This month, for the first time, Sheffield’s expansive S1 Artspace will display historical sculpture from the Leeds Museum and Art Galleries’ permanent collection – but this is no ordinary collection.
The sculptures by artists including Frank Dobson, Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore will be displayed as part of the contemporary artist Nicolas Deshayes’ latest exhibition, Crude Oil. Last year, Deshayes was commissioned to develop a new series of work following a period of research at the Henry Moore Institute Archive and Leeds Museums and Galleries sculpture collection. The title of the show comes from the artist’s obsession with how seemingly unnatural objects are actually derived from nature.
“Crude oil is something that is very natural and is made from the breaking down of living materials like animals and trees from millions of years ago,” says Deshayes.
“What I’m interested in is how crude oil gets turned into something quite unnatural like plastic. Plastic doesn’t look like anything you’d find in nature, it doesn’t biodegrade, but in reality it is made from this biological substance.”
The exhibition sees a series of historical sculptures displayed against the background of smooth plastic objects and rippling aluminium tables that look more like the surface of water than carefully prepared industrial metal.
“I like the idea of bringing a bit of chaos to very careful industrial processes,” says Deshayes. “I use anodised aluminium a lot in my work. It’s a material that is usually clean and sleek – it’s used on things like iPods and other gadgets. I like to see how this process can be used to create different effects to the ones we’re used to.”
The London-based artist spent time in the archives and art library at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, researching sculpture from the artist’s letters and sketchbooks to help him chose a selection of historical sculptures which would compliment his work.
“I was quite excited when I got to choose traditional sculptures to go alongside my work,” says Deshayes.
“It gives my work a new dimension – an anodised aluminium table becomes a plinth. You see the reflections of these traditional sculptures in the surface of my own work. It’s not something I’ve done before. I was amazed to find that those who many people see as quite traditional artists had ideas that are still relevant today. Artists in Yorkshire don’t know how lucky they are – the Henry Moore Institute’s library is amazing.”
Jacob Epstein’s 1942 portrait of George Black is displayed opposite Frank Dobson’s 1936 portrait of Margaret Rawlings.
“It was a really weird experience when I first put them together,” he says of the exhibition.
“They reminded me of something like the victims of Mount Vesuvius covered in volcanic ash, or like when you see rescued birds after an oil spill at sea.
“It’s as though these figures have been set adrift at sea – they look really striking.”