The Brancaster Chronicles are edited transcripts of recorded discussions made in direct response to exhibitions of abstract painting and sculpture.
5th July 2013, the artist’s studio near King’s Lynn.
Those present: Anthony Smart, Anne Smart, Emyr Williams, Robin Greenwood, Sarah Greenwood, Alexandra Harley, Patrick Jones, Desmond Brett, Helga Joergens-Lendrum, David Lendrum, Sam Cornish, Mark Skilton, Hilde Skilton, John Pollard.
Anthony Smart: There are eight new sculptures, numbered so we can identify them, with no.5 being the earliest and no.7 the latest. There are also two of the older pieces that were here last year.
Emyr Williams: No.2 was the first to catch my eye as I came in. I think that it is good that we have got the two from last year because the difference between the new ones and last year’s ones struck me immediately – that in the new ones you are being very specific in the cutting of each part. It makes the previous ones a little more generalized, where the individual components are sort of neutral, the shapes felt a bit more found. Whereas the new pieces have a very particular drawing going on, which really energizes the changes of direction, particularly in no.2. It’s got a lovely, springy, exciting configuration in space. As much as I enjoy last year’s, what is new is this very specific shaping and cutting and rhythmical type of drawing. Confident.
Alexandra Harley: When I first saw them I was looking from an upstairs window, looking down, I thought all of these parts were machined or industrial off-cuts because they are incredibly clean, But when I came down I realized he had made them. I thought that was brilliant, I really like them.
Mark Skilton: With this one and no.1 in particular, these parts are specific, but they do flow into one another very deliberately. Whereas in no.5, which is I think the older one, the parts are much more separate and in their separateness there is a different kind of expression. I’m not sure where I stand on which one I prefer and I am mindful he has gone to great pains not just to cut them out but to get them to move into one another as well. They flow into each other through junctions. In no. 5 the junctions between pieces are very opposing; one particular shape has been put against a shape that is very different so that the difference between the two creates a different kind of expression. Whereas here similar shapes are put together and welded together to flow into one kind of unity.
Helga Joergens-Lendrum: The surprising thing, Tony, is that you are using rounded forms, cut out, and in the work I know from you before you used angular parts which you put together. Here you take one sheet of steel and cut out round the forms, so that the positives – the mass, the volume – have a relationship with the surrounding negative space. The roundedness is new and that gives liveliness and movement. And also, as was being said, one form seems to continue into another piece so that you get a continuous line. And so you have this continuous flow right through the sculpture from outside to inside, from the centre to the outside again, out into space, along the bottom as well. It is a very transparent sculpture because the flow of the masses and the volumes is very slight and is almost, almost, almost linear and that creates a transparency and openness which brings the sculpture to life and gives lightness to the work. And as sculpture is standing on a stone block, so even the ground is transparent. The sculpture only stands on its plinth at certain different points, so its appear as if the lines of material just touch and lift up again, and that creates a lightness which overcomes the heaviness of the steel.
John Pollard: I think no.2 feels very self-contained. Some of the other sculptures are pointing outwards, pointing somewhere else. This holds my attention more. I think in these beautiful shapes, there is more of a contrast with more jagged shapes, but they work really well, the contrast does not jar and yet it is interesting, it is intricate – this one did grab me when I walked around…
Desmond Brett: Do you cut up the steel first to make a massive amount of material? I was interested in the formation of the components, whether it was a stock-pile ?
Anthony Smart:Initially, the amount of material was small, but as you get going you start to build up your failures. And your pieces start to come together in groupings, tacked together, so you are not taking it back to flat material. So quite quickly the flat material becomes semi-three-dimensional, or even quite three-dimensional, and might amount to a large ‘run’ of stuff which is kept as a piece; and so the material quite quickly becomes sculptural from the initial cutting-out.
Desmond Brett: I am imagining what it is like to handle each component, holding it and understanding it before I can develop it, and sort of ‘navigating’ each component, with hands as well as eyes, then offering it, taking it away again, and adding it…
Anthony Smart:Yes, yes. And add to that all of the things which are obvious for people who have used steel: it can be fast, faster even than drawing. Once you have certain things sorted out it really is quick. Put it up, take it down, etc., etc.
Mark Skilton: I think that in this one [no.2] in particular the focus is much more on the nature of the material and how material operates within itself. But I am more interested in what is happening in no.7, where the material creates a different space within it.
Patrick Jones: Before we move on, can I just express how nice no.2 is, it has a springing quality, like it has been squashed and bounced back again. It has a ‘dancing’ quality which I really like and I have not seen in your work before. It is absolutely delightful.
