The Brancaster Chronicles are edited transcripts of recorded discussions made in direct response to exhibitions of abstract painting and sculpture. More information here.
28th September 2013, the artist’s studio, London.
Those present: Hilde Skilton, Mark Skilton, Anne Smart, Anthony Smart, Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann, Robin Greenwood, Sarah Greenwood, John Bunker, Alexandra Harley, Nick Moore, Ashley West, Fred Crayk, Saul Greenberg, Emyr Williams, John Pluthero, Patrick Jones, Fred Pollock, Sam Cornish.
[Discussing ‘Tree of Ornans #1’.]
Nick Moore: Am I right in thinking these are pieces done since you came back to work here and use this as a studio, so they are quite recent?
Robin Greenwood: They are recent, yes.
Emyr Williams: Can I ask you about the eye-level – you look down on them. How much effect do you think that has on the space in them? They feel more contained because they are lower to the ground. Sometimes I can look at ‘phrases’ in them, like in this one [‘Tree of Ornans #1’] where it starts to move up, and you feel as if it wants to keep on going past your eyes, setting up a bigger diagonal. I wondered if you had deliberately stopped it going higher, if you put the brakes on and wanted to try getting more energy out by keeping it lower and keeping it talking to the other pieces in it.
Robin Greenwood: Not really, no, but I think that getting higher than 4’ 6” has been a recurring problem for me. I don’t know why, but it is on my agenda to address. But I don’t consciously stop these things at a height.
Nick Moore: Would it be right in thinking of them as coming up from the ground? Is that an accurate way to think about the process of building them?
Robin Greenwood: No, I wouldn’t have thought so…
Sam Cornish: Are you starting on the ground?
Robin Greenwood: Not necessarily. Is it an issue?
Sam Cornish: No. I am just trying to find a way to get into that question…
Emyr Williams: When you say you have got a problem coming over 4’ 6” high, do you mean if you did go over it would be physically different, to qualify doing that?
Robin Greenwood: I don’t know, and I don’t really know why it has happened, but I think I would like to address it…
John Bunker: Do you think the height encourages you in looking ‘down through’, over distance, instead of ‘looking at’… if you get my drift? For me that is how it seems to operate. I’m getting lots of different ‘potentials’ by looking down and through it, which I would possibly lose if something was ‘up’.
Anne Smart: For me there is a potentially much higher feeling to the piece than it actually is, because certain things seem to be occurring on certain parts of the sculpture, as you go around. You get pieces like this [top end of sculpture], which I feel is not really an edge and I feel there is a lot happening up above that is part of it. Maybe it’s a bit too much, in some way ‘gestural’ or ‘pointy’ or ‘spiky’, but some of the sections really seem to take on a lot of the space that is up here [above the sculpture]. It comes right out of this, but I haven’t decided whether that is making the sculpture feel bigger, making it have a lot more space than is actually described [occupied] by the steel. Even in quite small things the faces of them often seem to describe space that is not there; this ‘sectionalises’ lots of this big space here, so because of the interior being available inside, it seems to go down as well. Not quite sure what I mean by that, but I don’t see them as being just 4’ 6”, I see them as being much bigger than that.
Ashley West: What is implied is that it forms this kind of geometric rectangle, so the implication is to suggest an extension. If I imagine these components being more rounded or circular then it would be more contained. There is a sense in which the movement in each part is one of extension, and that each piece implies others…
Anne Smart: That’s the feeling… I can’t make my mind up whether that’s good or bad; can’t make my mind up whether it’s a bit too cool or understated in this sculpture; there does not seem to be any modulation in the description of what could be potentially fantastically unexplored spaces.
Emyr Williams: There is a lot of space to explore under 4’ 6”, and it logically does that. The space goes off into its own little ‘pocket’, then creates a ‘phrase’ in part of a bigger space. It’s got a pragmatic logic at the heart of it, there are no fast and loose bits, it’s getting from A to B in an exciting a way as you possibly can. It’s a question of could you go on, is enough said…?
