Womb Tomb, 2000. Granite boulder, cave: 229 x 335 x 270 cm.; well: 213 x 270 x 230 cm.

Emotional Subtext of Form and Space: A Conversation with Peter Randall-Page

Stone carving does not seem to co-exist easily with the world of Damien Hirst or, for that matter, with the world of conceptual art. Someone like Peter Randall-Page, who has been working for over 30 years, is always in danger of being overlooked, of being seen as unfashionable. But perhaps a more accurate description of this artist would be a man who has always bucked trends, preferring to plow his own furrow with integrity, commitment, and intense dedication.

Red Fruit, 1987. Red marble, 60 x 38 x 40 cm. Photo: Stephen White.

He has, from the first, acquired a small, dedicated band of collectors, curators, and critics who have recognized his worth. In 1992, The Henry Moore Centre for the Study of Sculpture and Leeds City Art Gallery organized a traveling retrospective. Because Randall-Page’s work has always been underpinned by the observation of organic form, in working out how things make us feel as well as think, it is no surprise that his current exhibition, organized in collaboration with the Royal Society of British Sculptors and running until October 5, 2003, is at London’s Natural History Museum.

Brian McAvera: In 1979, when you were 25, you worked on the conservation of 13th-century sculpture at Wells Cathedral, in the south of England. People refer to your work as inducing reflection, tranquillity, or some sense of spiritual relaxation: Did you feel a connection between medieval religious art and modern day life?

Peter Randall-Page: I went to work at Wells as a way of earning a living and, at the same time, expanding my knowledge and understanding of sculpture. At art school we were exposed to very little medieval sculpture, and I was amazed to find such a rich tradition right on my doorstep. Of course, the people who made the sculpture at Wells had utterly different intentions and motivations than someone making sculpture today, and it would be impossible to appreciate many aspects of medieval sculpture without some understanding of its social and religious context. However, in my opinion, there remains a level on which human artifacts from diverse cultures can speak directly across time and space, by virtue of the fact that they were made by other human beings. Human beings share some pretty fundamental characteristics and preoccupations, whenever and in whatever culture they lived.

Certainly my experience at Wells was influential, and, despite my agnosticism, I found the fact that the whole thing was created for God rather than man, for an unworldly purpose, very moving. In sculptural terms I was particularly affected by two aspects of the carvings themselves. The foliage carving (usually seen as decorative and therefore of
less importance than the statuary) seemed to me an attempt by the medieval carvers to embody the essence of growth rather than simply to depict a particular plant. I was also greatly taken by the drapery, which became an almost abstract exploration of the relationship between surface and volume, the depiction of a membrane at once veiling and revealing flesh.

BM: You worked with Barry Flanagan for a year, immediately after art school. What did you do?

PR-P: I met him by pure chance. A friend of mine sold him a second-hand car. Barry was incredibly helpful and supportive. He came down from London to Bath, where I was attending the Bath Academy of Art [1973–77] and helped me to take down my degree show. He introduced me to galleries and to the art world. I’d done a little work with stone, and Barry, who had recently been to Italy, wanted to work in stone. He wanted to learn how to do scaling up from maquettes, so he commissioned me to find out how to do it.

The experience certainly had a lasting impact: seeing how an artist could operate in the world, outside institutions; seeing how open he was, and is, to picking up on interesting things he comes across. Also the poetic aspect of his work appealed to me—I couldn’t find much poetry in Minimalism and conceptual art.

Forbidden Fruit, 1995. Kilkenny limestone: Ouroboros: 76 x 191 x 187 cm. Fruit: 110 x 102 x 100 cm.

BM: In 1980 you won a scholarship, traveling to Italy to study marble carving. What did you learn?

PR-P: When I left college, I was interested in finding a way in which I could work simply, could be at the front line of creating something rather than illustrating it. Carving appealed strongly because it’s a very simple concept—you take off the bits you don’t want. You’re also engaged in an immediate dialogue with yourself via the piece of work. Constructing things is a more staccato way of working: the process is more self-conscious. When you’re carving or drawing, that process of decision, action, and appraisal is almost imperceptible. The stone, in terms of carving, isn’t a blank sheet. It’s already something tangible, which you are trying to modify.

I had become interested in the concept of conceiving and visualizing one form within another, which is essentially what reductive sculpture is. Italian carvers have a long tradition and many techniques for doing this, and I learned a great deal about triangulation and geometry. They also had a refreshing irreverence for the material, with no concept of “truth to materials.” Stone was just stuff to be used. I learned that you could make anything in marble: they were making copies of cars, shop window mannequins, anything they were asked to do. The lesson from Italy was that stone is a material like any other, that finding one form within another could be reduced to geometric calculations.

