RECASTING is an exhibition of contemporary art that I have co-curated with fellow grad student, James Cahill, here in the Museum of Classical Archaeology in the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge (see more here). It incorporates a selection of modern works in different media that variously echo, embrace, or challenge the classical artistic tradition, staging a series of interventions throughout the Cast Gallery’s permanent display of plaster casts of classical sculpture as a way of prompting conversations between the ‘ancient’ and modern works.
The aim behind the show is twofold. First and foremost, we wanted to highlight the ongoing relationship between classical art and contemporary practice, pointing to the ways in which modern artists continue to engage in original, dynamic, and subversive ways with the classical past. By juxtaposing these works against the Museum’s cast collection, the exhibition hopes to throw light on the ways in which casting and recasting (whether in plaster or bronze, performance or painting) are always acts of translation, mediating between re-enactment and reinterpretation.
Some of the works included in the show, such as Paul Allen’s triptych of Greek monsters, respond directly to ancient art and myth, drawing either on the subjects or the iconography of the ancient sculptures alongside which they are displayed. Others play with the media and modes of production synonymous with classical art, glancing in more oblique ways at the classical tradition. For example, a recent sculpture by Matthew Darbyshire takes the form of a sitting lion, rendered in layers of hand-coloured multi-wall polycarbonate. Resonating with the iconography of the Greco-Roman world, it also plays with substance and seriality – concepts which have come to define not only casting, but classical art in its entirety. Maggi Hambling’s Aftermath (sleeper), a bronze sculpture based on a piece of dead wood, probes the expressive potential of the fragmentary cast: a model in plaster and paint, suggestive of a head, is transmuted into bronze.
Others instead alter our understanding of the ancient works they reference, or else challenge their later reception, casting new light on classical art. For example, REILLY’s Rihanna remixes the image of Artemis with that of the popstar, reminding us that, although she may have preferred hunting to sex, this goddess was a hunter of men, too, a femme fatale not to be crossed. Alternatively Paul Kindersley’s drawings reframe the classical body as a series of grotesque or humorous close-ups of body-parts and other attributes, ultimately questioning art history’s celebration of Greco-Roman sculpture as the paradigm of grace and beauty.
From devising the concept, to contacting exhibitors, to selecting works, and designing the display and publicity materials, the process of creating the show has been a long one and has required us to work closely with artists, galleries, shippers, and, of course, the Museum of Classical Archaeology. It’s also something that James and I have been doing alongside our PhDs, which has required us to juggle various commitments. Nevertheless, it has been hugely rewarding on many levels, not least because it’s brought us into contact with some fantastic artists and their work. I have especially valued having the chance to be creative and to think about classical art from a different viewpoint, something that the PhD process does not often permit but from which I think it benefits enormously. Indeed, even the process of selecting works, of constructing a narrative, and writing labels has something to offer the PhD. Most valuable, though, has been having the opportunity to show classical art to a new audience, engaging people who may never have visited the Museum before, and demonstrating that, although ancient, these works are still relevant and can speak as powerfully today as ever before.