Antony Gormley EDGE III 2012 Cast iron 191 x 52 x 27 cm Installation view of ‘HOST’, Galleria Continua, Beijing, China, 2016 Photograph by Oak Taylor Smith © the artist
Vertically challenged: Antony Gormley’s ‘Edge III’ © Oak Taylor-Smith

Antony Gormley has had several incarnations. The maker of the Angel of the North— a 20m high steel angel erected to overlook a Tyneside motorway in 1998 — was first pigeonholed as the archetypal figurative artist who lofted the human form back to the heights from which abstraction and conceptualism had toppled it.

With his middle years came a fascination with bodies in architectural space. In an exhibition at White Cube’s Bermondsey space in 2012, for example, Gormley reinvented his sculptures as boxy constructions whose blank, angular lines and volumes evoked dwellings, factories and even conurbations.

Now, once again, the imagination of Britain’s leading sculptor is on the move. A miniature pearl of a show, entitled Subject, at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge illuminates the asceticism that has subtly kindled his interior world since his youthful interest in Buddhism.

The decision to display just five works — three of which have been made this year — was a gamble. The minimalism pays off, however, thanks partly to a felicitous alchemy between Gormley’s pared-down aesthetic and the ethereal open-plan architecture of Kettle’s Yard’s exhibition space, which reopened this year after a two-year expansion and refurbishment project.

The coup de foudre is “Co-ordinate IV” (2018). This new work consists of three steel bars, each just 6mm in diameter. Two of these, installed just above head height, run the length and width of the whole space to bisect each other — without touching — in the limbo area between the two main galleries. The third extends vertically from the floor to the ceiling of the Sackler gallery creating another criss-cross with its horizontal counterpart.

The curatorial text likens “Co-ordinate” to the strings of a musical instrument. Yet the bars’ encounters also evoke the crosshairs of a rifle: stark, inescapable, optical focal points that draw the eye upward, in the case of the one above our heads, and inward in the eye-level iteration in the Sackler gallery.

This latter dovetails powerfully with the notion that “Co-ordinate” is a lonely, three-dimensional expression of that key protagonist of Modernist abstract painting: the grid. Famously described by art historian Rosalind Krauss as the “will to silence”, the grid is commonly read as a way for artists, from Kazimir Malevich to Agnes Martin, to cage emotion and narrative behind the mute, unyielding bars of non-objectivity.

So what does it mean when the grid is yoked into service by the sculptor who is commonly seen as contemporary art’s most committed humanist? The answer is that Gormley’s figures are wrapped in a seductively mysterious opacity.

Nowhere is this truer than with the Sackler gallery’s only resident. Inspiring the name of the exhibition, “Subject” (2018) is a solitary fellow constructed out of a transparent steel mesh. Poised on the edge of the short side of the L-shaped room, with his back to the main space as if about to depart through the tall, narrow window in front of him, his bowed head and forbidding demeanour are at odds with the fluid, luminous transparency of his metallic weave. A man on the threshold, transient, Beckettian in his solitude, oscillating between toughness and vulnerability, from a distance his tremulous linearity conjures the glyph of a question mark.

That Gormley is travelling an increasingly mystical road is declared more overtly by the occupant of the other main space, Gallery 2. Here we find “Edge III” (2012), another life-size sculpture of a male in cast iron. Coming in at 630kg, with its gritty carapace evoking decades of bleak, industrial back story, the figure exudes heaviness from every rusty, neglected pore. Yet it appears to levitate. Attached only by the soles of its feet to the wall, it juts horizontally into the empty space several inches above the floor.

The text tells us that “Edge” undermines “our assurance about the stability of the world”. But many visitors will find its gravity-defying powers reassuring. If this Leviathan can float, surely there’s hope for us all.

The pilgrimage through lightness continues on the mezzanine floor. Here we find “Slip I” (2007), a human body made from a matrix of fine steel rods that map the meridians of the globe. The figure is enclosed within a larger version of itself yet remains unattached to its casing, so, suspended as it is above the Clore Learning Studio — we look at it from a raised balcony — it appears to be in total freefall, its open weave inviting light and space to pour through it from every direction.

These flirtations with infinity and immortality flower in full abstract glory on the top floor. With the self-explanatory title, “Infinite Cube II” (2018), this three-dimensional geometry of mirrored glass encloses a copper-wire grid strung with 1,000 LED lights. The only source of light in the room, its interior pathways appear endless in their radiant, replicating trajectories.

At a time when our world has rarely felt more bleakly anchored, Gormley’s evanescent, cosmic journey is wonderfully welcome. Yet spare a moment to watch the documentary about his practice upstairs in the Ede Room. Here, he talks about the claustrophobia he suffered as a child when obliged to rest with closed eyes in a darkened room every afternoon. In that trauma, he says, the seeds of his full body casts were born. The exalted hymn that is Subject was born from a silent scream.

To August 27, kettlesyard.co.uk

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