Sculptural 2015

Sculptural 2015 is a biennial exhibition at Coombe Trenchard House, Devon, run by William Benington Gallery, co-curated by its Director George Marsh and the sculptor Julian Wild. The exhibition features the work of twenty artists; Ekkehard Altenburger, Peter Brooke-Ball, Owen Bullett, Clare Burnett, Alison Crowther, Nigel Hall, Alex Hoda, Patrick Hurst, Eleanor Lakelin, Simon Linington, Will Nash, Robert Phillips, Peter Randall-Page, Silvina Soria, Amy Stephens, Patricia Volk, Sheila Vollmer, Shane Waltener, David Worthington and Julian himself.

Coombe Trenchard is an Arts and Crafts house dating from 1906, designed by the architect, Walter Sarel, which still retains many of its original features. The present owners are committed to a dynamic programme of exhibiting contemporary sculpture in this picturesque parkland setting. The main areas consist of a canopied woodland, formal gardens, groomed lawns and a newly planted wood. Interspersed by a stream and bridge, each area has its own distinct atmosphere. Julian Wild explained: ‘One of George’s main concerns was that the visitor would discover and come upon the works naturally as they went around. With the Trail Map, we have planned it so that the visitor may catch a glimpse of the next work – but no more, thus it would feel exciting and immediate, rather than contrived and staged.’

Before the tour, we asked Julian to discuss the themes and evolution of the exhibition. He elucidated: ‘As an artist, I think I bring a particular perspective to the show, with the placing of the works and choice of artists. It was important for George Marsh and I to have the right piece for each setting, which involved many studio visits to artists such as Nigel Hall RA, to get a feel for their practice. We also wanted a diverse selection of artists that spanned different eras, as we are interested in the common ground one can find between different generations, and to demonstrate the parallels and contrasts in their work. What emerged from this melting pot was a focus on geometric work, and how geometry relates to nature, which soon became the underlying theme – anchoring and unifying the exhibition. Although some of the pieces are site-specific and some aren’t, we wanted the artists and their work to engage with the site so that there is an input and relationship involved – conveying a feeling of ‘place’. The artists who worked more site-specifically came down for the weekend to explore the environment. The artist Shane Waltener was so inspired, he retreated into the woods and returned a few hours later having created an extraordinary art work you will see later!’

On entering the grounds directly in front of the house, the first work Julian showed us was Owen Bullett’s Matter & Memory (2014). The work is a series of arcs and lines which gradually build up the form, conveying a complex spatial rhythm. Its innate lyricism, Julian commented, ‘allows the mind to both become absorbed in the fractured space, yet imagine the form of a pure sphere.’ He described how the work, which is made from oak, references vernacular English architecture, as it is constructed by carving the wood into joints and fitting it together with pegs. ‘It has the feeling of something timber framed like an old English barn,’ he added. However, despite this hand-made sensibility which chimes well with timber on the Arts and Crafts house, Bullet has injected an unexpected and compelling disconnect – he has painted his pegs in a vibrant array of Pop art colours. Julian recounted how the work had previously been shown indoors, where it had almost been jammed into the space and made deliberately difficult to walk round, whereas, ‘here the work can breathe and alters the space quite dramatically, with its scale and robust physicality.’ Indeed here the work is commanding yet never overwhelming, and encourages intimacy, as it draws you in to investigate its unfolding form and rough-hewn surface – a correlation of natural materials with the adjacent weather-worn stone and mossy, earthenware tiles.

Julian then led us though an archway and onto the elegant Italian Terrace, where he divulged the problems of installing the dramatic Nigel Hall bronze, Soglio(midpoint) (2012). ‘This piece seemed a little lost in the place that we had originally chosen, where the setting dwarfed it with overgrown bushes, nullifying its crisp voids. Soglio is a town in the mountains of Switzerland, near where the artist stays, and the sculpture is inspired by the silhouette of a viewpoint of the town, with the church tower in the middle suggested by the spiked form. We realised it needed an elevated position and found a perfect spot which would then include a vista of Brentor, with the church there on a rugged outcrop in the distance. Texture and colour come into play with the smooth, dark bronze encasing the dense, green beech trees. Yet it also creates the idea and feeling of expanse and nothingness, looking through a piece that incorporates the changing skies also seemed an important concern,which was achieved though that heightened position.’ 

Underneath an arch of unashamedly shaggy wisteria we came to the Bothy Gallery, a small exhibition space which featured drawings, prints and maquettes by the artists in the exhibition. Here Julian noted: ‘We wanted the visitor to see the more practical, preparatory side of things where some the works were originally envisioned and thought out on a smaller scale.’ Clare Burnett has created three maquettes in steel, which are also complemented by her original drawings and a photo-shop rendition, yielding an insight into the gestation and development of the artist’s ideas, as she works towards the final piece outside, Natural Frequency, Light Pink 120, (2015).

