On the surface of things – David Begbie

On the surface of things – David Begbie

News – 5 April 2017

‘On the Surface of Things’ is a catalogue foreword written for Cutting Edge, a retrospective exhibition of British sculptor David Begbie MRBS. Celebrating 30 years of sculpture and drawing by the artist, the exhibition will be on display at ContiniArtUK from the 26th April – 31st May 2017, a hardcover catalogue will be published for the occasion. Text written by Assistant Curator Josh Rowell.

On discussing a small number of emerging artists in 1987, exactly 30 years prior to the opening of this exhibition, the British art critic and writer John Russell Taylor wrote an article in the arts section of the Times titled the ‘Shape of Things to Come’. Speaking about David Begbie’s practice, John Russell Taylor stated, “His works are so deliberately light, transparent, illusionistic, that psychologically they are almost not there.” Now, three decades on, it is safe to assume that Begbie’s sculptures most certainly are here as ‘Cutting Edge’ looks to celebrate the artist’s achievements and illustrious career to date.

Since graduating from the Slade School of Fine Art in the early 80’s, David Begbie has garnered the reputation as the leading figure of the wire mesh sculpting movement. Choosing to work almost exclusively with the human form, Begbie’s meticulously crafted figures capture a level of detail that has been compared to the likes of Michelangelo and Rodin. A true master of his craft, Begbie is able to manipulate wire mesh to his will; working the metal until it eventually appears as perfectly formed and tactile as the skin of the human body. He is able to seamlessly match the complexities of the nude form, whilst simultaneously experimenting with scale. Figures switch from life-size, to much larger or smaller, without ever losing any of the intricate detailing he has become so well known for.

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His work exists at the interplay of sculpture and light; whilst wire mesh has become the physical medium through which the artist creates his forms, light operates to give them enhanced energy, movement and depth. With the majority of Begbie’s figures suspended around a foot from the wall, the use of spot lighting casts fascinating shadows behind them that operate to show off the intricate detailing captured in the manipulated wire mesh, whilst at the same time giving a sense of volume and depth that the artworks so powerfully command.

For Begbie, material is everything. The membrane-like wire mesh sheets that he uses provide the surface of the work; a well constructed exterior that has a far deeper resonance with the artist than that of mere appearance. What is of particular interest is the link that Begbie makes between music and the material that he adopts. He talks of the “universal language” of music, indeed the laws of melody and rhythms are the same, the world over, and find direct correlation between the function of music and that of the wire mesh. The mesh itself is, in essence, a grid of strings; for the artist they are reminiscent of the strings used in instruments. David Begbie talks of the way in which the mesh surfaces function as “optical vibrations”; in the way that music travels through sound waves, David Begbie’s works present a visual form of vibration. Oscillations and frequencies that make up the surface of the mesh bodies can now be understood as physical manifestations of the intangible world of vibrations.

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In his article John Russell Taylor postulated on what exactly the ‘shape of things to come’ could be, in reality what did come was the emergence of an entirely new form of sculpture, pioneered by Begbie himself. Now adopted by artists from around the world, the art of wire mesh sculpting has become somewhat of a phenomenon in recent years. As the first artist to develop this technique David Begbie had no idea of just how much traction it would gain; but instead of feeling intimidated by this rapid development, the artist states he is “honoured” to be a forefather of this artistic movement.

‘Cutting Edge’ can be understood as a retrospective of sorts, or perhaps more aptly as a celebration of the artist’s ongoing body of work from the 80’s to the current day. Having exhibited internationally throughout his artistic career, David Begbie will, for the first time, present the viewer with an exhibition that clearly shows the development of his practice over an extended period of time. We see a distinct stylistic shift between early works, such as Figure & Apparatus (1987) and Male Nude (1988), to those of today, such as XPOSE 2 (2012) and Tu (2015). Early sculptures have been made with a much freer hand; a clear appreciation for the expressionists can be seen in these works. The proportions of the body are, in places, enhanced and distorted, yet never beyond recognition. They are reminiscent of the poetic sketches of Egon Schiele, an artist whose fixation with the human form is shared in equal measure by Begbie, yet the sculptures dwell beyond the page, commanding a three dimensional existence. In contrast to these loose, stylistic explorations into the nude form, we see Begbie’s practice becoming increasingly refined as time passes. The works of recent years are finished to an almost hyper-real level of sophistication. The sculptures appear as perfectly formed and tactile as that of a real body, they are proportionally immaculate, and reminiscent of the super-slick, technology and machine driven society we live in today.


Tu, 2015

Historically, preoccupation with the human figure was considered the ultimate form of art; to capture a true likeness has oft been the goal of great masters over the centuries. Yet recent years has seen the art world move away from a figurative fixation into a postmodern time of digital screens, abstract happenings and random placements of inanimate objects. Despite this obvious shift within the contemporary art setting, David Begbie has unfalteringly stuck to corporeal representation in an act of defiance. For Begbie art is about “breaking the rules”, and at a time when most artists turned away from a representational form of practice, Begbie saw true a rebellion in continuing to reside in this field of art production.

The title ‘Cutting Edge’ has a dual meaning. Begbie’s process begins with making carefully calculated cuts through the wire mesh sheets, but the title also alludes to Begbie’s position at the forefront of the wire mesh sculpting movement. The exhibition is testament to the artist’s continued success in spite of the ever-changing face of the art world. Thirty years ago, John Russell Taylor chose the sculpture Restlers (1987) as the feature image for his aforementioned article in the Times, three decades on the very same work now hangs in ‘Cutting Edge’, symbolising the origin of the artist’s fascinating journey.

Discover more about David Begbie click here