BM: At a time when the designation “sculptor” can mean virtually anything, you work with traditional materials and tools. Often your work looks superficially abstract, but it is based on natural forms. How do you view yourself in relation to Modernism and contemporary practice?

PR-P: Why on earth would people want to make work in stone in the 21st century? We have so many precise and sophisticated means of communication at our disposal that it seems perverse to use sculpture as a way of conveying ideas more effectively expressed in other ways, verbal and written language being the most obvious example. There is, however, a specific area of human experience that sculpture can explore supremely well: the direct expression of inhabiting a physical body in a physical world and the subjective impact of this on our emotions—the emotional subtext of form and space. In this realm, sculpture is at its most potent, and it is this area that I want to concentrate on in my work. I am not interested in illustrating ideas conceived in words; I am interested in working from direct physical experience. The process of carving, rather than stone itself, is important to me. Carving, like drawing and modeling, is conducive to a meditative process where decision, action, and appraisal become fused in a fluid working dialogue. In short, the act of carving itself helps me to access my imagination.

Art history creates the illusion that there is a linear development in the same way that scientific discoveries operate. Brancusi worked for Rodin and art history says he reacted against Rodin, but if you think of the number of ways that he could have reacted against Rodin, its obviously more relevant to look at Brancusi himself. I grew up in an art culture very taken with the notion of progression and development, but it never really rang true to me. I don’t think that sculpture is the best medium to deal with current socio-political, cultural commentary. I’m interested in what makes human beings tick. Stone is a vehicle for my fascination with the human mind and imagination. The medium isn’t the message as far as I’m concerned. A sculpture made out of natural objects is not necessarily going to elucidate anything about human beings’ relationships with nature. Likewise, a sculpture made out of industrial waste doesn’t necessarily shed light on our relationship with technology. Deciding to restrict myself to a simple way of working frees me to get on and say something with the language.

Carving and drawing are good ways of tapping into subconscious feelings and images, through an unself-conscious dialogue in the process itself. The process engenders contemplation. It’s physical and repetitive, keeping the body busy and liberating the imagination at a deeper level.

BM: For a considerable part of your career you have made public art, and in particular you have had a very successful working relationship with Common Ground. How do you view the relationship of sculptor, landscape or townscape, and viewer?

PR-P: Art outside the gallery has to hold its own alongside other interesting things in the world. The idea of the “Local Distinctiveness” project for Common Ground was that I should site a series of new permanent works on publicly accessible land in the immediate vicinity of where I live and work. I had long felt that a great deal of 20th-century art was preoccupied with the problem of what is or is not art. Much of this work relies for its impact and meaning on the gallery context, or at least the knowledge that one is encountering art. I became interested in placing sculpture outside in the world, without explanatory maps, labels, or plaques and with no indication that it is art. I wanted the works to stand or fall on their own merits. My hope was that the encounter would be less self-conscious and more intimate: coming across something unexpectedly, the viewer might be more open and receptive to the work.

I’ve always wanted to relate to people in a straightforward way. People have difficulty with the visual arts in ways that they don’t with music. You rarely hear people say of music: “What’s that for?” or “What’s it supposed to be?” My hope is that public art can be more accessible, part of people’s lives and of their environment. In the town of Lewes, my first public piece is on a roundabout. In the autumn, as part of the local festival, they actually “dress” the sculpture. They’ve taken ownership of it, and that appeals to me. In rural places, I tend to site work in an informal way. In urban situations, I tend to make things that are more formal in terms of the existing symmetries of architecture. I want to create a harmonious sense of the space and the form.

Bronze Dreaming Stone, 2000. Bronze, 150 x 293 x 180 cm.

BM: There’s a considerable difference between working for an organization like Common Ground, which believes in an integration of public, landscape, and sculptor, and doing a standard public commission, especially an urban one. You’ve had wide experience of both. Which do you prefer?

PR-P: With Common Ground I was left to my own devices. They presented me with a challenge: to work in an environment, which I know very well, inhabited by my friends and neighbors. I had to do a huge amount of consultation with local organizations, individuals, and parish councils. I walked all of the footpaths in the parish, identified possible places, found out who owned the land, and talked with them about my ideas. With urban commissions, one is dealing with a public body or a large corporation. Apart from the actual commissioning of the work, there’s a tremendous amount of liasoning with engineers, architects, and committees, so it’s easy for the integrity of the work to become compromised.