Displayed on the window sill were Silvina Soria’s delicate, filigree maquettes illustrating her experimentation with form and colour. ‘I like seeing her thought-processes and the contrast with Eleanor Lakelin’s carved, burnt and intensely worked ‘seed pod’ vessels,’ Julian observed. Although visually incompatible, an intrinsic connection permeates – as these works are informed by an engagement with both the forms of nature and its fundamental underlying principles.

Julian then took us past Ekkehard Altenburger’s subversive Monument/Sediment (2014) and David Worthington’s cell-like Modular Life (in Colour) (2015) and over the bridge into a very formal part of the garden with a croquet lawn and pavilion where we suddenly came upon Shelia Vollmer’s Lift(2004). A complex tower of welded steel sections, slightly hidden away and tucked in – yet also framed by an alcove of hedges with a view back to Coombe Trenchard house. Although harmonious grey and pinkish hues soften parts of the relentlessly bare steel surface, its fierce angularity and industrial pylon look, both conspired to fragment views of the house beyond. Julian agreed with this, explaining,‘We wanted that paradox of the retrogressive Arts and Crafts Movement, which often tended to look back – and a sense of strident Modernism.’

Moving into the main woodland area, he described it had originally been overgrown with thick laurels which had forced the trees to grow very tall – like columns, so when the owners stripped it back to create an open ‘arena’ for sculpture, a natural roof canopy of foliage was exposed. Here, the most arresting sculpture was Fever when you hold me tight (2015) by Will Nash, who chose a specific tree for his proposal to assemble a white powder-coated steel, modular geometric structure within the tree itself. Nash was one of the artists who came down previously for the weekend on a site visit, to get a feel of this unique canopy setting. George and I had meticulously chosen a few trees we thought would be appropriate, but he arrived and instantly fell upon another one!’ recounted Julian.

Later, after the tour, Will Nash revealed why he had selected a specific tree – and defined this symbiotic relationship for us, ‘The arrangement of the cubes is dictated by the positions of the various branches, and the need for the structure to brace and balance itself within the tree. The white grid superimposes itself into the environment, both caging and framing the host tree.’ Julian then elaborated further: ‘Will was very definite that he wanted to construct the work before the tree came into leaf, so the leaves would grow through the structure. They work together, both physically and metaphorically, yet it is also about man imposing an order on nature and nature winning it back – it is about that dialogue.’ The effect of the work’s stark white surface, and uncompromising linear geometry set against the lush green, gave it a feeling of a superimposed drawing – when seen from afar. This sense of unreality pervaded, until countered by our experience of the structure up close, where a multitude of viewpoints triggered its powerful physical presence and complex spatial journey. Yet any impression is temporal, as the work is ever-changing through the seasons. 

Julian then led us up past the pond and onto a narrow path – unsure of our direction we caught sight of the next brightly coloured work peeking over the silver birch scrub. Amidst a wild, heath-like young woodland, Julian talked about the circular area he had created with George Marsh for The Conversation (2015) his collaboration with artist Amy Stephens. He described how they had designed this area off the main path, ‘to stand out almost like a stage set’ and remarked that working with another artist, ‘the shared responsibility yielded a flow of ideas and the piece of work became playful, as we felt quite free. The Conversation (2015), consists of three sculptures, anchored by geometric concrete bases which feel very functional and urban, like a slice of the South Bank Centre. These encase polished steel stalks which are crowned by ceramic tube flowers of baby blue, teal and orange –all very Mr Whippy Neapolitan ice cream colours! Natural yet unnatural, we wanted them to look like strange flowers that have somehow landed there, with the titling movement of the stalks suggesting a growth and communication between them.’ This slippage between the organic and the artificial, and the possible folding or unfolding of the flower forms, evinces the sense ambiguity of form and meaning in this intriguing piece. The sympathetic lilt between the forms is echoed in a similar exchange between the towering, skeletal dead trees above.

Several pieces such as Shelia Vollmer’s Tower Line (2009) guided us upwards through to the top of the young woodland, and then down past the pond and Patrick Hurst’s rigid yet almost fluttering, Fracture (2015). In hushed tones, Julian confided that we might not actually be able to find the next works! Anticipation mounted, as he led us across a bridge to an enclosure of overgrown bushes which concealed Shane Waltener enigmatic tribute to Brancusi, Endless Column(2015). Enshrouded by wispy alder foliage, the generous circular form of three interlocking columns woven entirely from brambles – gradually, but almost reluctantly emerged from the undergrowth. Julian speculated that perhaps Waltener was drawn to them because they are ‘spiky and potentially dangerous, and gardeners are always trying to control them or cut them down’ – yet here the artist had transformed the brambles into something poetic and visionary.

Julian then challenged us to seek out the other two elusive works further down the path. This proved an exciting and intrepid adventure as they were almost completely hidden! The work was visible yet invisible, as intricate and mysterious tunnels of woven bramble were set into the bush itself, suggesting a nest or set, which would eventually be reclaimed by nature. Julian explained that, ‘temporal quality is significant, as there were a lot of pre-made objects in the exhibition, so we wanted to have a work made from the materials that were already here, where the artist responded directly to this particular environment.’ Although a seemingly transitory artwork, Waltener alludes to its permanence through the cyclical processes of nature, he later confirmed to us: ‘Objects don’t last, not even those made out of the most durable materials, but at least they can be remade. This offers an opportunity for new interpretation and meaning. Endless Column celebrates this, as well as its location, by being made from material cut out of the site. Using plant material only, the piece has a natural potential for growth and renewal.’

