myself but I had achieved a translation, a reinvention in steel, a structure that expressed a whole experience unlike any I had been able to do before.’ [Typescript of Gili  lecture at RBS18@108 Steel London 2008]

Though the order of events is complex, at the beginning of these two years there was with an intensification of looking at historical sculptural precedents that had marked Tim Scott’s sculpture  and Tucker’s writing during the seventies. Examples studied included ‘an eighth century Japanese Buddha, an Ionian marble lion, a Scythian reindeer and figures by Rodin, Degas and Matisse’ [Vivien Knight, introduction to Have you seen sculpture from the body?, p10] . At St Martin’s, students worked alongside staff in reinterpreting these sculptures in a variety of different materials. It is a feature of these two years that many of the approaches attempted by Gili and her contemporaries were either borrowed from their teaching or, conversely, were quickly subsumed into their teaching. There is a real sense that what was being attempted was itself a learning experience. The Ionian Lion, which Smart had earlier introduced to his students at St Martin’s in 1978, was extensively analysed and reinvented. Gili herself made a free transcription of Matisse’s Reclining Nude 1  of 1907, working with a life model in the pose of the sculpture. The rolled paper she used could be formed quickly into a variety of structural parts.

What united all the precedents that were studied at this time was their representational content, that they clearly stood for a thing outside of sculpture. This had also been the case with the examples proffered in The Language of Sculpture, and one which Tucker did not shy away from. His text consistently differentiates between a work’s sculptural qualities, its level of abstraction and its relation to the body, attention which serves not to give precedence to one over another but to see how they combine within each sculpture. By 1979 Scott could suggest that ‘sculpture is essentially about the human body’, and that without ‘a positive awareness of the body’ sculpture was liable to become ‘empty, decorative and superficial’. Despite this Scott did not want to give up abstraction, and suggested that ‘sculpture still has to do with the fact of bodily expression being of the essence of the art, whilst not stating it literally as in the past’; that though ‘bodily awareness’ should ‘become more potent and less overlaid by other qualities’ there should not be a ‘return to copying the human form’ [Tim Scott: Skulpturen 1961-1979, Wilhelm Hack Museum exhibition catalogue, 1979, p36]. Even when consistently drawn to past sculptures which took the body as their subject matter, Gili and many of her contemporaries approached it with some trepidation. This nervousness explains the popularity of the Lion as a model and, perhaps, Gili’s attraction to Matisse’s sculpture. In that, whilst clearly a figure, it was one in repose, and so without the connotations that had accrued in the more extensive history of statuary. It is also worth noting that Tucker had emphasised the sculpture’s ‘expressive but quite abstract theme’; ‘an explosive diagonal thrust, in tension with the horizontality and relaxation of the pose.’ [William Tucker, The Language of Sculpture, Thames and Hudson, 1974, p91]. The abandonment of the body was after all the foundational move of abstract sculpture; what could a return to it bring? How could the return not in fact be a return, but instead a progression? And how could sculpture retain the gains of abstraction?

For Gili a response to these sort of questions or a reframing of them was provided by Alan Gouk’s article Proper to Sculpture, published in Artscribe in October 1980 and delivered as a lecture at Wimbledon School of Art ten months earlier. In it Gouk stressed the centrality of the body across the whole history of sculpture. He suggested that what we are seeking here is ‘a principle of relatedness, other than a purely visual one: a sculptural principle of relatedness’. This was to be found not through the pictorial spreading of planar sculpture, with its coincidences of line, edge and angle, an elusive rightness, a found coincidence across space. ‘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’ [Alan Gouk, Proper to Sculpture, Artscribe, No. 25, October 1980, p12]. This was much the same as Scott had suggested the previous year, but Gouk stated the case with greater certainty, and, using a multitude of examples, posited that what was important to all sculpture was the translation of these ‘bodily relationships’ through the medium’s formal and structural capabilities. This confrontation between material and structure could be found equally in both abstract and representational sculpture and so, Gouk suggested, the division between the two was an artificial one.