Mark Skilton: What I was particularly looking at in no. 7, and liking, was not so much how the material was reacting within itself, but how the spaces have been changed by the material. I am sensing a kind of positive space in the centre here; whereas with no.2 and some of the others you tend to read the centre as a negative shape. In no.7 the central space seems to form the sculpture – and it is less about how the outside moves, more about how the space on the inside seems to be pushing the sculpture outwards.
Robin Greenwood: I would absolutely agree with that – that no.7 is a much more spatial sculpture than no.2.
Alexandra Harley: But you get a sense of that internal space operating in all of them…
Robin Greenwood: I don’t agree – not with all of them…
Mark Skilton: No, I wouldn’t agree with that either…
Alexandra Harley: I was just about to say that from a distance, when I first encountered them, I began to see that space is a much larger component, in all of them, than I have felt before, but no.7 has really taken it to another level. I do think that you get it with all of them, but some are more successful than others.
Robin Greenwood: I think in no.7 you have two things that are more successful than in no.2. One is that the parts of the steel are much more integrated together, and there is also more variety. I am very aware of the planar quality in the steel in no.2, and in the fact that they have been cut out of a flat plate and then joined into this end to end thing. Although it has been tweaked, I still feel the plate there. Whereas here I don’t feel that really at all, I start to put together bigger passages of integrated steelwork which are, to my mind, in that way, much more spatial. They are creating much more coherent spaces than in no.2. I think this one, no.7, is one of the best ones…
Alexandra Harley, Mark Skilton: Yes
Hilde Skilton: Just one other thing: I also like no.7 very much and also no.4, but what strikes me with both of them is that there is a change of character. The stuff that sits on the slab, that comes to the ground, has a certain way of behaving, and then, as it rises up to the top level, it has a different way of behaving. In a strange way, both no. 4 and no. 7 go out into different ‘areas’. The top of no.7 has five or so areas, more maybe, and the bottom has three, but the all behave differently. Instead of the sculpture just being one ‘overall’ thing, there is a change of character, though the whole thing does relate to itself. I like that, it creates more tension.
Robin Greenwood: More everything… I think no. 4 and no. 7 are more specific. The parts of the sculpture are more specific, the spaces are more specific. In no.2 the steel is sort of generic. And then this business of cutting out the shapes, it slightly jars with me, that.
Sam Cornish: I disagree. I prefer the handling of the steel no.2, particularly close-up, that calligraphic, almost ‘silhouette’ handling. It gets away from an overly ‘organic’ movement.
Hilde Skilton: Well, if it gets away from that, what does it get to?
Sam Cornish: In no. 2 I really like the intricacies of the handling. It’s almost like its been done for its own sake. Part of me enjoys that, but I wonder whether it becomes a whole thing. In general I think the thing I love about them is the handling. The problem with them is the overall image, as an overall configuration, from a distance. For example, no.4, from here, feels very singular, complete as a thing from this distance; whereas with some of the others it’s difficult to get a sense of them from far away. Maybe they are internal sculptures to be seen in a smaller space…
Alexandra Harley: I think I disagree with that! As I was looking down on them from the window in the distance, I really loved the spaces that I could see within each sculpture. I think they all use the space in a really dynamic way. They are all really working that space, and I feel them. They are not passive sculptures. They are going at it hammer and tongs…
Robin Greenwood: I think that this is an interesting comparison between no.7 and no.8. I think they are very different sculptures, very different spaces. I find the space in no.8 really weird; I almost think that it is not spatial at all, because I’m actually continually sucked through it and out of it. I almost think it is pictorial, which is also a weird thing to say about it…
Alexandra Harley: It ‘frames’ some of the spaces much more than some of the other sculptures.
Robin Greenwood: Tony will hate this, but it reminds me of ‘Hudson River Landscape’ by David Smith, which has got cut-outs in it and its got a kind of frame – and it looks like you’ve got ‘Hudson River Landscape’ and you’ve [mimes wresting with the sculpture] made something very literally three-dimensional with that framework.
Emyr Williams: I agree with what you say about the weirdness of that. I think it is because it has got a fast pace and the transition between the parts are not doing as much as in the others to slow you down.
Robin Greenwood: There are a lot more different thicknesses and sizes and shapes of steel in no.7, and not only that, but more importantly, I think they join together in sequences much more coherently than in no.2, where they seem to be one thing after another, after another, in a sort of, somebody described it as a flowing, fluid, linear thing. Well, I don’t buy into that… no.7 seems much more particular. I am with Hilde when she talks about the differences in how it stands up at the bottom, and how it works its way up into space. I feel that in no.2, the way that you travel around the sculpture is more generally the same, wherever you are in it. It doesn’t pin down the space.