Mark Skilton: The height is limited by the structure that is holding it. These can’t go any higher [in their present form]; the higher you get, the more pressure. The visual concern is what is actually holding it together down here [at the base]. The energy comes from down the bottom, somewhere, and the more it goes up the more that [at the bottom] has to work to hold it together. But you question what’s going on down here and what you are going to do with this energy, whether there is a return energy that’s actually holding it. The higher up that you go or the more strain that you put on that return energy, so you might actually have to build it differently. This language of construction, which I like, is very aggressive and it does a great deal to this point, but I think it needs to expand and make more sense of the space between these [parts], and to re-think the nature of the space and matter within this piece. It’s not that it’s disconnected, but the whole thing has a balance to it – which is fine – but I think that in order to try and get up higher I think you would have to re-think how you got up to this height in the first place. It needs more complexity to get it together and I think it needs more complexity to engage with the space.
Anthony Smart: Do you see these elements as describing a volume, or are they independent things?
Mark Skilton: I tend to see them as independent.
Anthony Smart: Are we looking at a volume, or are we looking at things in space? I think it’s important to know first of all whether they are independent things, or forming a volume, that way you know what kind of space it is. I have an issue with talking about them going higher, because only the steel go higher; the space itself is nothing unless you put the steel into it.
Mark Skilton: Well, I think it can go high as long as the space is built in with the steel, rather than having substance just occupy space. You get glimpses of it, things like that in there and over the other side of that bit of plate; there’s a nice space underneath it. You get a feeling of it being more than just air, more substantial. The sculpture occupies quite a large area with comparatively little material, so rather than actually reaching into space I am suspecting that you would get more mileage if you were building space in with the material as it went, a bit more than it does. Does that make any sense?
Robin Greenwood: Well, I think it is a very spatial sculpture. It’s not that the steel goes out into space to define or demonstrate it or in some way partition it up, or even articulate it. It’s as close as I have got to having the steel and the space somehow interlocked. That’s as close to it as I have got…
Anthony Smart: If you put two ‘things’ up, you make a wall; three things make some kind of volume; four would also form some sort of volume, and that issue of the volume has to be dealt with, either as a volume, or by eating into that by giving each of these things their independence; and that’s the bit that the sculpture for me is stuck on. Is it going one way or the other? Because I think that for me both of them, less so the other one [‘Gothic Blud #1’ – see images, below] have arrived [at a configuration] before the steel has become developed as a whole thing. The view from the side is not as loose and lively as this [view 1]. This is at its best, it’s all happening, but I would get rid of that [large plate, bottom left of view 1] because it’s like an anchor.
Hilde Skilton: Why would you want to get rid of that, with all of this tension running through? And as far as I am concerned, the areas that go up are all interacting with the tension. I just have a problem with some of the joints, some of the areas that have come together. This [junction at bottom right, view 1] with that flange coming off, that doesn’t tell me that that is articulated. Is that saying that this is connected? I just don’t feel that piece of steel butting up against that round bar is a good enough ‘coming together’.
Robin Greenwood: I agree with you. I think I would say that that particular little bit there is what I was most worried about in the whole sculpture, as to how it cuts down the space, becoming almost literal at that point. I think that is because the way I see this sculpture operating is in three big sections, and that is a junction between two of them. So I don’t agree with Tony about this piece [large plate] being surplus, because that is part of one whole thing right through there and all through there into this and through there to this articulation on the floor and back up to that plate [the whole section, bottom left to right, view 4]; and the space that that whole thing generates [with the plate] I think is really felt right through to here [plate in the air, bottom right, view 4]. This ‘closing’ of that space [between plate and ‘leg’] and the cantilever of that is really good. And there is another really big thing [right foreground of view 3] that I think is also really three-dimensional. If you look at that, you can walk around the sculpture looking [just] at that, and to me it knows all about itself. And so does that thing, and to an extent so does that thing [left in view 3]. And so the question for me then is how do these three big things get together into any kind of unified whole thing.
Hilde Skilton: I think it does. It’s just that the joint articulated like that just isn’t good enough; and you say its literal – it’s almost an illusion. These articulated joints, you don’t want them literal, but do want them illusionary either? It’s almost a balance between the two. But I do think there is a sensitivity in a lot of the working, it doesn’t bother me that it is not massively more complex, and I do think it works as a whole. I think that the tensions and the energy going through it is good, it’s just that when you get to an area like that [joint], it lets you down.
Sam Cornish: Anne said it was ‘cool’ and I think I agree, as in ‘just having enough’. I think I see that as a positive quality.
