Nick Hornby: Zygotes and Confessions:
In 2008 the artist Nick Hornby hosted an event with the writer Nick Hornby. The humour of turning the Hornby pair into human homonyms concealed deeper connections to the artist Nick Hornby’s sculptural practice. Bringing together two Nick Hornbys, who in turn often discussed other Nick Hornbys, was a gesture which pluralised and destabilised ideas of authorship and subjectivity. The fixity of those notions is something persistently challenged by Hornby’s sculptures: they often accentuate distance from the artist’s hand through their emphasis on quotation of other artists’ work, and they manifest a clear relationship with digital design. Frequently those elements are combined with a finish which is immaculate, like something machine-made. Mediation is not alien to sculpture, through processes like mould-making and complicated fabrication. But that distance tends to be offset by the conspicuously direct traces of marks in sculpture—the strike of the chisel or residual fingermarks left in shaped wax or clay—and the physical presence of sculpture itself.
Hornby’s work has strenuously avoided diverting the audience’s attention from art to artist. That urge to transmogrify all work into autobiography or self-portraiture, so prevalent in art’s reception, is central to Hornby’s MOSTYN exhibition Zygotes and Confessions. The show’s title pulls in two separate directions: the zygote is a bundle of cells resulting from fertilisation. The confession is an admission, personal knowledge shared. Zygotes and Confessions could therefore be descriptive, announcing those twin elements of Hornby’s practice—the preoccupation with hybridity, and the conversation with subjectivity. In the exhibition, those ideas play out in three broad categories of sculpture: portrait busts, mantelpiece dogs and abstract modernist forms borrowed from artists like Hans Arp. Each group wears a skin of glossy photographic imagery: on the busts are images by photographer and drag queen Louie Banks, on the dogs BDSM imagery, and on the abstract forms images—often startlingly cropped—of swimwear. Their reference to sex is Hornby’s concession to subjectivity, revealing the personal desires of the artist, playfully relocated to a pompous bust, a twee mantelpiece ornament, or a canonic piece of abstraction.
The sculptures all share photographic surfaces, an unfamiliar incursion of photography onto three-dimensional forms, borrowing its reflective sheen too. A dance between flatness and three-dimensions has previously informed Hornby’s method of pairing recognisable sculptures such that they only become recognisable from one aspect; the ‘reveal’ provided by the sculptures’ volumes in fact behaves like an image. The method evokes analytical cubism where painted surfaces appear fragmented in order to capture the shifting encounter of the eye with three-dimensional objects. In Hornby’s work that process is inverted, the unity of a sculptural form ‘breaking’ when it is experienced as an image. The introduction of photography at MOSTYN extends Hornby’s back-and-forth between two and three dimensions, but where before this image aspect was camouflaged, here it is conspicuous. And this time splicing flat image with material volume is fundamentally distorting, a quality which arguably gives Hornby’s work a new subject: the screen.
Hornby has superimposed the photography on the sculptures by a process of dipping, submerging the sculpture through a liquid image which melts around the volume of the sculpture. There is something inescapably digital about this, both in the sense that it serves as a physical, real-life filter or photoshop-like manipulation, and in the fluidity of the image it generates. The LCD screens of phones and computers on which images circulate are liquid. The pandemic has therefore only heightened the relevance of this quality: sculptures which took images from screens ultimately give them back when they themselves are seen on screens as much as in person. The sculptures’ arrangement at MOSTYN, occupying the gallery evenly on plinths of various heights, is reminiscent of the stepped audience in a theatre, which again lends them a sense of separation. Given that Hornby had originally planned to invite the audience to touch the sculptures, this distancing is yet another sadness of the pandemic, but it also serves the work well: re-contextualising the photographs as Hornby has done, the images and snippets of images seem to exist somewhere else (as images on a screen do). This allows the sculptures to embody a new kind of tactility, again a bit like the swipe of a finger on a screen, where touch is built into the form but is also ultimately impossible. The effect has the arm’s-length quality of luxury, presented as attainable and material, but in fact abstract and imaginary. Just as Hornby’s sculptures bring photographic image and sculptural volume together, at MOSTYN the confession has something of the zygote about it. It is hybrid: part tactile, part distant, the imperfections of actual human skin sealed beneath an immaculate reflective glossy surface.