‘How I look at sculpture (the same way that I make it?)’

some thoughts about making and looking

The Yorkshire Sculpture International takes place in June 2019 in four venues and across two cities, Leeds and Wakefield. Each of the venues is interpreting a ‘provocation’ by Phyllida Barlow – “sculpture is the most anthropological of the artforms”. At the Aesthetica Future Now symposium – 7th and 8th March 2019 – Jane Bhoyroo, Producer of YSI, delivered a session in which she referred to the Hepworth Wakefield concentrating on ‘Material Literacy’ in their interpretation.

At the symposium I had a portfolio review with Bhoyroo in which I showed photographs of some of my sculptures – the Ptolemy’s Garden series [link to gallery, put a picture in!] – that are made from used or waste materials. In this case an old bathroom floor and a randomly torn and re-purposed set of drawings. During this review I was confronted with the need to explain the gestation of the sculpture, which inevitably led to talking about the materials they are constructed from. In this case the connection between the source of the material and the finished work is quite clear, they are built, in part, from flooring removed from the bathroom which is broken and used to represent views of the garden. The cat, Ptolemy, is present as part of the material, as are myself and my wife, having walked on and interacted with the flooring and also as a memory alluded to in the representation.

Ptolemy's Garden 1

Ptolemy’s Garden 1

It strikes me that there are a series of questions asked consciously or unconsciously when contemplating a sculpture, does it represent, how does it occupy space, what does it feel like, does it have a front view, should you be inside it or more distant from it? Does it want you to touch it, and do you want to touch it? Does it confront or invite? Should these questions be asked and perhaps answered before any sense of meaning is addressed, or is meaning inevitably a precursor to, or at least concurrent with the approach to the object? Essentially the language we use parses from Pestalozzi’s schools through Elizabeth Mayo’s Lessons on Objects to the Bauhaus courses of Moholy-Nagy. We are asked to learn the formal elements of art through experiential encounters with materials and through analysis of these encounters develop a language to describe them.

I continually question myself about these resonances in the things I make. Whilst they are obviously necessary in the making of the object are they at all significant in the understanding of the object for the audience? Is too much explanation an attempt to cover a weakness in the work and/or does it add to the viewers appreciation of it? Given that the work is addressing a memory that is specifically mine, does revealing this disavow a more personal response, a different evocation, from a viewer?

Three Graces Hexthorpe 2012

Three Graces Hexthorpe 2012

Ann-Sophie Lehmann quotes Moholy Nagy in her 2017 essay in Bauhaus Zeitschrift – ‘Material Literacy’

Everyone is equipped by nature to receive and to assimilate sensory experiences. Everyone is sensitive to tones and colours, everyone has a sure ‘touch’ and space reactions, and so on. This means that everyone by nature is able to participate in all the pleasures of sensory experience, that any healthy man can become a musician, painter, sculptor, or architect, just as when he speaks, he is ‘a speaker.’ That is, he can give form to his reactions in any material.”

she goes on to state that ‘this quote summarizes the core of László Moholy Nagy’s seminal book Von Material zu Architektur. Published in 1929 in the Bauhaus series and translated with revisions into English as The New Vision a couple of years later .Lehmann, A. 2017. Material Literacy. Bauhaus Zeitschrift . Nr 9 (“Substance”), pp. 20-27

She suggests there is ‘…a collective urge to grasp— intellectually and physically—the substances of which this world and the things within it are made. This urge is channelled into a call for material literacy, a term that denotes a broad sensitivity to materials and their diverse meanings. Lehmann (2017)

Starting with this need to think and to feel the things the world is made of, sculpture should thus be designed to be touched intellectually and physically, rendering it at least transient if not ephemeral. [There is an aside here about curating ‘experiences’ rather than exhibitions and the development of “relational aesthetics”i in driving cultural experiences.]

Lehmann discusses the tangibility of materials bent to a purpose through the design process in line with Moholy-Nagy’s Bauhaus course which ‘created a unifying experience through the exploration of materials. The interaction with a wide variety of materials— wood, glass, metal, wool, paper, etc.—enabled students indeed to ‘form experience in any material’ and resulted in countless Materialstudien (material studies), only a couple of which survived.’ She goes on to state that ‘Moholy-Nagy’s manifesto-like style reads like a blueprint for contemporary discourses on sustainability and their inherent intentions to change the world for the better. This ideal (prone to abduction by commercial interests) often resurfaces when materials are at stake. Materials, of course, are always at stake, because everything in and around us is material.’ Lehmann (2017)

Three Sculptures 2004

My inarticulacy around making is apparent and it has taken me a couple of weeks to write this vague and erratic text, but this lack in and of itself reflects the way that I make things. Thoughts piled over thoughts, things read and interpreted, understood or misunderstood, reflection, rejection and grudging acceptance delivered through attempts to control media, to overcome perceived limitations it has and then to backtrack and accept the way the material asserts itself despite my efforts to control it. I appreciate the practice that suggests you develop understanding of the material, learn to work with it and build something in concert with it, but I find myself consistently engaged in a battle with all sorts of forces that eventually ends in an exhausted acquiescence.


