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Cathy Wilkes is a Glasgow-based Northern Irish artist who is representing Great Britain at the 58th Venice Biennale this year. Her famed sculptures and installations are not the most intellectually accessible – a deliberate effect the artist strives for in an attempt to preserve her work's authenticity on a viewer-by-viewer basis. Quoted on, Wilkes said there's 'no need for anyone to fully understand' her work.



2014, sculpture installation by Cathy Wilkes (b.1966)

As much as they are abstract in concept, the pieces Wilkes uses to create her artworks are often found objects; readymades jostled into complex narratives that both confuse and enlighten. Wilkes' recurring themes include life, death, loss and love. Because Wilkes achieves in narrative what many short-cut to in style, her version of abstract is, thus, in the mind and not in the visual in which objects are manipulated to hint at meaning.

Wilkes' work (and insistence on lack of context) begs the question of whether sculpture has to be physically abstract to be considered complex, or is complexity more the oeuvre of the mind than the eye?

A lucky few thousand might mull over the subject as they view sculptural artworks at various events taking place in the UK and Europe this autumn. The Venice Biennale will provide ample opportunity, as will any other of the sculptural exhibitions taking place in the next few months like the Frieze sculpture park or the Royal Society of Sculptors' summer exhibition. Those of us unable to make all the shows have platforms like Art UK that enable us to view similar styles in the canon, providing the opportunity to contemplate topics raised by them from the convenience of our smartphones.

So, in practice, which of the pieces below are truly abstract – and where do they fall in the internal-external complexity debate? Well, here are just some of the abstract sculptures on Art UK so far. And, in honour of the Biennale representation from Great Britain being largely female, the following artists are all female too.

Barbara Hepworth

An alumna of the Royal College of Art in London, Barbara Hepworth honed her skills while living in Italy with her then-husband John Skeaping and took lessons in how to carve marble from master-carver Giovanni Ardini.

Torso III (Galatea)

Torso III (Galatea) (cast six of an edition of seven) 1958

Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975)

Lakeland Arts

Hepworth eventually went on to show her work at the British Pavilion of the 25th Venice Biennale, in 1950 (as well as showing in São Paolo and Tokyo).

Oval Sculpture

Oval Sculpture 1943

Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975)

The Pier Arts Centre

Hepworth's Trewyn Studio later became the Barbara Hepworth Museum (1976) and is now run by the Tate, along with Tate St Ives.

Group III (Evocation)

Group III (Evocation) 1952

Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975)

The Pier Arts Centre

Elizabeth Frink

Influenced by the renowned sculptor Alberto Giacometti, Elizabeth Frink was known for the unusual manipulation of angles in the forms she often sculpted.

Harbinger Bird II

Harbinger Bird II c.1963

Elisabeth Frink (1930–1993)

Lakeland Arts

Recurring themes of the Royal Academician were works in bronze in the likeness of birds, man and deity in human form – dealing with loss, pain and death through subtle deformity.

Homme Libellule II (Dragonfly Man II)

Homme Libellule II (Dragonfly Man II) 1965

Elisabeth Frink (1930–1993)

Government Art Collection

Sara Barker

Known to breach the boundary between sculpture and paint, Sara Barker's compositions incorporate multimedia forms such as metal, glass, wood and paint.

washable colour

washable colour 2012

Sara Barker (b.1980)

The Pier Arts Centre

She treats her subjects like three-dimensional drawings and uses sculpture to represent the 'spaces between' that exist in every facet of living.

Camilla Løw

A graduate of the Glasgow School of Art, Norwegian artist Camilla Løw's works live in aesthetically pleasing simplicity.


Cinematic 2013

Camilla Løw (b.1976)

The Pier Arts Centre

In her own words, Løw uses sculpture to 'investigate what might be seen as traditional sculptural or architectonic concerns with form, space, rhythm, tension, balance and the properties of materials.'


Kimono 2004

Camilla Løw (b.1976)

Government Art Collection

She places emphasis on the anthropomorphic ways we tend to view objects.

Shirazeh Houshiary

Turner Prize-nominated (1994) artist Shirazeh Houshiary has had her work featured at the Venice Biennale (1982/2017), the Biennale São Paolo (1996), as well as other Biennales in Sydney (2010) and Kiev (2012).

The Extended Shadow

The Extended Shadow 1994

Shirazeh Houshiary (b.1955)

Government Art Collection

Her extensive body of work is a testament to her prolific skill and she has become known for her striking sculptures in a range of mediums from cast iron to steel and glass.

Patricia Yaker Ekall, journalist