From here, Julian returned us to the adjacent main woodland again, where we had originally encountered Will Nash. Here the canopy frames a group of the more geometric works which respond to nature, in this barely tamed setting of overgrown grass and wild flowers. Clare Burnett’s pink powder-coated steel structure of cubes and double cubes, Natural Frequency, Light Pink 120 (2015) Julian relates, ‘are all based on the Golden Section, the pattern is apparent in nature not just architecture, so her work looks formal, but in essence – in geometric terms, its quite natural.’ The artist later elaborated, ‘This seemingly magical ratio of 1:1.618 is found throughout history in art and science, from plant growth to Gothic Cathedrals; from human DNA to the Pyramids in Giza.’ Julian observed, ‘To me, its the colour that gives it the line, its resonance and that superimposed quality, linking it to the Nash work.’ Indeed although this quality made the pink cubes appear weightless and almost seem to float on the grass from some viewpoints, they are rapidly becoming engulfed by wild grasses and meadow flowers, so their distinct shapes are distorted and transformed. Nearby, we marvel at Silvina Soria’s geometric hanging work Unrooting (2015) suspended precariously between two trees, on a delicate wire that defies the form’s mass and weight, its shimmering steel surface catching the light.

Walking on the winding narrow path down past the stream with its imposing gunnera, we were intrigued by Peter Brooke-Ball’s Isolation (2014), which consisted of two contrasting forms or ‘characters’, one made from stone, the other from scorched wood, linked by a thick rope, suggesting many possible narratives. The tall monolith-like ‘parent’’ appeared to stand accusingly on the higher path, as if its errant ‘child’ had taken a short cut, the cream rope set against the green slope betraying and indeed accentuating the escape route down to the path below! However, the bulbous, tethered form seemed strained and squeezed – suggesting that bulk had ultimately thwarted its escape.

Passing Robert Phillip’s helix-like We Come from Heaven, I from Hell (2012) Julian then let us explore the more formal gardens again, introducing us to the yew tree walk, which is a series of trees with an opening in the middle – an intimate yew ‘room’ which acts as a stage for Alex Hoda’s Untitled (2014). Julian related, ‘This work is made from Carrara marble, with all its associations of sculptors such as Michelangelo, yet the subject is a random piece of gum, which a machine has cut from a 3d drawing and then scaled up. Hoda is fascinated by the incidental and relishes that paradox of the disposable being elevated into something precious by this use of material. The work also seems embedded in its base, as if refusing to expose its proper shape.’ Indeed placing the work in this setting was similarly playful as it subverts traditional notions of the aggrandisement of a garden statuary centrepiece. Julian concurs, ‘Throughout the exhibition, we tried to surprise and confound the viewer with thought-provoking installations. Another work which focuses on detritus is his bronze work Untitled III (2013) outside the Bothy Gallery, which is modelled on a banana skin and underpinned by the same slapstick humour.’ In this piece, Hoda has also exploited the innate potential of his material, as the flat inanimate banana skin became a dynamic presence, the thin crisp bronze suffused with movement, gesture and expression.

Lastly we find our way to the manicured lawn towards the Italian terrace where two Peter Randall-Page works, By another Ocean II (1998), and By anotherOcean III (1998) nestle beneath a beech tree. ‘Almost like erratic boulders left by a glacier, or brain corals, these rhythmic contours mirror the surrounding curvaceous hedges. We placed them randomly – suggesting nuts that have fallen from the beech tree above. Carved from Kilkenney limestone, they have a dull matt surface which exudes an understated sensuality,’ noted Julian. Importantly, the compelling contrast of directly carved sculptures such as these, with Alex Hoda’s machine based work, generate rich dialogues that ferment within the exhibition.

Our fascinating tour ended at the Coach House Gallery, enlivened by a solo exhibition of Patricia Volk’s vibrant array of works in clay, where we met co-curator George Marsh to hear his summation of the exhibition: ‘As a curator and lover of contemporary sculpture there are few pleasures greater than putting such a wealth of sculptural works into the public realm. When people come to a sculpture garden there is a direct engagement with the work – its not as intimidating as a gallery can be, as that sense of formality is removed. Julian and I worked closely together, gathering a diverse selection of artworks, carefully placing each piece to highlight its individual character but also to ensure it worked in the wider context of the exhibition and the gardens. We had great fun planning a route through the grounds of Coombe Trenchard which we hoped would both complement the house and grounds, yet also challenge conventional expectations of the traditional country house trail.’

Main image: Will Nash, Fever when you hold me tight, 2015, powder-coated steel
(photo: © William Benington Gallery)

Sculptural 2015, Coombe Trenchard, West Devon, 2 May – 20 June 2015

Aurora Corio