Sculpture supports Ideas forum

2015 Company of Ideas Forum

May 15 to 17, 2015

Jeffrey Rubinoff Sculpture Park

Hornby Island

By Annabel Howard

Five University of Victoria Fine Arts faculty members and five Fine Arts graduate students participated in Hornby Island sculptor Jeffrey Rubinoff’s 2015 Company of Ideas forum. Rubinoff is a practising sculptor who has spent the last 40 years cultivating and curating a sculpture park of more than 100 of his own pieces on the west shore of Hornby Island. A Modernist in the tradition of David Smith, Rubinoff retreated to Hornby Island in the 1970s to escape from what he saw as the strangulating force of the art market. There he began to engage instead in a dialogue with his artistic predecessors. In several of his articles, Rubinoff writes that the creative process has led him to “insights” that have “evolved with and from the sculpture work.”

In the early 2000s, Jeffrey Rubinoff’s daughter suggested that the insights would be of interest to a broader audience. After working them into transcripts with future curator Karun Koenig, Rubinoff decided to host a symposium for further discussion and development. The first Company of Ideas was held in 2008, and its success has led an annual staging of the forum, which continues to evolve with each year’s discussions. At each forum, scholars and artists from around the world are invited to present and contribute to the discussion. This year proceedings were chaired by cultural historian and former Cambridge fellow Maria Tippet. Dr. Tippett is the author of a dozen books including Emily Carr, A Biography, for which she won the Governor General’s Award in 1979, as well as books on artists Bill Reid, and F.H. Varley.

Dr. Tippett introduced Jeffrey Rubinoff and gave a biographical account of his life. She also spelled out the discussion themes for the forum with reference to his work and its relationship to the development of sculpture in Canada. The opening dialogue was delivered by Dr. Peter Clarke, now retired as professor of modern British History and master of Trinity College, Cambridge, who gave further context with an analysis of, and introduction to, Jeffrey Rubinoff’s ideas. Subsequent presentations were delivered by Linda Goddard and Alistair Rider, both art historians at the University of St Andrews, Fife, Scotland, Christopher Butterfield of UVic’s School of Music, and Photograhper Sergei Petrov, who was raised and educated in Russia but now lives on Pender Island.

Linda Goddard addressed the creative tension between artists and writers. She argued that:

“We should consider artists’ writings not as supplementary to their visual practice, nor as a subset of an existing literary genre (be it criticism, theory or fiction), but as a category with its own – not yet fully explored – pressures and conventions.”

Her proposition extended to the way in which observers understand artists’ writings. If we read them as explanations of works of art, or even as keys for understanding, we place a limit on interpretation. Instead of seeking meaning, we should instead question why many artists’ texts tend towards aphorism and even, sometimes, deliberate obfuscation. Goddard suggested that this style of writing was (and continues to be) a response to the development and institutionalization of  “the art critic,” which began at the same time as the first great proliferation of artists’ writings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Visual artists, Goddard suggests, use words as a complementary avenue for reclaiming meaning, or at least ambiguity, for their work. Certainly this approach made it easier to understand Jeffrey Rubinoff’s aphorisms, the most often-quoted of which states: “Art is an act of will in accord with a mature conscience.”

The second dialogue, given by Alaistair Rider, situated Rubinoff’s work within the tradition of Modernist sculpture. Rider reviewed Rubinoff’s work, which is predominantly abstract and exclusively made from steel. He analysed how Rubinoff’s sculpture relates to the environment, and showed images of some of the first Modern works removed from the studio and placed in the landscape. He referred to pieces by Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, and David Smith. The talk turned, through the relationship of the work and its environment, to  “counterpoint” – a musical term that refers to the relationship between independent yet harmonic voices. This brought the symposium to the third presentation, delivered by composer Christopher Butterfield on the subject of counterpoint itself, as well as the relationship that does or does not exist between music and sculpture. A suggestion was put forward that music and sculpture are more closely connected than sculpture and painting, because both possess plastic properties – spatial and physical characteristics that endure through time. Jeffrey Rubinoff suggested that although there are similarities, the visual arts are distinct from theatre, literature, and music because they are the only forms that can exist outside time.

The weekend’s final presentation,  delivered by Sergei Petrov, addressed the issues surrounding the photography of sculpture. In Petrov’s view, all sculpture photography should be perceived – especially by its creator – as a predestined failure. He takes this position because, in his view, sculptural photography should never aim to be art work in its own right, but only a summary presentation of the information held within the work of art. Because sculptural information is retained in three-dimensional space, a photograph – a two dimensional form – can never hope to present an accurate representation. It will, therefore, ultimately fail. One of the delegates protested that this view presented a somewhat Platonic notion of the sculptural photograph, one that suggests a single, valid way of looking. This comment neatly summed up a theme that had run throughout the talks – that to place boundaries around the work of art, whether it be the artist’s writing, the way sculpture relates to nature or music, or the way it should be captured in a photograph is, by definition, to limit its cultural resonance and the means by which it can be understood.

Annabel Howard is an art historian and critic.