Celebrating the Human Form
"Rachel Ducker creates incredible wire sculptures"
In Oxford’s renowned Pitt Rivers Museum, full of anthropological artefacts and fascinating finds, several cases display objects that are classified as ‘Human Form in Art’.
Although they display enormous diversity in materials, techniques, function, beliefs, and notions of beauty, they all highlight the shared humanity of the cultures represented. Today, in almost all cultures around the world, the enduring theme that is the human figure remains central to decorative art.
The earliest known representations of the human body were found in Europe and date back to between 25,000 and 12,000 years ago. Carved from stone and ivory, these ‘Venus’ figures represent the female form and may have been associated with fertility.
Humans feature in other prehistoric art including the cave paintings of early Europe and in the rock paintings of southern Africa. Although there is no way of telling for certain, the production and meaning of art amongst these cultures was probably spiritual, the figures perhaps representing deities or ritually important people. Shallow carvings of schematic human figures in rocks in western Sweden from 2500-3500BCE, for example, are thought to reflect Bronze Age myths or religious episodes involving combat and dancing. By 5000 years ago, in Ancient Egypt, it then became more common for non-spiritual persons to be depicted and for the human form to feature in more secular contexts.
The German philosopher Kant (1724-1804) refers to the human figure as the ideal of beauty, and the study and appreciation of the human body’s beauty underpins its presentation in art, sculpture and other forms of expression. Figure drawing involves the depiction of the body in different postures, in motion, or at work, and much sculpture is a three dimensional approach to the same end. Both involve a working knowledge of body shape, including body postures (sitting, standing or sleeping) and movements (walking, running or dancing). After all, the human figure conforms to the general law stating that form follows function, a result of evolution over thousands of generations. The expressive musculature of Michelangelo’s nudes, for example, owes much to his study of anatomy and musculoskeletal structures through observation, and today an acclaimed East Oxfordshire printmaker, Debbie Sutcliffe, who was once a medical illustrator for Oxford University Press, now reduces the human form to simple shapes, capturing in a perfect line the arch of a back or breast in a reclining position, or a dance or other movement.
Ancient Greek athletes were naked when they competed to display their physical prowess, to pay homage to the god Zeus by showing him how they had trained their bodies to the max, and also to intimidate their opponents. That they were often an inspiration to artists and sculptors, can be seen in archaeological finds: sculptors from the 5th century BC endow their statues with an unprecedented sense of vitality, creating standing figures that look as if they were frozen in the act of moving.
And today, in a small flat tucked away in the heart of Jericho, British contemporary artist Rachel Ducker creates incredible wire sculptures equally inspired by the shape and movement of the human form. She originally trained as a jeweller but then wire sculpture “just happened!
“One day I was helping out in a florist’s and I was left alone in the shop,” Rachel explains. “I started fiddling around with the wire they use to tie up bouquets and made a rough sculpture of my boyfriend, very loose but recognisably him. We put it in the window and someone wanted to buy it, and that’s where it all began.”
Well practised in life drawing as a basis for an appreciation of the human shape, her vibrant and emotive wire sculptures capture movement, human nature and something ephemeral – fairy-tale even. There’s a sense of life and character, in these static yet dynamic pieces that look as if they could spring into action any moment, whether they are small winged ‘tinkerbell’ pieces or full-size sculptures emerging from the earth and expressively bounding into the space ahead of them.
The translucency and silhouettes of her female forms are not only striking in their own right, but with particular lighting can cast dramatic shadows showing the three dimensional forms in two dimensions, and creating an effect resembling a pencil sketch on the wall.
Rachel uses no model and she doesn’t form the shape around anything. The posture is first designed and then the pieces are carefully moulded by hand, with the gradual addition of layers of wire, wrapped painstakingly as the character takes shape bit by bit, every angle important right to the tip of the finger. “The slightest movement in the angle of the hand or fingers, or the tilting of the head changes everything the figure is portraying,” she explains.
Her sculptures have no facial features, leaving the posture of the body to express the feeling provoked by each. “I love people watching,” says Rachel, who has always had a keen interest in psychology, “and if you take a moment, you see how much is actually communicated through body language. People express themselves very physically.”
The hair of each of Rachel’s sculptures is her trademark, perhaps, and its crowning glory – like her own vivid locks, the wire hair is dramatic, fun and funky, and a touch untameable, adding another layer of latent movement into the equation.
Although mostly working to commission, producing pieces that are shipped all over the globe and with regular events including the Chelsea Flower Show, Rachel still finds time to create pieces for display locally and you can see her trademark style at Branca Restaurant in Jericho, or pick a piece to take home with you at Burford’s Affordable Art Gallery (Burford Garden Company) or Witney’s SOTA Gallery – all the better if you can drive it home as your passenger in a two seater sports car.
Top Image - © Simon Murison-Bowie
Bottom Image - Debbie Sutcliffe