Anne Smart: One of the things we haven’t spoken about yet, which I think is very strong in no.7 sculpture, is that when you are talking about a particular aspect of the sculpture, I can see what you are talking about, even though I am standing somewhere else. That may relate, as Helga says, to the translucency and accessibility, but I think the interesting thing for me is they don’t compel you to move around them. And this business about the space in the middle, if we were all standing still momentarily, they don’t, like a circuit , drive you to walk around. The fact is, they are incredibly three-dimensional in this way.
Robin Greenwood: That is good and worth saying… One question I have is why would you want shapes? What you want is for it to become three-dimensional form, not a string of shapes. If they are staying as shapes, I think that is a problem. They have got to do more than that. They have got to become a whole thing.
Sam Cornish: Why does it need to do that?
Robin Greenwood: Why? Because it has got to work!
Sam Cornish: But the quality that I enjoy about no.2 is the separateness of the shape and the sense of each one, the individual character of each shape.
Mark Skilton: But that individual character has to relate, one to another, in a specific way to create something that in itself is individual and specific.
Sam Cornish: Yes… if you have a particular way of looking at them, but I am not sure I can take it as read that that is the case, that it has to have that flow from one thing to another…
Robin Greenwood: No, I am saying that the thing has to come together in some way. We talk a lot about wholeness and all sorts of theories about wholeness have come and gone, and Anne has just talked about one kind of wholeness, being able to see the whole thing, from wherever you are, acting in some way, which is in my opinion a really good thing. But that does not necessarily mean it is a whole thing, even if you can see it all – it just means you can see it all.
Hilde Skilton: It is the live-ness, so it is going to be whole, but it’s got to have a live-ness.
Anthony Smart: I want to put into the conversation that it is the physicality of the steel and the pressures that the steel is setting up which creates the space. It’s those tensions and compressions, what the steel is actually doing, in its actual individual sections, which are constantly changing which is where the meaning comes from. For me, that’s what is missing in this discussion. You are talking too generally about space, three-dimensionality and wholeness – wholeness is going to come from the meanings stacking up into a ‘great’ meaning, so that individual moves and individual pressures amount to this greater thing that is complete, and that you feel compelled to engage with. It is complete in that it is able to regenerate itself and keep on going…. That’s the bit that’s missing. And if you want to be specific, be specific in the words you are using.
Mark Skilton: Another interesting part of that is as you move around, specific relationships change a lot. What I was particularly interested in to start with in no.4 was that it seems to have a different kind of configuration as two halves, two parts. One part relates to the ground in one way and one part relates to the ground another way. And in looking at it, looking particularly at this part and this view, you get the feeling of compression, you get the feeling of this part being supported by that part and compressed. But what gets really interesting is when you get round there is an expansion, a feeling of it coming outwards, and that’s really good, a good thing to have. As well as all of the fluidity in the material, as well as manipulating the spaces, actually creating a sculpture that has two very distinct characters which build to a whole feeling. I think this is quite an achievement.
Helga Joergens-Lendrum: What I would like to say is that you see in all of them the same technical approach of using steel, shaping the individual parts of the steel and assembling them to sculptures, but each of the sculptures has its own character. Each has a different way of using and forming shapes, each has its own expression. What I also find fascinating is the richness of looking at them from different angles, from above and below and around. They change and stay interesting. The relationship within the pieces and the individual parts and how they are connected to create these flowing directions and areas of sculpture, maybe moving out and reaching out into the space, or other areas that lead you back into the space of the sculpture; they are so lovely and complex.
Hilde Skilton: And also the character within no.4, there are different characters in the same piece, there are different tensions, different speeds and so when it comes to saying ‘I like this sculpture’ it is for this reason. It does more for me than that one that just winds in and out and occupies space. With two characters – I should not say ‘this half and that half’ – the complexity is increased. It relates to the ground on this side and on the other there is this coming up – and then the two interact with each other, bridging across the centre. I just love it.
Alexandra Harley: I like what you have just said about the centre of no.4. This, and a couple of others, work into the middle of the sculpture and come out again. What I like about this is the way it is more ambiguous in forming some of the internal structures. ‘Ambiguous’ may be the wrong word. It creates a space, but it does not actually finish it off for you, so you have to work at that. It aggregates space from outside, pulls in stuff from right out of the sculpture, that all becomes part of it. I like that openness that it has, and some of that stems from the fact that it is working from the middle toward the outside.
