You can get a crash course in Nick Hornby’s work in the span of an hour-long London walk. The artist has three permanent sculptures installed across the city, metal silhouettes that start off familiar but transform depending on your vantage point. In St. James, his conquering equestrian, modeled on Richard I, becomes an amorphous squiggle as you circle; while in Kensington, his take on Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer turns abstract; and a bust of Nefertiti doubles as the Albert Memorial.
Raising questions about power and the role of the monument, the trio are a clever combo of craft and concept. They’re also feats of digital innovation. The equestrian, for example, started out as a digital model scripted in Python. It was then unrolled into individual components to be laser-cut from metal, then assembled by fabricators. “It was a lovely, seamless relationship between concept, digital processes, and mechanical fabrications—165 pieces manipulated into the six-and-a-half ton object,” says Hornby from his studio in northwest London. “But when people look at it, they don’t see that at all.”
“I like to think that one of the distinctive features of my work is its ambition to capture the imagination of anyone, not limited to the art world; to try to address complicated ideas in plain English. Anyone will recognize the trope of the man on the horse and will have a reaction to how I have manipulated it.”
This kind of technical-conceptual wizardry is Hornby’s calling card. Favoring the screen over the sketchpad, he uses 3D modeling as the foundation for abstract sculptures that reference the art-historical canon and challenge notions of authorship—contorted mashups of works by Hepworth, Brancusi, Rodin, and more; the profile of Michelangelo’s David extruded to a single point, legible only from above.
He started young, creating life-size terracotta figures in school while his classmates labored over simpler pots. “But then I went to art school, and it was like, I didn’t want to do pastiche of Rodin. I wanted to be part of the future. I wanted to be innovative,” he says. “So I jumped on technology.”
At the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where he enrolled in the late 1990s, Hornby thrived in the new. There were forays into video; a semester at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he joined the artist-hacker collective Radical Software/Critical Artware; and musical experiments with MAX MSP, the object-oriented programming language employed by Radiohead in the early 2000s. But it was only after pursuing a master’s in his thirties that his career took its current shape.
“I actually had quite a radical sea change in my relationship to tech,” he says. “I got quite frustrated by people saying, ‘Wow, that’s really cool. How did you do it?’ because I find that question really boring. I’m much more interested in the question, ‘What does it mean?’” So, over the past decade Hornby has eliminated “any form of human subjectivity,” he says. The wires and screens were obscured, the rough edges erased with laser precision. All the better to invite questions of substance rather than process.