Paul McCarthy: That Girl

Work / Exhibition

What turns a group exhibition from a mishmash into a success? Comments welcome!

This week assistant editor Maisie Skidmore asks what makes a good group show. Are they really all they’re cracked up to be, or are they poised for failure? Tell us what you think of them and which you’ve been to that were especially brilliant or terrible in the comments section below.

When it comes to art exhibitions, group shows are a decidedly hard one to get right. In my experience either you walk into a gallery and find yourself slapped around the face with work by more artists than you know what to do with, like a visual bodyslam that leaves you breathless and a bit bewildered. Or, work by disparate artists floats meaninglessly around huge expanses of white walls, unified only by vague themes.

The most celebrated group shows all seem to have taken place in the past, sparking the beginning of whole movements; Charles Saatchi’s history-making series of YBA shows in the late 80s, for example, or the exhibitions that launched the careers of the Impressionists. I was basically a kid in a huge Brutalist sweetshop then when I walked into the Hayward Gallery last week and found that their new exhibition The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture has artfully skirted the potholes that group shows can so often fall into and created a new contemporary category entirely of its own.

The Hayward is well known for its prowess with creating impactful and exciting group exhibitions. Their Light Show last year sold out rapidly, and is still brought up frequently in conversations about what makes a good exhibition. Like the Light Show, The Human Factor has also been curated them thematically – it focuses specifically on the presence of the human body in contemporary sculpture, rather than trying to curate a series of works based on when they were made or what effect they have – and this is perhaps key to its success.

Secondly, the Hayward’s space is second to none when it comes to bringing very different works together in one exhibition. It’s an exciting space full of small rooms, corners, divisions and separate floors, so in what seems to be the art world’s equivalent of A-list privacy many of the works are afforded their own spaces and corners. As a result the space seems to unwind as you walk through it, and the variation in pieces adds excitement, rather than making the exhibition feel like a giant mishmash.

At the same time though, the selection of pieces incredible. Ghostlike, provocative, political and gut-wrenching in turn, each room reveals a new set of emotions delivered though the kind of wonderment that is akin only to what children in museums experience when seeing a mummy for the first time. From Maurizio Cattelan’s quiet goosebump-prickling sculpture of JFK in an open coffin, to Ryan Gander’s cheeky patriarchy-defying girls and Urs Fischer’s sexdoll-like wax woman with a wick protruding from her head which will burn throughout the duration of the exhibition. What holds the show together is the sense of awe that almost all of the pieces seem to inspire, whether through their hyper-reality, their positioning in a room or the way their presence seems to confront the viewer.

Even the invigilators seem to be uncomfortably aware of the tension in the sculptures; quietly bristling at the presence of the works around them, they look like they might be keeping watch over a haunted house rather than an innocent art exhibition.
The thematic curation, the brilliant use of the space, and the careful selection of jaw-dropping pieces all contribute, but in my opinion it’s this sense of awe which provides the continuity and fluency that holds the exhibition together. They might not be starting a movement, but the Hayward’s curators are carving out trends in contemporary sculpture.

What do you think makes a good group show? Have you seen any fantastic ones recently? Tell us below!