Art Chronicles: Barry Flanagan

In my ignorance, I’d never heard of Barry Flanagan before coming across this show of Early Works at Tate Britain; didn’t even know it was on. Since Tate, in its wisdom, had put all its current publicity spend behind the John Martin exhibition in another part of the building, how could I? As it happened, my Northern Line/Victoria Line route got me there in more than good time for a meeting and I went for a wander … Barry Flanagan? What’s that all about then?

I did recognise one of his bronze prancing hares, of course – the work, at least, but not the name. But it wasn’t the hares, fun as they are, that made this, for me, one of the best art shows of the year. One thing I loved was the sense of surprise as I went from room to room – knowing nothing, there had to be surprise of a kind, but not like this. Arranged chronologically, there’s a sense of discovery that comes from tracing, almost, Flanagan’s attempts to find forms of sculpture that move beyond the norm. So, soft materials instead of hard; pieces not on a plinth [though some are] but on the floor; works which invite an element of chance – which invite the spectator – especially at the time, late 60s, early 70s, that some were made – to think if not to say, Sculpture? This isn’t sculpture, surely?

Four pieces of coloured felt strung out on a line. A pile of coloured canvas ‘sausages’ filled with sand. Four hessian blankets neatly folded on top of one another. Teepee-like constructions made from hessian, sticks and string.

All oddly but near-perfectly satisfying as objects to look at – the colour, the way the different elements are placed one against another, the simplicity – all giving pause for thought, consideration: why are they as pleasurable as they are? why/how is this sculpture and why not? Anyone could do it – that old chestnut – and the old reply, why didn’t they, then? And if they had, if they’d tried, would the result have looked like this? Would it, bollocks!

And, my absolute favourite, light on light on sacks from 1969 …

In Tate Britain, the piece is in the furthest corner of quite a large space, a large room, so that you see it as soon as you enter, but not from close to, and what you see is a pile of sacks containing, one might suppose, wheat or grain, and on the side wall above them, an open doorway or window through which light shines from the outside. An illusion, of course. In part, an illusion. The sacks are real, the sacks are there; the light is projected from in front and not behind. And yet, brilliantly and easily, the piece transposes us – part of us, part of our minds, our mind’s eye – even as we know we are standing, feet-firm, inside a gallery in Pimlico – to a barn somewhere in the countryside. Even after we have learned how the trick, if that’s what it is, has been played, we do not resent the way our vision, our mind, has been tweaked; the piece does not lose, I think, its beauty or its power.

As befits a show which sets out to present the early work of an artist testing, feeling his way, there is a wealth of other material here: works in stone, or painted metal, ceramic, bronze and steel – and works on paper, drawings and collage.

Having stumbled on this show of Flanagan’s work by chance, I’ve been back to see it once, and will do so again before it closes on January 2nd. As I’ve suggested, it’s one of the most enjoyable – and stimulating – I’ve been to this year.