Feature story May/June 2021: Philanthropy at its best

Paul Kaptein is the fourth artist in 15 years to benefit from a remarkable Syndicate of art collectors.       


 Paul Kaptein at Old Customs House, Fremantle. Photo Lyn DiCiero.

Large-scale sculpture is expensive. For any serious artist, the cost of materials and the outlay for fabrication of ambitious works – let alone finding the resources to keep yourself alive during the process – can be daunting. Fulfilling his aesthetic aspirations was a challenge for Simon Gilby, so 15 years ago, a group of collectors, led by Lloyd Horn, decided to step in and provide him with the funds to “get into the studio and make life-sized figurative sculptures.”
That first commission was intended to be a one-off, but its success led the Syndicate of benefactors to continue their support. Since then, they have assisted Peter Dailey, Stuart Elliot, and now Paul Kaptein in their creative endeavours. Each artist has been given the opportunity to create ten works which are distributed to Syndicate members at the end of the project. However, as Horn explains, “I’ve always stressed upon the Syndicate members that the idea of the project is to support the artist and that they should look upon the work they receive at the end of the commission as a bonus.”
This level of philanthropic beneficence is remarkable. The opportunities it has provided to each of the four artists has enabled the creation of an outstanding body of works – body being the operative word. As would be expected, this extraordinary opportunity has enabled Kaptein to push his practice into entirely new territory. The final group of ten figures stands stoically within the atrium space of Old Customs House in Fremantle, their shattered, scarred bodies luminous within the light-drenched interior.


Kaptein’s earlier carved works employed traditional techniques to create powerful recreations of the human form. His remarkable portrait of a FIFO miner, Everything is Nothing, which won the 2015 Mid-West Art Prize, depicts the bust of a miner, presented with conceptual rigour as an embodiment of his profession. The open-cut mine is excavated from his flesh, which is drilled and marked with the sites where he had worked. Kaptein presents him as man-shaped and constructed from his own labours, his eyes closed as he contemplates his existence. “Utilising the human form as an interface through which to explore these ideas, time becomes an armature upon which to question whether these gaps, spaces, and notions of emptiness are passive receptacles or systems of connection and dialogue – charged spaces of exchange,” he explains.


This charged space of exchange is also central to our understanding of the new works. Cast rather than carved, they have a fragility that marks them out. Dismembered and reconfigured, they seem adrift in the world. All These Mountains Will Melt at Dawn depicts a figure without his upper torso, though perhaps it is under the ground in some kind of ritual burial. His semi-naked torso rises up from the ground. Another’s feet stand on his feet, though their body is removed. It is distressing, yet the body retains its dignity and strength, his arms resolutely at attention though his skin is flayed and in tatters. Who is this man, and how do we approach him? What support can we offer? What does he want from us? These existential questions are palpable and unsettling.


Entering Same River Twice is a response to the Greek Philosopher Heraclitus’s statement that the world is in a state of flux and hence no two situations can ever be precisely the same. Yet perhaps it is for this man. If he steps into the same river, is he reflected back to himself as a slowly exfoliating body? Is this a process of renewal, or previous existence? Or maybe he no longer slips into fragmentary non-existence, his pink flesh revealed and preserved in the constancy of the river? 


Each figure seems burdened down by existence. Some are eroded, losing limbs and layers of flesh. In Swirling the Universe, the aura of decay envelops the figure, who stares at the earth in front of him with a forsaken fixity. Several figures mesh with the tools of their trade, others are defined by their sexuality or amass additional fingers and hands. Yet despite the evident sadness, their dignity remains. Indeed, all these figures in whatever state of dissolution or fragmentation are nonetheless human. Perhaps even more so. We empathise and feel the tug of our own humanity. Together this group of ten solitary men presents a catalogue of existential musings on the nature of being human. Unsurprisingly then it is extremely confronting, yet in their stoic acceptance, we are recompensed for our own doubts and given the strength and courage to move forward.


Kaptein is a significant artist whose work will stand as a record of our time. In this COVID-19 world as we all battle with our sense of isolation and disconnectedness, these figures remind us resilience is our greatest weapon.
Syndicate 4: All These Mountains Will Melt at Dawn is on show at Old Custom’s House, Fremantle until 30 May.


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