I experience great joy in the simple process of modeling clay into form-- using sculpture tools, my hands, chunks of wood, whatever. It has taken me years to accept the fact that this quintessential act of 'sculpting' is a rarity in the world of contemporary sculpture. Not just a rarity but possibly somewhat marginalized. Sculpture has moved on.
I have known this for awhile, of course, and in fact make my modeled works in some quiet zone of defiance to these trends. I have no issue with the assemblage/installation/performance approach to sculpture and in fact find those works visually exciting, more exciting perhaps than my own modeled forms. I just love the act of making the things I do so I keep on with it.
I recently decided to count the images in the latest Sculpture magazine (September 2014) to see how many of the sculptures there might have been modeled in some way by a sculptor holding a tool and using it to shape some plastic material. I excluded the advertisements since they don't represent the tastes of today's curatorial/editorial sculpture gatekeepers, and focused only on editorial content. The results were intriguing:
Out of 108 images of sculpture in the magazine's editorial content, 11 showed sculptures which were likely modeled with some tool by a person at some point. Of these, one was a piece by Jeff Koons who we know never picks up a tool himself and two were from an installation by Simon Starling of figurative masks (Project for a Masquerade, Hiroshima) which he references in his interview were made for him by a mask-maker in Osaka. Two were pieces by Mia Westerland Roosen where stucco was smoothed on top of carved foam and the remainder were some lovely ovoid forms by Isabel Nolan, magnified silver crystals cast (probably) in stainless steel "by" Simon Starling again though Gereon Krebber almost surely did some modeling on a few of his works (Ovomutus and Bean).
In the reviews of exhibitions at the back of the magazine, not a single sign of human hand modeling matter is to be seen amongst the found objects, fabricated, assembled, growing, glowing, adorned and festooned works there. (Actually, David Harper told me that he used some taxidermy forms for his animals in To Remind, or to Warn which would have been modeled at some point in the past by an artisan/sculptor, and he also did some hand carving in foam for the rocky parts of the bases in that piece.)
Although in David Harper's case he still does the modeling personally in his smaller works, it is noteworthy that among even the small number of modeled works found in the magazine, something like half (Koons, Starling x3, Harper x2) have had the modeling outsourced to an artisan, further evidence of the diminished role of modeling.
Finally out of the 108 images, eight were sculptures with figurative elements, four human and four animal. (My style of sculpture, modeling the human, would thus have been included in this 4/108ths.) For the record, Sculpture Magazine dominates the field, being the voice of the International Sculpture Center, the only major magazine about Sculpture globally and a key arbiter of tastes and contemporary art trends in the sculpture world. A look at any random sampling of other months' issues would show the September 2014 issue I analyzed here to be representative.
I want to be very clear-- I really like most of these installation/performance-based or non-modeled and non-figurative works! They are visually refreshing and have a lot to offer as art. I just think it is noteworthy how far the contemporary sculpture world has moved from customary notions of 'sculpting' as carving or modeling an object from a material. It must be a tough time to be selling modeling tools :-)