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  • 2020BarrettPhD

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Making material meaningful: Identifying and analysing the role of material in contemporary sculptural practice and criticism

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Publication date07/2020
Number of pages254
Awarding Institution
Award date9/10/2020
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


This written thesis is part of a larger study which identifies and explores the critical meaning material contributes to making, viewing and analysing sculpture.

Sculpture now exists within a new condition of making and occupies an abundance of material possibilities: the messy, precarious, figurative, quotidian, enduring, handmade, found or formless. Contemporary artists demonstrate a multitude of ways material affects sculpture’s meaning, exploring both its physical behaviour and the intangible information it carries, which locates it within social contexts. In contrast, art criticism repeatedly fails to fully grasp material’s fundamental role. As a result, we as audiences lack “material literacy” and the vocabulary necessary to fully comprehend sculpture both as a discipline and a social commentator.

In response, this thesis combines academic and practice-based research. Analysis of art criticism since 1960 examines material’s inferior position in theoretical models. Rigorous testing of one material (salt dough) in the studio results in the construction of a body of work which provides a new image for material sensitivity in practice and identifies concrete sources of meaning. Gathering data from practising sculptors involves the perspectives of makers and captures the broader ecology of contemporary sculpture. As such, material meaning is examined across different levels in order to identify strategies to establish material literacy which resonate with artists, writers and audiences.