Flat out for a good shape
Sculpture increasingly struggles for a place in the modern art room. As far back as 1939, Arturo Martini proclaimed in a cri de coeur that sculpture had become a "dead language". Ofsted reports over the past 10 years have commented on the Cinderella status of 3-D work in schools.
Constraints of space and cost of materials have exacerbated this and recent reforms haven't helped. The short, sharp modules of the current A-level syllabus militate against time-consuming, process-heavy media and ambitions of scale, and when the "realised" piece only counts for a small fraction of the total mark at GCSE and A-Level, the mark-savvy student will inevitably undertake the course of least resistance. All in all, the two-dimensional realm is now seen as the safer haven in the quest for quantity over quality.
A useful way of painlessly bridging this gap and acclimatising younger students in particular to the concepts involved in sculptural work is to use artists like Allen Jones, Gabo and Picasso as jumping-off points. In various ways, these artists use flat planes which are cut, twisted or slotted to play with negative space and unexpected rhythms. Bill Woodrow's extraordinary transformations of sheet-metal white goods are also a good hook.
With this approach as a starting point, simple card and scissors suffice for the creation of maquettes. I have used this technique as an extension task with key stage 3 painting exercises to stretch students to think in three dimensions after successfully addressing the dynamics of two-dimensional composition.
To avoid students being distracted by figuration, I based one such project on Kandinsky and his form of mood abstraction; with geometric and freehand motifs to play with, the project presents an ideally neutral starting point. Looking at the kind of symbols based on musical form that Kandinsky regularly employed, students brainstormed their own vocabulary of abstract symbols, creating a box chart of non-figurative motifs to express adjectives such as loud, quiet, fast, slow, light, heavy, hot, cold and so on.
After discussing what makes an arrangement dynamic within a picture space, my Year 8 students set about composing an abstract painting using their personal iconography, exploring golden-section divisions, linear and aerial perspective, "rhyming" shapes, advancing and receding colour and the rendering of chromatic values in paint.
On completion, we looked at artists who use slotting and planar forms, and students duplicated details of their paintings onto thin card. These were then cut out, slotted and assembled with students being encouraged to take account of all viewpoints.
At this stage, they shifted to a sculptural mindset, becoming aware of the need for a sense of balance and celebrating unexpected juxtapositions of positive and negative space and ambiguity between painted surface detail, rendered tone and real cast shadow. As maquettes, these were photographed and displayed with their paintings but, had they needed to be kept, the slotting format allowed for flat storage.
* www.artcyclopedia.comartists gabo_naum.html
Tom Hardy is head of art at North London Collegiate Girls' School