Following Proper to Sculpture, Gili threw herself fully into working with the body. This was first carried out as a group activity, with one model working with a few sculptors in intense sessions. The model was not used as it had been in traditional life drawing. There the model had been stilled and passive, almost as lifeless as the plaster casts which students also copied from. Instead what was investigated was the body’s potential for movement. It was felt that the body revealed its structure, its capacity for expression only in its dynamism, only within action. This should not be represented at its peak, as an achieved pose, but instead in a way which could ‘imply those movements of which it is the culmination’. Correspondingly, what was truly important was not the surface of the body as it held a pose but the felt, internal sequences of reciprocal strains and relaxations which followed and built upon each other within the body’s movement. Because of these stresses on the body in movement and on the importance of its felt responses, collaboration with models became very important. Gili worked with dancers from the Laban Centre, specifically those who instead of relying on the traditional received poses of life-classes, understood that they needed to be able to demonstrate to Gili how their bodies felt the particular capacities their articulations had. The photograph of Gili pushing the leg of the model Karen Leslie, of feeling her weight against her, is particularly expressive of this relationship.

All the sculptors avoided making drawings based on the models. Instead three-dimensional works were quickly constructed from rolls of paper, as with Gili’s Matisse transcription. Also used were  rolls of clay, preferred to conventional ways of modeling the material as it did not require an armature which would have restricted the spatial invention and spontaneity of the sculptures. Later on during the process Gili and others began to study the human skeleton and anatomical drawings. The aim was to lend clarity to the things they saw in the model, to trace the location of the forces and stresses they observed, to see, as Robert Persey has it ‘beyond appearances’ [Robert Persey, Notes on Katherine Gili’s career]. The sculptures were not intended to be comprehended as visual arrangements, but seen directly as expressions of the forces with which they established themselves in the world.

Of much greater import for Gili’s sculpture than her work with clay or paper was the introduction of forging. She realized that ultimately she wanted to be able to fully work form in three-dimensions, so that each aspect of each part could be fully active across the sculpture. Aquí, her first forging, was also ‘the first sculpture I had made in which I had to consider that the formal elements were both lifting, rotating, putting, accepting and transmitting pressure through the ground and into space.’ [Typescript of Gili lecture at RBS18@108 Steel London 2008].

After completing Leonide, Gili began to work another sculpture, Dendres-Figure II. Based upon the same pose, it too had a two year genesis. Though still a figure that balances on one leg whilst clutching its other leg in both hands, it moves further away from the anatomical equivalence seen in Leonide (though even there it was already treated only as a means, not an end). The distinct parts of Leonide correspond to but extend beyond the members of the body, whereas those of Dendres-Figure II have a greater sense of independence, their own identity. This identity comes from the thicker lumps of steel that push into and away from each other. The move away from something like a correct anatomy was in part motivated by a desire to show successive movements in the sculpture, that flowed fluidly through the sculpture with ‘an expanding feeling, forces existing simultaneously, constantly exerting a tension across space’ [Escultura Nueva: Reino Unido, p55].

The decision to spend another two years making a sculpture on the same pose did not spring from a wish to make a series or to allow the ease of comparison that follows from continuity. Instead, the notes she has made in relation to this period point to the excitement she felt at the sculptural possibilities the body opened up for her, and of the need to confront these possibilities head-on and at full-stretch; and the difficulties and the potential rewards that could follow from this confrontation. The Leonide pose ‘…grabbed me, because it exposed the weakness of my formal thinking, my three dimensional understanding’ [Gili note to author, January 2011]. To turn away from this without fully exploring it does not seem to have been an option;

There was so much to explore – over and over – but not to repeat. There was always more than you could grasp at any one time – more to bring out – more sculptures than just one. It wasn’t a pose – a position – it was a kaleidoscope of physical experiences, every one powerful and spatially expressive. How could one sculpture match it? They were not variations on a theme either, but I kept at it avoiding all distractions! The important thing is to concentrate on it – the physicality of what you are looking at – in order to internalise it. If you abstract from it you lose it and commence a watering down of the sensation. The physicality is itself an abstraction. If you try and find a form for abstraction before you have absorbed what it is you have little chance of re-inventing it sculpturally… You don’t even know when or if or how it may come out again.’ [Gili note to author, January 2011].

