Sculptural Cut-Outs

By Paul McGillick, Sculptural Cut-Outs, InDesign, Issue 17, 2004
Michael Snape is one of Australia's most prominent and distinctive sculptors. Some years ago, his public sculptures began to open up and become a part of the landscape – not just by being placed in the landscape, but also because of the way the landscape could be seen through the sculptures.

Given Snape's very unfashionable interest in the human figure, it now looks like a natural progression for these transparent sculptures to evolve into cut-out steel screens beginning with Pictures at an Exhibition, a series of screens at Graduate House at the Australian National University in 1998. These form a kind of shadow play in which the eye sometimes sees the screen as a progression of animated figures and sometimes as a rhythmic sequence of abstract shapes lit from behind.

Snape had re-discovered the frieze. But unlike the traditional frieze which decorated the upper part of a building, Snape's ANU frieze is a series of graphic, flat steel tableaux vivants rather than a modelled stone relief. It is removed from the entablature and relieved of its purely decorative function. These screens are functional as well as decorative, filling the brick bays of a garden arcade, screening the inside from the outside.

At the Yellow House, Snape has continued his exploration of cut-out steel screens, using them to enclose four extruding balconies. The Yellow House in Sydney’s Kings Cross was made famous from 1970 to 1972 when artist, Martin Sharp, transformed two semi-derelict terrace houses into an experimental art space. Recently, developer, Phillip Bartlett, has restored and refurbished the building with a mix of apartments, a restaurant and an art gallery. Incorporation of art works was part of the consent for the building which also has Matthew Johnson screens on the rear façade. Bartlett commissioned Snape, and the two collaborated closely on both the design and the manufacture of the screens. Snape says that Bartlett "opened" him up and "extended" him, challenging the early concepts and later suggesting water jet cutting of the steel rather than the less subtle oxy-acetelene torch.

The tracery of figures in the four screens making up Snape's Aquarius (2003) are expressions of the elements of earth, air, fire and water. They have a libertarian joie de vivre, recalling the ambience of the original Yellow House and its era. The screens also respond to the physical context of Macleay Street, their filigree quality picking up on the Parisian feel of the street with its light-dappled Plane trees.

In the plaza of the Cox Richardson-designed apartment complex, Quadrant Off Broadway, Snape's frieze-screen finally becomes free-standing. Like his other screens, the four metre high Coming Down the Creek in Good Time (2003) mediates its physical context by its transparency, but is especially challenging on the eye because Snape's graphic tracery here is engaged by the louvred facades and general orthogonality of the surrounding buildings.

All that remains of the early 20th century brick warehouses which previously occupied the site (apart from facades on to Broadway), is the DDB building which forms the northern wing of the quadrant-shaped complex. But Snape's sculpture references the indigenous Gadigal nation who once lived in the area. His figures distil both the physical insoucience of Aboriginals and their apparent cultural informality – the group is ambling down to the harbour for a spot of fishing – as a contrast to the intensity and impersonality of inner city apartment living. The screen is curved away from the main entry to embrace the three apartment buildings on an axis with the water feature. The screen is not entirely flat, but subtly modelled with limbs moving in and out of the two-dimensional frame. Adult figures are stable vertical elements, linked and animated by playful child figures forming a tracery of figurative/abstract imagery which acts as a metaphor for the collective ethos of the Gadigal people. At the same time, the rhythm and movement of the sculpture is a first step towards animating the plaza. For Snape, the development of screen sculptures has been a response to the intense Australian light, especially in urban areas. "In these light conditions," he says, "the building often needs another membrane to break down the light." The buildings and constructed spaces which comprise the urban landscape are filtered through the trace-work of Snape's sculptures creating the conditions for a genuine interaction between the viewer and his physical context.

Similarly, Snape's use of the figure is an assertion of the human dimension in an urban context which has become increasingly sterile and monumental. Dwarfed by massive buildings and alienating public spaces, Snape's rumbustious groups of linked figures help us to remain centred in our humanity. Other post- War artists have explored figurative sculpture, but they have been either hyper-realist (as with George Segal's ubiquitous public sculptures) or cartoon-like (much favoured by public art programmes). In both cases, the work denies its own materiality and is reduced to whimsy and caricature.

Michael Snape's screen-friezes, however, celebrate their own material nature of cut out steel. They genuinely engage and challenge the way we perceive our physical and cultural space. As sculptures they are neither separate from nor at one with their context. Instead, they occupy a transitional space, mediating between the observer and the observed, and engendering a heightened awareness of our own human physical form in relation to its surrounding space.