Anne Smart: I think that is a dilemma of abstract sculpture that you attune yourself to confront that problem. How do you work freestyle when sometimes things automatically gravitate to the middle, or when you start outside it and they don’t come in? We talked last year about ‘blocking’ and sometimes I look at abstract sculpture and I see distractions that take something away from the fact that really it is all about the middle, there is something there, and it is easy to put something out there in the way of a distraction technique from what is really happening. It seems to be self-aware. That’s why I like that sculpture.
Desmond Brett: The thing I have been thinking about is less about the material, but actually about the approach. I am aware of a ‘molten’ quality, the way in which the discrete pieces are connected. It makes me think of modelling. There is something like gesture in this technique perhaps. I am reminded of using clay. I often use clay just to sketch – and I call to mind how a gesture can be used very quickly and swiftly and whether – I know these are constructions – have you ever thought of modelling, or might it be a dead end?
Anthony Smart: It’s the word gesture that’s freaked me out. It has been used a number of times. I am not sure where modelling fits this kind of construction. I have said something already about what I think is great about steel. Modelling is really about achieving a surface, and this way of working isn’t.
Mark Skilton: In modelling you do not have any individual parts, it is all one surface. As long as you have individual parts, it’s a construction.
Helga Joergens-Lendrum: It is a construction and I think you were saying that the steel looks unlike you would expect steel to look. It has form and surface which is irregular. It can give the association of hand-modelled in clay and I find it interesting because it leads away from the pre-conceived expression and appearance of steel. Tony is able to give steel a characteristic and appearance which is individual, and stretches out, enlarges and enhances the character of the steel. You go beyond the normal boundaries, bringing it to life.
Emyr Williams: What you are calling modelling is just ‘handling’ to a greater degree.
Mark Skilton: I think it is a quality of the scale of the actual pieces, that they relate to the hand, that is like a handle or something, whereas last year’s are substantially bigger and it is not something that you feel you are grasping. Subconsciously this does relate to the hand. I think that is what people are relating to, rather than actually modelling, which is very misleading.
Emyr Williams: It is actually that more is happening on each bit.
Hilde Skilton: But does this aspect you are talking about add to the tension?
Emyr Williams and Alexandra Harley: Absolutely. Yes.
David Lendrum: Isn’t the modelling question related to the fluidity of the sculpture? I mean, they do seem very fluid to me, the rhythmic line, one element flowing into another. Each element is discreetly different, but they actually visually cohere. They move in a fluid sort of a way, which is not what you really expect steel to do.
Anthony Smart: The question of whether this is an interesting thing to do with steel perhaps should be left to hang there…
Hilde Skilton: How is this linked to forging the steel?
Anthony Smart: I do not think it is.
Hilde Skilton: No, it is not forging, but what happens when you are forging? The steel becomes more malleable. Are you suggesting that it is more malleable by cutting these shapes?
Anne Smart: Having thought a lot about forging, I think the fluidity of these is because of the steel.When you talk about ‘fluidity’, there is a slight reference to line, but the thing that is successful about the fluidity thing here is that it is a new kind of fluidity, where your eye does not have to travel along a single line. Your eye can flick from one ‘fluidity’ to another, through real space in the sculpture, and keep the flow of the piece. With forging you are always hampered by the fact that the fluidity comes from the working of the hammers to push the steel, and that pushed steel is always self-contained.
Hilde Skilton: What is wrong with that?
Anne Smart: I am not saying it’s right or wrong, but the here fluidity is completely new.
Mark Skilton: This has a greater visual fluidity.
Hilde Skilton: There is a physical fluidity in forging…
Anthony Smart: Forging was an interesting thing to do, but slow and difficult, but it did indicate that you need to open the steel up. This is opening up steel, but in a way which I think you can deal with.
Sam Cornish: Is there a sense that they are almost a virtuoso exercise in a particular way of dealing with the steel? Concentrating on this size of part, they are over-refined in their complexity, compared to their impact or to the individuality of the total piece. We have just had a long conversation about the handling, compared to other types of working. Are they almost too technical, in that sense? You are almost lost in the complexity of them.
Anthony Smart: You are?
Sam Cornish: I am, and I feel that maybe the steel sculptors here might not have that problem, but people who are not used to working in that way are not able to get into it. I really enjoy them close up, but I find a problem… ‘vague’ is too strong a word, but that they tend towards that as total things. I don’t know whether that is to do with the size of the parts, but there is a loss of overall drama…
Alexandra Harley: I absolutely disagree there…
Sam Cornish: A lack of forcefulness…?
