Exhibition: War Toys by Steve Hurst
War Toys, Steve Hurst’s exhibition of sculpture; assemblages, carvings and castings, hits the head and the guts simultaneously.
It is particularly right during this period of the shameful official ‘commemorations’ of World War One.
Hurst rightly shuns the label ‘war artist’ as this suggests a chronicler rather than something deeper.
But the subject matter that has pre-occupied him for many years as a teacher and exhibiting sculptor has been war and its catastrophic effects on people, particularly those forced into it – soldiers.
This show covers WW1, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan – all with the linking feel of the futility and pity of war, yet with empowerment for the viewer.
He achieves that rare thing, presenting neither imagery so horrific that we switch off in emotional defence, nor throwing polemic at the viewer hoping some of it sticks.
Instead he gets at a truth worked up by many of the 20th century expressionist painters, a heightened take on life through vivid beauty, colour tension and an evident joy in materials.
Just as George Grosz and Emile Nolde showed us their interior and exterior worlds through the materiality of paint, Hurst brings us work with love and sympathy for his materials, with ‘a physical paradox to the speed at which these situations can escalate fuelled by aggression and arrogance...’ and, I might add, the throwing away of so much human life.
The subject matter is never aestheticised and it presents no contradiction in us to enjoy the beauty of many of these works, yet feel outraged by the wars that caused the artist to find forms against them. They feel dug out of his outrage, yet crafted by his sensibilities. In this sense the work belongs in the tradition of Picasso’s Guernica in its humanity and the sculptures of Keinholtz in their craft.
Some of the works are, as the title of the show suggests, Toys and here the playfulness is juxtaposed with the horrors they can inflict when ‘grown up’ making the pieces subversive.
There are links between sex and war too. Eriskigal, a sculpture of fleshy female form with metal military wings brutally lashed to her body, a steel shell splicing it, reminds us simultaneously that women can also be complicit in war making as well as suffering its effects. This is honest stuff.
One of the more comically figurative pieces is Scarlet Major, an apoplectic officer playing with soldiers’ lives and knowing that his own absurdly revealed balls will not be shot off.
This is a fine piece of creative satire, given its edge by the large sombre work in the centre of the room; Human Connections, a jumble of ruined books and other detritus, out of which pokes human remains in an open tomb.
Unlike the National Portrait Gallery’s recent Portraits of the Great War, which was largely top down in its ‘celebration’ of those that made and directed that war, here, we have something that occurs inside us, that can change us by looking – from the ‘feel’ of warm gentle wood working with abrasive metals as a metaphor for flesh against metal to the sense of playfulness in the artist.
For in reducing war to its banality rather than its ‘glory’ surely empowers us to resist the warmongers. But it’s not banal art – its strength and energy invigorates.
Steve Hurst's War Toys runs until 23 August at the Pangolin Gallery, Kings Place, 90 York Way London N1 9AG
Source: No Glory in War