For me, commissions result from two different criteria. The first is every aspect of the site: the physical context, the space, the materials, and the social and cultural context—what people do in the site and how they use it or might use it. Often there’s a desire on behalf of the commissioner to get the artist to research the historical context and explore it in a narrative way, which I resist. The other aspect is what is going on in my studio practice at the time. A work grows from the combination of the two: the function of the sculpture in the site married to my current concerns. It’s very important for me to balance private studio practice and public commissions. When doing a commission you usually have to present a very clear idea of what you are going to make, and the client expects you to stick to this, which doesn’t allow for an evolutionary process in the making and tends to result in a built-in conservatism. On the other hand, the site and the brief can present an unexpected challenge. For example, I’ve done a number of inlaid panels on buildings, which I’d never have done in my studio. I made a fountain for a square in Manchester, which again would not have come of studio practice alone. It can be a bit like the scientist asked to solve a particular problem. In fact, scientists claim that the most important innovations come from free-form experimentation as opposed to being put on tram rails. It’s important to explore things without the pressure of having to make them work, to be allowed to fail.

BM: You’ve written that your work is “driven by a desire to reveal energy and dynamism within the inanimate,” and that making this illusion palpable through carving is rather like trying to remember a dream by catching oneself unawares. This is classic Surrealist territory, and the desire to reveal latent energy suggests psychoanalytic process. Are you interested in psychoanalysis and Surrealism?

PR-P: Yes. I’m interested in both, and their ideas certainly have influenced my work. The process that I use to make things creates an illusion and implies that the materials have qualities, such as softness, that we know they don’t possess. Fundamentally, I’m interested in what makes people tick in a general way—the psychological subtext to our lives—how things that we are unaware of have an influence on us. That relates to psychoanalysis and Surrealism. One knows that the work is an illusion, which deliberately separates it from the real world. It’s not a found object. Undigested reality is very different from something that is unashamedly an illusion, that passed through the filter of the imagination.

I want to stimulate an awareness that the thing is just a lump of stuff and also something else. In other words, I want the reality of the thing as a lump of stone, along with the implication that other things are going on. It’s very easy to go too far with the illusion. Often, by doing less, one can create the balance more effectively. I don’t want the illusionistic aspect to be the first thing that people are aware of.

Our most intimate understanding of three-dimensional form comes from our own and other people’s bodies. When we look around the world we see the outside of something and imagine what might be inside. I try to tap into this, implying from the modulations of a surface what may be happening inside—a delicate balancing act. The illusion has to be consistent, just like in a fictional world, which can be outlandish, but if it is consistent it works. It’s a parallel world. The illusion I’m talking about has to understand itself and have a metaphorical relevance to our world. The “truthful lie”: rather like a mythological story containing archetypal truths.

Mother Tongue, 1998. Kilkenny limestone, 115 x 190.5 x 111 cm.

BM: Your preoccupations are with, as you’ve put it, “skin and flesh, outward appearance, and underlying structure.” Much of your work finds metaphors for this duality, but your early work suggests Arp, Giacometti, and even Bellmer.

PR-P: The earlier works perhaps reached out more. They tended to have edges with plains between one edge and another. When I started turning the edges inward to form valleys or creases, the form would bulge out from the valleys. So the viewer’s attention is drawn inward. Then, much of the work in the early ’80s was based on specific forms in nature—the way things grow and are, a reinventing in a different material and scale—in the same way that medieval sculptors reinvented nature in their foliage carving, an imaginative transformation. For example, the pieces for the Forest of Dean were based on a Scots pine cone and an acorn cup, carved in local sandstone on a large scale and positioned under the appropriate tree, drawing attention, through the sculptures, to the things themselves. Over the years I’ve gradually moved away from specific natural forms, toward things that are much more ambiguous, as in the Kilkenny limestone carvings of the late ’80s and early ’90s, which are obviously related to organic forms but in much less specific ways.

The work has now moved on again to explore underlying ground rules of the universe based in geometry, or to put it another way, geometry describes the theme on which nature plays its variations. A drop of water falling onto a pool creating a geometric circle or the Fibonacci patterns on the head of a daisy—there’s something uplifting, for me, about perceiving these underlying structures in nature, like a glimpse beneath the surface of things. I’d never used geometry as a central element in a work because I felt that it would produce a coldness, but recently I’ve become aware of things being held in a balance between order and chaos. We seem to exist in the gap between these polarities. In nature, one rarely perceives perfect geometry. I’m now working with glacial boulders, not changing the shape at all but applying geometric structures to the surface and allowing the patterns to become distorted by the random shape of the stone. What’s exciting for me about this way of working is that the result is like nature, not in verisimilitude but in operation.

Hundred Year Stone, 1995. Andesite, 110 x 140 x 130 cm.; 110 x 140 x 90 cm.

BM: Pattern—repeated whorls or loops, or lines doubling in on themselves like ancient Irish boulder carvings—has always played an important part in your work. Recently you’ve wrapped a glacial boulder with ropes soaked in hot wax and taken an iron cast of the surface shell. Why is pattern important to you?