Anthony Smart: So we have all given our versions of these three elements, and the next thing, with or without the ‘anchor’, is what they do and how they come together. I think they are either all ‘loose’, which I think would be the most challenging, that’s the one I favour, or making a volume. I want them to be more independent, because I think then they have got a chance of really being spatial. And their spatiality being in different elements will clash with one another, and then let ‘battle commence’. I think at the moment, Anne is right they are a bit ‘cool’ and the format has brought them together, the ‘one, two and three’, and it has just stopped at that point. I think what I would like to do is look at this other one…
[Discussing ‘Gothic Blud #1’.]
This sculpture is much more together as a whole thing. I feel this from that point on the floor, all the way up to that [right hand, view 3], through onto the floor into that corner, (though something needs to be said about that) through and down to this point on the floor and then it comes up here, that [left extension, view 4] flips over and this [plate, top left, view 4] is the bit I have a problem with. It doesn’t seem to know what should be going on through there to rotate that thing [left extension, view 4] that way. As against this one [right hand, view 3] unraveling itself like that [rotating/rolling], which I think is really exciting. This part [mid-section of left-hand part] would be better with a proper joint rather than a sort of ‘sucked-on’ weld [onto the round bar], and I feel the whole support thing is a bit ‘I don’t know what’… so OK, I have never seen anything like it but it’s flat and I can’t read it from over there so it can’t be terribly important. But this I get through and I think it has a logic to it and I think the way it comes in and reads through here, it’s got the makings of a totality. And maybe just having these two [outer parts] with this [‘box’ corner] as a third ‘stump’ is enough.
Anne Smart: I think that you cannot help but think of that one [‘Tree of Ornans #1’] as ‘three’, but you don’t think of this one [‘Gothic Blud #1’] as ‘two’; and in fact you could think of it as ‘twelve’, because there are so many ways you could go and focus on and enjoy little parts without losing a sense of the whole thing. But it makes sense quite quickly. As you are going round it you can actually get a grip of the ends of this one; it doesn’t really matter where you stand, you get a feel as though you are all over it. You don’t necessarily have to walk around there to see what is happening – I know that you have to walk around sculptures, but you feel as though you can stand here and know about the back of that over there. And even though I can’t put my arms around it, I know what is happening on the bits I cannot see. And I don’t think it is to do with the scale, it seems to be, well, it’s not ‘two things’, which is a revelation, because when Tony said the ‘stump’ of the ‘third’ one, this is what clicked with me then. Whereas with that one [‘Tree of Ornans #1’] I can’t help trying to work out what the ‘middle’ of that one is.
Ashley West: I see it completely differently to that. There is something about the ‘springiness’ of that [‘Tree of Ornans #1’], kind of springing out from the ground… it’s more conducive to resolution, balance… so I see it much more easily as a totality. Whereas this one [‘Gothic Blud #1’] I see as tending towards two pieces, and I find personally that this section here [middle], maybe because of the cylindrical forms, seems quite a weak connection, kind of organic.
Anne Smart: I think despite the way you have described it there, I would continue to think that this [‘Gothic Blud #1’] is much more abstract than that [‘Tree of Ornans #1’]. What you are describing there [in ‘Tree of Ornans’] is more like something growing from the centre, a little more organic, whereas I think this [‘Gothic Blud #1’] could be read as organic, but I think it very strongly denies that, and becomes very abstract.
Mark Skilton: I think the linking part [middle section] in here is extremely strong and this is what makes these [outer] two things work. I mean, the reason this can get right out there is that this is such a strong contraction and force pulling both of these halves in; and this is what is lacking in that one [‘Tree of Ornans #1’]; it does not have the sort of clarity and strength of that.
Hilde Skilton: Do you think that the way that the round bar [in the middle section] is connected like that, do you feel it is real? Round bar is so hard to articulate.
Anthony Smart: You do feel that something is being disturbed in a purposeful way, and you do believe that that has something to do with these two things. You do also feel that this thing is rotating, helped by the significance of these, turning on you, rotating in space. So it is not ‘space-making’; this is really engaging, as it turns over, and it does it on a scale that sucks these two [outer] things together.
Anne Smart: It’s much more physical isn’t it?