Young , A. 2013. Material Wisdom. Cabinet. (50),pp. 16-18

Lehmann, A. (2016). Cube of Wood. Material Literacy for Art History..

i“Relational aesthetics” is a term coined by curator Nicolas Bourriaud for the exhibition “Traffic,” held at the CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux in 1996. It refers to installations and interactive events designed to facilitate community among participants (both artists and viewers). Rather than producing objects for individual aesthetic contemplation, Relational artists attempt to produce new human relationships through collective experiences. Artspace editors. 2016. What Is Relational Aesthetics? Here’s How Hanging Out, Eating Dinner, and Feeling Awkward Became Art. [Online]. [10 March 2019]. Available from: http://www.artspace.com/magazine/art_101/what-is-relational-aesthetics


Over the summer I planted tomatoes for the first time in years. I didn’t get them in until May so the fruit ripened in September and was so ugly that may wife declared they could not be eaten. So here’s what I did with them.

This is the first painting – I tend to find first versions are over involved, become fussy and subject to continual finessing, and make me wish there was someone there to tie my hands so that I stopped. These are placed on a drawing board on my turntable in my attic studio. Oil on Paper 90×90.

Two tomatoes Oil on board 46x81cm

Two tomatoes Oil on board 46x81cm

As I progressed I used a lot of red and yellow paint so I started other paintings so as not to waste any. This is the first, on hardboard that was lying around. I’m trying to establish their weight and get the right shininess onto the surface.

Two Tomatoes Two oil on board 46x81cm

Two Tomatoes Two oil on board 46x81cm

another Two tomatoes version done at the same time and with the same ends. I decided I wanted to paint all eight with a different background to concentrate their redness.

Tomatoes on Yellow oil on paper 115x90cm

Tomatoes on Yellow oil on paper 115x90cm

The photograph doesn’t do complete justice to the yellow, the two tones are a lot closer.

At the same time I made two sets of three tomatoes.

three tomatoes two oil on 200lb watercolour paper A1

three tomatoes two oil on 200lb watercolour paper A1

I did these as I had some watercolour paper stretched and I wanted to see how the absorbency affected the paint.

three tomatoes oil on 200lb watercolour paper A1

three tomatoes oil on 200lb watercolour paper A1

By this time the tomatoes were beginning to get soft so I disposed of them humanely! They are heirloom beefsteak tomatoes and the biggest of them was just over a pound in weight and about eight inches across.

The whole episode took about three weeks and is easily enough red for one project.

‘But what does it all mean?’

I started a sculpture this summer, the first one I’ve done for a while, and posted an unfinished state in T’Art Club.
This prompted a question around the story, what’s it all about?


When I build something I don’t necessarily start with a specific end in mind, finding that if I know what it’s going to be it becomes too difficult to achieve. Is that because my imagination outstrips my talent, or because I need the process to be a discovery? Picasso apparently said that if he knew what he was going to paint he needn’t bother with it. I suspect it’s a bit of both for me.

Meaning, narrative, even purpose are perhaps ingrained in process but remain undefined beyond completion, or the point at which you stop, and there is a sense in which they are unnecessary. But people need something to grab on to when they see a thing, a way in, to judge the success of a work there is a sense that you need to know what you’re supposed to think so that you can measure it against what you actually think. That measure is your judgement, does it work? Rather than do I like it?

I’ve never really got that, being too interested in the physicality of an object, how it uses space, how it ‘moves’, and how it’s formal elements, balance, proportion, rhythm, colour, work to activate it.

This work ‘Hexthorpe Park -the three graces’ is born of that motivation and no other. I started with the central tree, worked on for some hours but not transformed much, and worked towards an assemblage of forms that cut through the space I had predefined (in my mind). While working on it I walked the dogs in the park and, as I do, indulged my fascination with the way things grow, the random negative spaces generated by the intertwined branches of trees and shrubs, the way dead wood breaks off in storms and is held by chance for a time, before the next storm loosens it. Alongside this thinking of the three graces, Thalia, for abundance, blooming, the muse of comedy, Euphrosyne for Joy, Aglaea, for beauty and brilliance.

If there is a reason for the way the forms are combined here it’s because the muses are essentially the same, or aspects of the same feeling. There is a negative space made solid, a frame as a surface to be cut, a floor that is one of the muses and the space itself, holding them together. Then there is the colour, hopefully drawing the pieces together, providing some definition but essentially indicating a similarity of material.


The sculpture is best described as a sketch, something impromptu and ephemeral, light and airy. It’s about happiness.