Aspen, Gili’s next major sculpture, had an even longer gestation than Leonide or Dendres-Figure II. It continued the type of joints and parts of Dendres-Figure II, but realised as thinner, looser. In its first incarnation, finished in 1985, it moved further away from an obvious part to part identification with the body. In a mark of the ambition which Gili has for her sculpture, she obtained permission to access the large Rodin exhibition held at the Hayward in 1986 in the early morning and directly compare Aspen to his sculptures. She was expecting disappointment, thinking that her sculptures would look fragile alongside the greater solidity and volume of the Rodin’s. However, during extended comparisons between her work and Rodin’s Crouching Woman and Martyr, she believed that Aspen more or less held its own, that the twisting steel was a match for Rodin’s more massive bronzes. The comparison was not entirely favourable, as she felt Aspen lacked specificity, a feeling that resulted in a drastic editing of what had previously been considered a finished sculpture. The result seems to me both more abstract, more complete in itself, and more directly figurative, a powerful evocation of moving through space. A vital connection to Rodin’s sculpture is Aspen’s surging multiplicity, the manner in which none of its parts are at rest, the way in which they push into each other, each separately alive within the general coherence. In this they follow what Rilke described as Rodin’s ‘endless planes’, planes are not actually planes but totally manipulated things, expressing a surface in which all points seem to point outwards.This ‘endlessness’ found in Rodin would become increasingly important to Gili. This would apply, would gain in importance even, as her sculpture became ‘more open, more spatial’ and with ‘less reliance on visual reference to the body’ [Escultura Nueva: Reino Unido, p55].

Away from the figure, towards the body

‘The body has to work its way into space and sustain itself there. I want my sculpture to do the same’ [Gili note to author, January 2011].

Gili’s sculpture of the last twenty or so years has been made out of the public eye, in what Kenworth Moffat called the ‘desert’, with only very limited or occasional exposure in exhibitions. In one sense this is only of art historical interest. Gili has always felt directly and completely responsible for her own work and has never relied upon art world approval. When I mentioned Moffat’s remark to her, the reaction was a mix of bemusement and irritation; what gave a museum director thousands of miles away who was unequipped – perhaps, from his perspective, positively unencumbered – with any in-depth understanding of her sculpture, the right  to attempt to control its course? More striking, and more directly related to Gili’s sculpture and her attitude to it, is her leaving behind of the immediate context that her contemporaries’ ideas and sculptures had formed through the seventies and into the early eighties. This context was significantly different to the wider world, here represented by Moffat, in that it was committed, serious and intense. Through the seventies she both gained from it and significantly contributed to it; by the early eighties with the formation of Sculpture from the Body, a sense of closely developing ideas morphed into an almost communal enterprise. Yet context and communality have now virtually disappeared from her work. Her ever-present sense of personal responsibility has shifted toward an isolated approach to sculpture, one that seems to feed on itself, on Gili’s experience of it, and on her experience in general.

Perhaps, bearing the last paragraph in mind, we could add, in a very limited sense, to the comparison with which this essay began. Though Angouleme is unimaginable from the vantage point of her constructions at Corsham in 1969, they are both clearly and unashamedly personal, even private, carried out for their own sake, only concerned with deepening and expressing Gili’s involvement with sculpture and single-mindedly attempting further definitions of ‘a language of the physical’. Beyond this, the relation between the particularities of her work of the last two and a half decades and the isolated conditions of its creation is perhaps one of mutual reinforcement. Moving away from outside influence, Gili has discovered a world of extraordinary fertility, an ever-expanding realm of plastic and spatial possibilities. The urge to explore this realm has in turn forced her further into herself, further onto her own resources, a movement inward that has led to an extraordinary diversity of physically present things. Though Gili must have imagined this world spreading into and away from her, it only really exists after it has been made. It is these seeming paradoxes (into / away; imagined / made) that account for the excitement of exploring her sculpture, of being moved by what is at root an intensely personal, single-minded exploration.

So what are the particularities of this fertility? How are her sculptures in the world, what is their ‘language of the physical’? I think we could do worse to begin defining this by quoting Leo Steinberg on Rodin (whose sculpture is important to Gili’s fully mature sculpture as González’s was to sculptures such as Jive). Steinberg attempted to re-frame the understanding of Rodin by suggesting he portrayed modern man, glossing his sculpture’s endless planes as one aspect of a complex and diverse attack on the self-contained, complete man central to classical or Renaissance sculpture. In Steinberg’s account the attack came from within and without, on the one hand as a bubbling up of the subconscious and on the other as an imposition of the destabilising influence of modernity, its up-ending of traditional hierarchies and social structures. We do not need to transfer this type of reference to Gili. For one thing she has always worked empirically from one sculpture to the next, building on a previous sculpture’s successes whilst attempting to eliminate its failures; this type of thinking is anathema to her. And anyway, how much this sort of funnelling of broad swathes of history through sculpture is able to illuminate either the funnelled or the funnel is also something of a moot point. Despite these caveats the following descriptions of Rodin seem directly applicable to Gili’s sculpture. In it Steinberg saw ‘firm flesh resolve itself into a symbol of perpetual flux’; ‘the fugitive configuration of a moment’; the ‘energy of liquefaction, in the molten pour of matter as every shape relinquishes its claim to permanence’ [Leo Steinberg, ‘Rodin’, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, University of Chicago, 2007, pp322-403].