PR-P: Pattern has always been important for me. Breaking a surface up into increments makes one more aware of the form. For example, terracing makes your awareness of a land form more intense. Your eye moves more slowly across it. It’s the fishnet tights theory of sculpture. Pattern also implies growth, evolution, and change—one kind of shape can metamorphose through pattern. Growth and pattern are synonymous for me. Also, pattern can reveal something universal about the way the human imagination works. In fact, one could say that pattern recognition is fundamental to human consciousness: it underpins mathematics, language, and our perception of time and space. There are only certain formal solutions to geometric patterns. Abutting circles will always pack together in hexagons, for example. Linear patterns, on the other hand, have more flexibility, but one finds uncanny similarity in the pattern-making of different cultures and at different times, which suggests something about the human imagination and the way in which our brains are wired.

The coiled and knotted forms I’ve often drawn and made in sculpture are usually based on a continuous loop, folded and knotted in various ways. These forms don’t exist much in nature, but they have their own inbuilt rules, possibilities, and restrictions, which produce variations akin to those in nature. I’ve often made carvings in which one is aware of an inaccessible interior. Recently I’ve made casts, which are rather like husks. The pieces were made around unworked boulders—the random element, a Surrealist technique akin to the Rorschach test. I have never liked the fact that cast sculpture implies volume but when you touch it you’re aware that it’s hollow, that it’s a membrane—this destroys the sense of mass. The only way I could think about making a cast was to make the hollowness apparent and use hollowness as a positive element in the work. In these pieces, I’ve worked on the surface with ropes soaked in wax, essentially drawing on the surface, trying to respond to, and animate, the given form.

BM: What impelled you to become a sculptor?

PR-P: It’s hard to know. I’ve always had a tremendous feel for sensuality, for form and touching things and volume. I spent a lot of time on my own, looking closer and closer and closer at a shingle, for instance, and suddenly seeing the geometry of a shell, like another world poking through. My dad made his living as a model-maker, so the idea of making things was there. I went to the British Museum and the Ethnographic Museum as a child. The Egyptian room in the British Museum, the intensity of the objects, moved me. These people made the same images over thousands of years, a cultural distillation like natural selection. Everything non-vital was stripped away. That hit me like a thump in the chest.

An important influence during my time in college was Isamu Noguchi. My thesis was about how the impulse to make sculpture manifested itself in the orient and the occident. Noguchi wasn’t very well known in England at that time, but I discovered his work in the library and wrote to him. He replied with an in-depth discussion. We corresponded until his death, although we never met. What impressed me most was his breadth of vision about what sculpture could encompass—industrial design, theater, landscape, bridges, architecture—a refreshing, unprecious, roll-your-sleeves-up attitude. If we are talking about 20th-century influences, the beginning for me was Brancusi. When I saw his work I knew that that was what I wanted to do. In terms of the Western tradition, it comes like a bolt from the blue. It’s way beyond Picasso, Modigliani, or Gaudier-Brzeska. Brancusi leaps straight to volumetric abstraction, the relationship of surface to volume.

BM: Your use of organic forms, often fruits or seeds, often produces sculpture that is very sensual and sometimes overtly sexual. How deliberate is the sexuality?

PR-P: I don’t think you can delve very far into your less conscious mind without bumping into sexuality. It’s fundamental to almost every aspect of what we are, and not to recognize that would be dishonest. In terms of the imagery, fruit and seeds have fecundity and fullness, and so they have an element of eroticism. Also seeds are fascinating structures formally. The most important thing about seeds is that they are packed with energy—hermetic and discrete in themselves, like an unexploded grenade of organic energy. The very idea of seed suggests internalized energy: seeds are potential energy personified. There’s an extraordinary sense of complexity ready to happen in compact form. For the Millennium Seed Bank (which will eventually be a comprehensive collection of all the plants in the world), it seemed crazy to create a literal piece, so I made work that represented the idea of seed. I wanted to imply a kind of potential for growth and complexity by carving complex linear patterns into the surfaces.

BM: What should viewers take away from your work?

PR-P: I want my forms to function as a psychological investigation, which hopefully will strike a chord of recognition in the viewer. I’m an absolute rationalist. I don’t believe in a collective unconscious in the strictly Jungian sense, but it would be pretty remarkable if certain forms didn’t have a resonance since we share an evolutionary history. Noam Chomsky pointed out that while babies born in different cultures learn different languages, we all share an innate propensity for language, and the same basic grammatical structures seem to be hardwired into all of us. Perhaps the same argument could be applied to our appreciation of visual art.

Brian McAvera is a critic and playwright living in Northern Ireland.