Hilde Skilton: Maybe you mean clarity?
Sam Cornish: Maybe I do mean clarity…
Hilde Skilton: …a lack of specific-ness in how one piece is to another piece…?
Sam Cornish: No, I really do not mean one piece to another piece! I mean clarity as a thing that strikes you as you walk into an arena with them. They have an enormous clarity close up, but they almost feel like they are an incredible skillful exercise – though that’s much harsher than I mean. The joys of them come from that skill, but it’s also their problem.
Anthony Smart: I think what you are doing is very interesting, Sam, but quite risky, bringing another kind of sculpture to the table, and are comparing it with this. Recently I saw a sculpture on the lawn at the Sainsbury Centre from about 100 yards. At that distance it was as enticing as a piece of graphics. It looked awfully tangible and convincing as something at that distance. I think that you are comparing that sort of legibility at a distance with this, and they are two totally different things. And so what, if you can only get on with it this close?Who says you have to see all sculpture from a distance, who says it should be? Who says you shouldn’t be up close and personal? And what could be wrong with that? Do you think we are losing something?
Sam Cornish: Yes. I wonder whether it is maybe the fact that in an enclosed environment you would be more physically close to them, and maybe that would do something. But I also think it is a concrete problem. It’s to do with the way they kind of ‘close in’ on themselves.
Anthony Smart: This doesn’t close in on itself…
Sam Cornish: They often loop back into themselves – you can point to where they do.
Anthony Smart: This is travelling backwards and forwards through and back that way… this flows all over the place…
Alexandra Harley: If you look at no.2 from here, you have that connection on the very top, from over there, that’s exactly what you were saying, it held it in. But actually, it has created a whole new set of stuff, up here – that isn’t a container, it’s also something else going along on the top. It’s not the physical constraints of the material. The material itself is activating that whole space.
Anthony Smart: What I have got going through my mind, Sam, is that you have been spoken to here in a foreign language, and you don’t speak it.
Sam Cornish: But I think that is a problem, because I am not a million miles away. Ok, I am not a practitioner and I have not been involved in the debates for as long but I’m not a million miles from them, so…
Anthony Smart: But if I have done my job properly for this Chronicle, what I am presenting here is something that these guys haven’t seen before either, and they are having to come to terms with it. We are spending a big percentage of the hour, and part of yesterday, getting to grips with what they know already, and what really is going on in the sculpture. So you need to keep open that possibility. The thing for me about the ‘Chronicles’ is that we should be illuminating the work from the ‘positive’, in the hope that we will see something new shining out across all of the works. We may be completely defeated here, it may not happen…
Emyr Williams: Can I come in on no.2, because the way that it comes back through itself, possibly one of the only ones that does that, apart from no.8, could be construed as a little predictable. But actually I do not see that as a weakness, because the predictability makes it more risky to do. Whereas the ones that you talked about, no.7 and no.4, are more conventionally ‘posed’, in terms of going from a standing point to a high point. And actually, although that is presented as more three-dimensionally ambitious, I wonder if this is taking a greater risk in having an element that could be called slightly predictable. Actually, I like the fact that it does that and succeeds in doing that. It gets beyond that.
David Lendrum: I like the way it does that as well, actually. I like the feeling of completeness, unlike the ones with the sort of ‘arms’ sticking out. I like the fluidity of this one.
Anthony Smart: Physically this element and that element, which is in reverse of the other, separates and lifts these two things up. It appear to be quite wrapped up in itself, but is actually pushing outwards. As opposed to those last year – where I was going with Sam and I lost my track – where we talked here about that sculpture, ‘Marshland One’, about ‘the end of the end point’, so the loose element does not just disappear into space, as a gesture. Picking up on what Emyr is saying, that gives the thing its wholeness, it is pressing out. And I agree with you, there is a risk that the thing just sucks into the middle, becomes a core, but it doesn’t.
David Lendrum: Why did you start introducing these cut pieces?
Anthony Smart: To open the steel up. But as soon as you do the first one, it looks very convincing, so I thought this has legs, so I got on with it.
Emyr Williams: That one, no.5, I think it is the first to be made. This one, no.2, is the second one. No.5 has not quite got the touch of it, like playing the piano with gloves on…
Anthony Smart: I hope we will be able to pick up on what Sam was saying, which we have not got into in the hour. I am hoping that it will run again…