Emyr Williams: Both sculptures have this turning, cranking up of space coming around, not organic. I don’t really think using terms like ‘organic’ help in looking, it’s just a prop to hang your hat on.
Mark Skilton: I think the liveness in this sculpture [‘Tree of Ornans #1’] is in these, the key elements. The three elements are really live, really active, doing a lot of things, and I think this [big ‘anchor’ plate] distracts from that. I keep looking at those things and thinking what is going to happen with them. I think they are fantastic and that big plate actually dilutes the energy from these.
Sarah Greenwood: What I quite enjoyed about it is that it’s right underneath and that most of those elements down the bottom have space underneath. So there is this big thing happening underneath the feet of it. Do you think that it is relevant?
Mark Skilton: Yes, very relevant, but I don’t think it’s being emphasized by that [big plate], I think it’s again distracting away from it. It’s holding the thing on the ground, and such an anchor to the energy that you can’t actually get into the energy of the sculpture. It blocks it.
Ashley West: It seems to me the whole thing is much more forgiving than that. It has a certain simplicity, like a painting that you can just look at. I can get an awful lot out of the ‘spirit’ of what is going on here without analyzing it. I do not see that sort of ‘criticality’.
Anthony Smart: I’m not going to compare it to painting but it is essential in sculpture that a thing has a logic from the outset. The reality is that its physicality can be known about in the same way as when you were bringing up the subject of a tree. You actually know nothing about a tree when you are born, but this thing has to have in it everything you need to know about it, so that you can get to grips with it and trust it, be in the same room with it. You need to believe in it, so it has to have these things sorted out. What we are talking about here might come across as a bit heavy, but this is the reality of making something this big in a space that people walk around in.
Hilde Skilton: It is important for the sculptor in this case to make it so crystal clear that you don’t have to question it – it just ‘says’ it. Otherwise you are just putting bits in space, occupying space, and you are going to get so much more if what you are trying to convey is actually there in the material.
Robin Greenwood: Hilde talked at the beginning about the junction at the base [of ‘Tree of Ornans #1’] which was the thing that worried me too; so what I did in this sculpture [‘Gothic Blud #1’] was a direct response to how I felt that the steel in places shrunk down… almost sucked the space out of the sculpture in that little junction; so you have the space of this big part here and the space of that big part there – the junction of these other two things didn’t seem to be so much of an issue – but that definitely did. So that second sculpture [‘Gothic Blud #1’] was trying to think about the steel a little differently, opening up the steel a little bit more to the space, so it’s not felt to be as tight; opening the joints to let space into the steel.
Patrick Jones: You [Robin] are on record as saying that in new abstract art it’s the spatial element which is the most important.
Robin Greenwood: I think that’s my concern, yes.
Patrick Jones: And do you feel that these are beginning to do what you want?
Robin Greenwood: I think these are more spatial than my previous sculpture. I think it is an improvement, a step forward.
Anthony Smart: Three-dimensionality is what we are really talking about; because if it is really three-dimensional it will be spatial and it will be spatial in a more surprising way. I do not see how you can think about space, because until you put some ‘stuff’ there, there is no space. As was said years ago, space equates to a void without material. So it is actually not something you can begin to talk about, you have got to talk about the metal and its three-dimensionality and its physicality, and space will then come with it. I am going along with two thirds of this one [‘Tree of Ornans #1’], and going along with pretty much all of that one [‘Gothic Blud #1’]. I think [in ‘Tree of Ornans #1’], if you thought about the connection on the floor, if that connection was up here [in the air], say, then all the people who want to get over 4’ 6” would be satisfied, because with something going on up here you would have more trouble than you knew how to cope with and you would have to really think where this was to become part of all of it; because having left the ground, would you want to go all the way back down? This third element [left hand, view 3] is very interesting because of how it stands on the floor and kind of leans on this other element. So now you are talking spatial. He [Robin] has done something three-dimensional with that and it gives it a spatial kick doesn’t it? Because it’s weird…
Robin Greenwood: None of these, none of the three parts are things that are able to be seen spatially without a connection to the others. They can’t stand on the floor by themselves.
Sam Cornish: Do you mean visually or physically?
Robin Greenwood: Physically.
Patrick Jones: Can I just say that it’s a really high order of work, and this talk was really good; the sculptors have helped me to understand and appreciate how they think and what they are trying to do.