Bonez & bronze

Room after room of rough totems, thick cartouches and half-buried sarcophagi. Imagine yourself an archaeologist in dream-land, and you’re half-way to immersing yourself in the work of Hans Josephsohn. The experience is not far from being buried alive.

Josephsohn’s half-century of work has brought us the newly-opened and powerful retrospective in Modern Art Oxford. It has much in common with the continental projects of interwar artists. Stressed hieratic figures, dislocated expressive bodies – there are even benign parallels here with Epstein and Moore’s Primitivist and Surrealist figures. But under the surface there’s something dark here too – something older, lost under the weight of repetition.

Bronzes cast from plaster, they retain their surface impurities, and even the tactile traces of the artists’ hands. Yet while many a sculptor will claim to uncover a form latent in their material, Josephsohn seems to be constantly losing hold of it – as if trying to claw away the mud from a drowning man. Over and over again he returns to “timeless” themes – reclining nudes, portrait busts, symbolic reliefs – but they return like the haunting, lithified figures of Pompeii.

The artist emerged in the early ‘60s – an echo of art informel – and became truly saleable in the ‘90s when abjection, Formlessness and Base Materialism were in vogue. These were dark, scatological and provocative moments – when artists questioned the elevating function of art, debased its hierarchies and embraced the horrifyingly mundane and true aspects of our lives as material animals. All this is found in Josephsohn – figures dissolve into the matter that spawned them, reliefs blend into the support they emerge from, barely readable busts stand like excrement on a plinth. This is an artist who embraces a loss of agency, a reduction of the virtual back into the material, a wounding rather than a mark-making.

We can smile at MOA’s display practice – metal excrescences “elevated” on pedestals, the need to hang explanatory studies to prove these unruly sculptures’ provenance in the mind of an artist in full “authoritative command” of his material. But perhaps there is, after all, something of the unrequited Formalist about an artist who argued: “Sculpture is not life. Sculpture creates its own language that runs parallel to life”. His challenge, however, is to what constitutes “life”.

When he states that sculpture instead “takes up the elements of life”, it is a life returned to us in ruin. His reliefs seem to have evolved over decades of erosion into deeply cragged slabs where figures and objects are like so many buried hieroglyphs, worn down into a broken architecture. The spaces between signs reduced to the weathered, mortarless gaps between the bricks of a crumbling wall. Heads hang without faces, like shadows in bronze.

The viewer longs to uncover these figures, as if they could brush away the caked metal, but the sculpture’s language is entombed in its own bronze. If “Sculpture is not life” then it is fit to reflect on death.