Solid investment

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 September, 2008, 12:00am

Sculpture has always been an effective way for a company, city or institution to give their surrounding space a touch of class. But now it's private buyers who are counting on them to give their gardens a creative dimension.

Steve Dilworth, who has produced sculpture for Scotia Pharmaceuticals and Dundee Council, works with private clients with a taste for his haunting, sometimes uncomfortable, art.

His black granite hand, Claw, may be at home in the artistic surroundings of Goodwood Sculpture Park in Sussex, England, but it would take a strong character to install some of his gothic pieces.

Not only does his bony Cat and the Rat sculpture (right) look eerie but the story behind it is morbid: it was cast from a cat that died more than 100 years ago after eating poisoned rats.

The Scottish sculptor says: 'I recognise that some people might find some of the things I've made a little difficult but I don't think there is any point in deliberately setting out to upset anyone.'

Although some of his works are cast from porpoise carcasses or covered in animal fat, he is just one of many sculptors catering to a growing demand from private clients.

His huge rippling Shell, which evokes the protective qualities of love, was recently commissioned by a German collector who took to its inviting multilayered cocoon.

'He has a number of my works already in his collection and the way it evolved was through conversation, scale and place,' Dilworth says. 'It took about three months before going to the foundry and cost #30,000 [HK$412,000] in total.'

With such high prices it may come as a surprise that these sculptors are being pursued by private clients wanting works for their homes. However, sculptor Billy Lee, who is based in the US and has work displayed in the Shanghai Sculpture Park and the Yuzi Paradise Sculpture Park in Guilin, says: 'It's the clients who usually approach me because they like what I do.'

Commissioning a piece is a collaborative process.

'The client and I get to know each other and if we gel I am shown their space or their collection to understand what would work for them,' he says.

Lee then factors in the size of the sculpture he will create and the cost. 'My small bronzes start from #1,500 and these are about 20cm high,' he says.

Many of Lee's works have an accessible appeal: Reach, in Shanghai Sculpture Park, is a simple bust at first glance but its positioning at one end of a granite bench speaks, he says, of the need for companionship in our anonymous world. Eos, in the Chin Pao San Memorial Rose Garden in Taipei, is loftier - a huge head sitting on circles that is featureless yet manages to be both noble and human.

Because the works commissioned can be expensive, the consultation may take time, needing constant contact between client and artist.

'I work with clients very closely, from the positioning and the placement of the work through to installation,' Lee says.

The kinds of work in demand include sculpture created with techniques less than traditional. Not all sculpture will complement a home environment, however. Very large works, for example, are not always a good idea.

'Scale is important but bigger isn't necessarily better,' Lee says. 'The size and feel of the sculpture depends on the client and where the proposed sculpture is to be placed.'

Most sculptors are acutely aware that even if a piece is technically brilliant it can still completely ruin a garden if it isn't sympathetic to the existing space. After all, the point of this kind of high-profile decoration is to enhance, not overpower. Lee says: 'It's important to assess how the sculpture will complement and activate the client's space.'

Different considerations are also needed for works to be placed outside or indoors. For external sculpture, age-old materials of bronze and stone are generally preferred. However, many contemporary sculptors are experimenting with new and, in some cases, unlikely materials.

British-based Simon Hitchens works with clear resin for modernist crystalline creations.

'Producing a piece for a private client can take two to six months and three months of that can be spent waiting for the right material - usually stone or granite - to be delivered,' he says. 'On average it takes about four months to complete a piece and costs start at about #4,000 and go up to about #25,000.'

Wales-based Ivan Black, on the other hand, began his career manipulating copper wire and is now experimenting with stainless steel. Such is the popularity of Black's designs that when he brought out a limited-edition sculpture called Chain Reaction Mobile, which was priced at #60 at specialist galleries and on websites, it sold out.

Although both sculptors work with private commissions, they are loath to reveal much about their individual clients.

Hitchens advises anyone looking to buy a sculpture to 'go see some of the artist's works, so they understand how the artist treats materials and what presence the sculpture [they want] will have.' With so many new innovations and techniques it is easy to see why the rich and adventurous are keen to decorate their homes with sculpture. But are these patrons interested in the art form or just the name of the sculptor?

Lee acknowledges that many have investment motivations but adds: 'I think serious collectors like to have a personal connection and dialogue with the artists because it adds another layer to the work.'

This is what commissioning your own work of art is all about. Displaying sculpture with which you were involved speaks about your confidence and ability to work with an artist to realise your own vision. After all, there is an intimacy and permanence in such work that transcends anything you could just buy in the shops. This is at the core of its current and, what looks set to be, continuing popularity.




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