Much of the sculptural work produced in Glasgow over the past few years is notable for the way in which it both recalls and travesties the formal languages and aesthetic tropes of modernism. In this modus operandi the fragmentary, the oblique and the contingent are favoured over anything obvious or immediate. With little hope of discerning a complete or transparent meaning, the viewer has to come to terms with material juxtapositions and affective associations, and abandon the search for over arching narratives.
Michael Stumpf’s practice certainly seems to fit within this general terrain; the exhibition Glöckchen Whiplash helps clarify the specificity of his apaproach to it. Writing about the Glasgow ‘scene’ in MAP Issue 4, John Calcutt reported that Stumpf ‘experiences Glasgow as an “unfinished” city’, and that amongst his peer group ‘there was a shared perception that it has “awkward” aspects’. If the ‘unfinished’ and ‘awkward’ aspects of the work itself can tentatively be grounded in Glasgow’s urban context, other features are rather more elusive.
Hybridity is a significant feature of the work, in which incongruous forms and heterogenous materials form what look like genetic oddities on modern sculpture’s family tree. Bronze, aluminium, acrylic resin, wood, steel, rocks, fabric, found objects, even a boar’s ear, as well as paint (often in metallic hues) are among its constituent parts.
Some sculptures hang from the ceiling, others inhabit walls and corners; their objecthood never coming too close to the isolation and prestige associated with pedestal-bound sculptural tradition. The heterogeneity of the work extends beyond its eclectic materiality to its art historical character. Modernism is forced to co-exist with Romantic tropes on the one hand and conceptualist linguistic concerns on the other. In ‘Blackened’, 2008, one of a number of pieces which include welded text, sculptural form seems to be literally buckling under the weight of this burden.
For Glöckchen Whiplash Stumpf painted two pieces entitled ‘Afterglow’ on the adjoining walls of the two gallery spaces. These works tweak the informal ‘white cube’ into a fitting setting—at once mythic and quotidian—for the sculptures. Though site-specific and perfectly contemporary, these paintings, which resemble sunsets by Rothko, evokes the Romanticisms of both 19th and 20th centuries. Titles such as ‘The woods are angry dark and deep, is it light where you are yet?’, 2008, (an adaptation of Robert Frost—tellingly ‘angry’ is substituted for ‘lovely’) further this association.
The mood of archaic arboreal menace, indicated by that title and certainly embodied in the piece itself, echoes that found in Friedrich’s quintessential Romantic painting of 1814, ‘Chasseur in the Forest’. The ‘Chasseur’, for all its poetic mystery and sense of disorientation, depicts a historical narrative; Stumpf presents us with something more enigmatic and fragmented, but perhaps equally unsettling.
Academic and critic Duncan Macmillan pinned his negative appraisal of the CCA’s 2005 exhibition Like it Matters (which included Stumpf) on the ‘malign’ influence of Nauman and a flawed reception of Beuys. Though he underestimates the merit of Stumpf’s work, Macmillan provides useful co-ordinates for thinking it through. If one can buy into the perhaps unlikely hybrid of Beuysian alchemy and Nauman’s mordant wit then there is much to enjoy in this artist’s practice.
Dominic Paterson is a lecturer at Glasgow University