We can recognise all of these qualities in Gili’s sculptures, particularly in those such as in Angouleme or in Bitter Joy. Even if we avoid the larger reading Steinberg proposed, we can profitably see that Gili’s sculpture is characterised by this flux, by its restless flowing energy. Leaving aside the question of in what sense or to what extent the body is present in Gili’s sculpture, it is necessary to recognise that through her sculpture Gili has created an image of the world as in flux, as in a constant state of dynamism, of shifting possibilities and unfolding action. Fluidity and flux, the constant striving for new possibilities, is also brought out in the different mediums Gili has used for her sculpture. Forged steel sculpture enabled both resistance and a potential for fluidity or malleability, and most of the new mediums she has introduced extend the second of these terms. This applies to the bronze sculptures she made during the mid-nineties, which were originally modelled in wax, and to those made in Japanese paperclay. The latter in particular lend to the sculptures a compelling fragility.

To detach from this flux would be a betrayal of it. This explains more completely why the plane had to be abandoned. The power of constructed sculpture derived from the plane; the ability the flat surface gave sculpture to be instantly, insistently present, as a thing clarified and presented to our attention, was one which depends for its strength upon its removal from the give and take of space. As we have seen, much of Gili’s sculpture of the seventies made use of this, even as it pushed against ways in which certain approaches to sculpture have exploited it (e.g. Smith’s ideograms, Caro’s pictorialism). Her sculpture of the late seventies sprang from a recognition that the removal of the plane affected was insufficient, its initial shock too brief, its reduction too detrimental to a full spatial experience.

The body here, though it is no longer directly represented, is the place in which this flux is felt, where Gili first experienced it. She has spoken of the ‘infinite possibilities’ the body suggested to her. Looking back to her statement about working with Leonide, the body is for her ‘a kaleidoscope of physical experiences’; to extend the metaphor, the medium through which the physicality of the world can be seen/ felt, and through which this physicality can be continually rearranged, twisted into new and complex structures.
Establishing why the body is not represented when Gili’s work of the last twenty years is founded upon discoveries made within it would entail more space than is available here; the drive toward abstraction in twentieth century art (by far the most important part of the century’s art) is complex and extends far beyond Gili’s own contribution. But what I think we can observe is that by not directly representing the figure Gili suggests an interiority to felt experience. Much traditional figure sculpture depends on the body seen. A sculptor working upon this has a readily definable task; certain things have to be depicted at certain lengths at certain locations. The result is an opacity like the one we observe in those around us, but far removed from the way in which we understand our own bodies, their ‘felt interiors’ (the power of Rodin is that he did both). Looking at Angouleme in Gili’s studio, we had an interesting though difficult discussion about whether she thought she was moving closer to the body or further away from it. We did not come to any firm conclusions but I was left with the feeling that the difference matters intently to Gili and that she finds it hard to differentiate between the two. Viewing the figure from the outside provides certainty, the possibility of direct empathy perhaps; trying to understand it from the inside attempts to build upon sensations that can be more urgent, but whose ever-present nature inures us to them, and which are almost impossible to translate. During the same visit Gili also said she was interested in the ‘vulnerability’ her sculptures had. This seems to me a very acute observation. Vulnerability is a quality which almost inevitably follows from the near impossible path they have to walk in order to create equivalents for feeling outside of the body, the place where feeling both originates and ends.

‘to have access to these conditions one has to discover what they are; one needs a means of entry to the real physical condition of the body in the pose, but the more one approaches this structure-from-within, the less adequate do one’s attempts to determine an equivalent for it begin to seem’  [Alan Gouk, ‘Katherine Gili and Anthony Smart’, Sculpture from Stockwell Depot, 1982, p16].

Sam Cornish 2011