In Pursuit of
Let us for now, imagine that the Sydney School of Sculpture is defined by the sculptors who grew out of the National Art School from around 1970 until the present. This will remain a base line in my thinking and I shall come back to this point often, through future posts, as I peruse widely to unravel what it is that is The Sydney School of Sculpture.
Among SSOS sculptors there is no sculptor who is more respected than Ian McKay. He was a teacher at The National Art School from the mid sixties to the early nineties. Ian loved art. He was a devout scholar of sculpture and he imparted his love with enthusiasm. He would often illustrate by example what it was to be 'inspired', through his engagement with the making of his and student's works. He was a powerful role model and showed the students what it was to be a committed sculptor. Such was his power of persuasion that those who did not abide by his values were deemed less serious.
He had grown up in the bush in South Australia. He was praised by his teachers, (among them, Lyndon Dadswell), as a talented clay and wax modeller. He was awarded a major commission to make a sculpture of The Man from Snowy River while still a student.
Man from Snowy River 1961
Subsequently, Ian mostly carved stone, until Ron Robertson-Swann introduced a new way of making sculpture when he returned from England in 1970. This involved the use of welded steel in the manner favoured by British and American sculptors at that time. Ian rose to the challenge, and produced his best work over the following twenty years.
Ian applied his modelling skills with relish to the new process. Steel could be added and subtracted with almost the same ease with which clay could be added and subtracted to a work. It allowed a very direct way of working without the secondary processes of casting, that the use of clay required. No other sculptor in Australia came close, in pushing and extending the form to its most expressive and developed state.*
I had enormous respect for Ian McKay on the one hand however, I was distrustful of a kind of faith in art that he seemed to encourage. Apart from the teaching of sculpture within the sculpture department which was quite pragmatic and almost empirical in its solution seeking approach, Ian had inherited from East Sydney Tech's painting department, a particular attitude through the teachings of John Passmore and Godfrey Miller. This teaching promoted an idea that art could be sustaining in other ways, outside of art's concerns. Sometimes we can want so much from art to sustain us, that we choke it in the process and inhibit our and art's more natural strengths.The skeptic in me resisted that kind of hope.
Among SSOS sculptors words of criticism or questioning of Ian McKay, to this day, would be viewed as somewhat treasonous, or at the very least, disrespectful.
What gives SSOS its strength is the
strenuous scholarship of sculpture through the ages, also, mainly through Ian and his students, was what ultimately slowed SSOS' potential growth and clear emergence as a singular strong entity. Several SSOS sculptors would argue this was a good thing, to be shielded from the nonsense of exposure.
What I took from Ian's work was a language of muscularity and openness, that did not give way to easy ideas. Ian's approach promoted a timeless art when fashions induced by change addiction stole art from its core ideals. The pressing 'demands' of conceptual art, postmodern art and contemporary art were quite easily backgrounded as a result of this more wholesome challenge provided by Ian and the other teachers at The National Art School.
Ian's work speaks of the landscape, of the open country, and of the impatience with small things.
His work also has an important Australian aspect, an idea which Ian might well have resisted or have any particular singular idea about. I shall explore this in my future clarification and exploration of what it is that is, The Sydney School of Sculpture.
Lady on Horseback 1984 Ian McKay
* As a young sculptor I learnt a lot from Ian, as I did from all my teachers at the school at that time. It was the quality of teaching and level of aspiration that allowed me to be challenged enough to not need to travel elsewhere, to satisfy my own appetite and ambition. Our teachers are models, whether we abide by their teachings or not. We become our models to a degree, and then spend years shedding those skins to establish our own shape.