Preface by Elizabeth A. Brown

Anticlea. Didyma. Selenga. Inanna. Clonakilty. Names such as these are redolent of deep history. They evoke mysterious happenings at sacred sites, traditions of spirituality and creativity harkening back through countless generations. Julie Speidel frequently titles her sculptures after ancient sites in Ireland, Africa, Central America, and the Mediterranean basin. A few of her references come from Greek mythology, such as Anticlea or Persephone. World travelers will recognize place names such as Ankara (Turkey) and Copan (Honduras). Most of the other names Speidel employs are too obscure to find definitions in the Columbia World Encyclopedia. Even when we recognize them, these referents penetrate into the realms of the unknown: whether ancient Celtic, oral-tradition Greek, or classic Mayan, the civilizations they call up flourished before writing or otherwise lack a written history.

Archaic themes/contemporary practice. The ancient names and primeval references in no way disguise the modernity of the work. Speidel’s formal vocabulary is pure 20th century. Gone is any pre-modern notion of rules or modes. Her metal sculptures, for example, might be intensely colored, with saturated reds or blues that seem distinctly contemporary as often as they bear classic patinas. Rather than traditional carving or casting, her preferred process is fabrication: cutting and joining sheets of bronze into shapely hollow volumes. As Speidel’s work demonstrates, the rules of sculpture have evolved. Following the innovations of Brancusi, Constructivism, and Surrealism, we have nearly as many ways to make sculpture as there are artists using them: welding, installation, fabrication by spec, selection and re-definition, assemblage, and so on. These and other new approaches have joined the ranks of traditional object production. The history of 20th-century sculpture finds three-dimensional form variously:

  • taking shape organically or by systematic unfolding of a preordained process
  • in components and their recombination or the reduction to elemental form
  • vertical or hugging the ground or cantilevered into space
  • proclaiming “truth to materials”or fabricated ingeniously disregarding the limitations of given substances
  • quoting and commenting on earlier art or seeking a totally novel, a-historical approach to production.

Equipped with this freedom, Speidel doesn’t follow any one school or tendency. Her art partakes of a rich, variegated style informed by the masters of 20th-century sculpture. Certain details and recurrent motifs recall Julio Gonzalez, Henry Moore, David Smith; compositional energies evoke Hans Arp, Isamu Noguchi, and Eduardo Chillida. Like many of these masters, Speidel’s work flirts with figuration, following the vertical orientation common to traditional statuary, architectural components, and the normative presentation of people’s bodies. Occasionally her titles conjure specific representations, such as Silent Witnesses (2000) or Nod to Xian (2002). In the latter, a helmet head and yoke-shaped shoulders allude to the fierce postures of the terra-cotta warriors discovered in endless rows in the tombs of Xi’an. The rest of the form, an attenuated “H,”also seems specifically Chinese, reminiscent of gates in Asian house architecture.

Most of Speidel’s work retains this iconic verticality. Some of her sculptures comprise multiple parts, allowing them to extend horizontally, but the only purely horizontal works are benches, a functional form Speidel has treated with considerable variety. Compare, for example, the weathered quality of the modeling in the John Henry Hauberg Memorial (2002)—carved with attractive hollows that seem the result of erosion—to the rhythmic, playful scalloping of Taihu(2004) or the simple plank-like gesture of Kuga, also 2004.

These elements—working process, formal vocabulary and its engagement with established precedents, and the associations and allusions conjured by titles—complement the artist’s words or the critical response of any single viewer. They provide consistent means to evaluate the work of artists in the world, to gauge the relationship of new production to known objects and to test new ideas against established interpretations. For sculpture in particular, one additional factor is particularly revelatory: the way it is reproduced. Sculpture is notoriously difficult to photograph. Thus, when artists choose or sanction certain images, those pictures frequently reveal specific qualities important to them. A photograph represents a single point of view, certain lighting, a particular background or the decision to eliminate surroundings with photographic seamless paper. No photograph can record everything significant about a work of art, but good photographs can tell you something that you might not see on your own.

Interpreting photographs of sculpture conjures up its own list of significant precedents. The emblematic figure is Brancusi. Rodin, Giacometti, Picasso, Moore, and other sculptors exercised controls over how they and their works were represented. Like the photographs preferred by these modern masters, the detail images that introduce this monograph provide meaningful insights into Julie Speidel’s sculpture. They bring you, the viewer, in close for a personal relationship with the objects. The details reveal nuances of surface and finish that reward careful exploration. And they frame the personable, almost personified interaction between internal details, the ways relationships are created between component parts of the sculpture. Furthermore, sensitively chosen as they are, they draw attention to the ways illumination caresses or skips over parts, precisely delineating one angled face from another and thereby precisely articulating the transitions between elements.

By bringing you in closer, the details approximate aspects of the viewer’s experience with the original sculpture. Thus the cover image, Boscarrick (2002) draws attention to the ways parts of the work interact. Near the heart of the sculpture, quasi-geometric forms arrayed along two horizontal bands flirt with adjacent elements, seeming to reach down or strain up towards the other. The frontispiece, a detail of Tyanna (1995), emphasizes different qualities. The smooth and dense whiteness of the marble and the piling up of forms creates a sort of voluptuousness — particularly the insistent forward-moving bar that seems to nudge the armpit at the right. The bulging roundness of the forms, the way they diverge from rectilinear as if over-stuffed, evokes recent stitched and stuffed pieces by Louise Bourgeois. A third detail, peering into the heart of Inanna(2000), demonstrates the rich associations of color as well as the distinct texture of painted bronze, crystallizing the whip-fast turns and curves at the center of the sculpture. It explains something of its construction but even more it encourages further experience, creating and extending your desire for the original object. Welcome as the first comprehensive publication on Julie Speidel’s sculpture, this catalogue whets your appetite for the real thing.

— Elizabeth A. Brown