If the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards looked at the imaginative Sconsacrato, he’d undoubtedly light a cigarette, nod to himself, and smile appreciatively. That would be praise enough for Goldfinger, a sign he had taken a huge risk, and won. It had been a gamble, a daring move into controversial territory that raised one question: Is this piece of art provocative, or appallingly profane? One critic was aghast, shocked at such an outrage–this blatant coupling of Richards with the Crucifixion of Christ. Dios Mio!
A gold-leaf Christ pinned to a cross, armed with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a cigarette. What could artist Stephen Cawston be thinking? Didn’t he know his 24ct, gold leaf Sconsacrato (La Caduta Di Cristo) would ignite controversy? “I wanted to depict Christ as real, fallible, a down-to-earth figure with human needs and wants,” puckishly says Cawston, 43, who has been buying skeletal bones for the last 6 years, and “re-animating” them into dramatic, gold-leaf sculptures.
“I am not a Frankenstein,” he chuckles in his Norfolk ,UK studio, insisting he lovingly gives new, ennobled life to his precisely-detailed sculptures. “Whether it’s an elephant, a Great Dane, a moose or an eagle, I hope my creations will have new life. That I’ve given them a second chance. That they were dead, nothing, and now they can find their own way again. They are born again, living again.” Is Christ now alive? Is he more accessible in this state of decadence, even debauchery? “I am certainly not indicting religious beliefs, I only wanted to take my work to a new, experimental place in this time of the Pandemic,”explains Cawston, standing next to one of his most ambitious works, a Falconer sitting astride a horse, an eagle poised next to him, ready to take flight. “Christ is a statement, beauty. Even if it’s nicknamed Keith Richards Having Fun, if religion is strong enough, it should not be offended. It is just an idea that Christ is real. I only want people to say ‘Wow,’ and they are. They can see I am moving on.” He is!
Freed from the constraints of owning a tony Knightsbridge art gallery, continually catering to celebrities, Cawston can be the risk-taker, the provocateur. If bringing Christ down to earth is one leap into the unknown–a new willingness to question long-established dogma–Cawston’s Beautiful Art of War is another giant vault into dangerous territory. By sculpturing a skeleton sitting behind a World War II Maxim Machine Gun in shimmering gold leaf, Cawston is once again poking at our sensibilities, making us wonder: Is this piece aiming at the futility of war, or glorifying killing machines? A stunning piece, but certainly not a polemic, for the work ripples with Black Humor, Cawston revisits Death to “re-animate” Life (real human bones, legally procured, are used in this passion play). It’s a quirky, mischievous piece of art, and very Cawston-like. He inverts realities to give them greater potency, and amid the hijink, has his fun, along with his nightmares. Remembering the logistical complications of recreating irony with a true-to-life killing machine and a (dead person) marksman, he laughs, “it was great fun finding the Maxim gun. Then I had to work out how to…(assemble) one of the most devastating weapons ever invented.”
Absolute precision the hallmark of this fearsome piece (and of all his painstakingly-conceived and derived works), Cawston adds, “Every part has to be carefully gold-plated, then the sculpture had to sit on a (specially-constructed) bed of stainless steel which also had to be gold-plated…”
The glitter of gold certainly has its allure, its romance. In this fantasy realm, Cawston is the director, the supreme choreographer, “breathing new life” into the dead, the inanimate. He is the Goldfinger, the man with the Midas Touch, as Shirley Bassey sang in the iconic James Bond movie. She also caressingly sang of a “Spider’s Touch”–and that too is incumbent on Cawston, a feathery, light-fingered application of gold leaf on every piece. It’s the “game-changing” difference between profit and loss, Art or economic peril.
“I must be very delicate,” agrees Cawston, eyeing a book with sheets of gold leaf. “Laying gold on isn’t very complicated, but you must still be very careful and show the utmost delicacy…Here is where I start crying…gold leaf is very thin, it breaks…It’s also very expensive. If you drop the leaf, that’s a lot of money wasted.” Developing the deft touch to artfully–and efficiently–layer his creations demands definite expertise. But to buy and resurrect those valuable bones–animals like a yak, wildebeest, camel and yak–Cawston needs money, enough to acquire those precious skeletons and books.
His Homarge Gallery in Knightsbridge was financially successful. Selling oil paintings of vintage movie posters, Cawston was swept into a world of flamboyant A-Listers, people he eventually contacted to fund his creating a back-from-the-dead kingdom of dynamic, awe-inspiring animalia. “A horse with four layers of gold takes two kilos of gold…a horse with a jockey in full gallop…gold is my biggest issue but I eventually found a benefactor,” sighs Cawston, explaining how plans for his Value of Life collections (19 pieces) came to fruition.
“I needed a backer if I was going to do beautiful work, the funding to apply squares of gold…to use special brushes…to do the minutely-detailed engineering (that allows the animals to stand without the support of wires). Luckily I found one.” Searching is one of Cawston’s greatest skills. He’s been able to find legal sources for his bones, and once the financial backing was in place (a two-year agreement giving him the security to create, and ultimately, to sell seven pieces) his kingdom has grown. Featuring the world’s most regal animals, the two Value of Life collections shine a new light on their secrets, fearsomeness, and majesty.
Cawston’s specialized-handiwork certainly celebrates the Power and Grace of these beasts. Yet even if vivid “snapshots” of them, “moments in time” was his artistic intention, he is again the provocateur, raising the question: What is the ultimate fate of these noble creatures?