26 May – 8 July 2018

Messums Wiltshire presents The Revelation of the Head, an exhibition which encapsulates the fascination with this remarkable body part. Our 13th century barn is the setting for a carefully chosen selection of some of the best heads that history has to offer; ranging from ancient Greek and Egyptian examples, (see below) to contemporary, self-referential depictions such as painter Jonathan Yeo’s first foray into sculpture – a large scale bronze self-portrait Homage to Paolozzi – created from an ingenious combination of virtual reality and advanced 3D scanning.

Sean Henry ‘You Don’t Know How It Feels’

The human head, maintained by the skull, supports the face and encloses the organ of the brain. It has also fascinated artists, writers, philosophers and scientists for millennia. It is the central focus of our lives, the hub of all our senses; we feel as though we live life entirely within its fleshy confines, although recent mindfulness studies show that we can be as present throughout the entirety of our body. Yet, in the succinct words of the painter Tai-Shan Schierenberg, ‘the body is but a tripod for the head’ and as such the head acts, via a process of distillation, as an instantly recognisable index for each and every one of our individual personalities and personhoods. In fact, our biologically engineered response of seeing faces is so homed in that we see them where there are none to be had. This is known as pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon whereby the mind responds to a stimulus, (usually an image or a sound), by perceiving a familiar pattern where none exists. All this goes to show that we human beings often prioritise our heads ‘above’ our bodies, so much so that it has become a common trope for artists to detach it completely as a subject: a kind of creative decapitation.  

These cross-temporal, cross-cultural heads will be shown in our medieval, 140ft long barn in two rows, facing inwards towards each other. They will fill the length of this magnificent space, calling to mind the ancient arcades of Greece and Rome, evoked in British displays of classical busts in institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery and Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. A Roman marble portrait of Emperor Antonius Pius, created in 2nd century CE, a Head of a Male created in 550-500 BCE Egypt and an Italian, 17th century terracotta head of a man are certainly the standout objects which originally pertain to these famous archaic cultures.

This exhibition will probe the legacy of such Greek, Egyptian and Italian renditions of the human head, tracing their histories through the plastic art of sculpture; highlighting the most significant examples and their subsequent visual descendants. This exhibition hopes to posit the idea that certain reiterations of the human head are eternal, seemingly pulling themselves through to the modern day by means of a kind of creative osmosis: an unignorably prominent presence within the zeitgeist.

Contemporary sculpture draws from, as well as plays with, these timeless images. Emily Young’s Purbeck Head and Gavin Turk’s Ragut Kirn (2010) do very different things with important formal similarities. Both explore roundness – the head as a mathematical sphere – playing with the simplicity of surface and of form. Yet one artist (Young) gives privilege to the solidity and stability of their head and the other (Turk) discovers its ontology as a cavern, a casing which can be exposed and collapsed in on itself and its contents. Another, Laurence Edwards, draws on the natural entropy of our reoccurring material – clay – that finds life for the second time with Edwards’ desire for vitality. This is found gauged in malleable marks, which are then transformed into bronze with the wax encasing escaping like breath. It is worth drawing attention to work such as Keith Coventry’s gold-plated Supermodel (Kate Moss) 2000 for it’s novel takes on the human form, interested in reworking the traditions of certain materials as well as being inspired by modernism and minimalism, first pioneered by sculptors Alexander Calder and Alberto Giacometti.

Many thanks to: Ariadne Galleries, Rupert Wace Ancient Art, Tomasso Brothers Fine Art.

Artists include: