Martyn Chalk


Joanna Mowbray:

The meaning of sculpture that is precise and clear in its construction and its use of materials is often assumed to be defined by those qualities. Its formal organisation is taken to prescribe its associations, rather than being an agency through which the ideas of the artist (and the viewer) are concentrated and channelled. Where structures appear to be geometric and engineered they are assumed to be the result of a process of making that is wholly bound by rational and quantitative methods. The Modernist notion of the autonomy of the art object can sometimes seem to reinforce hermetic readings of the work and precision is taken as dullness.

But Joanna Mowbray's notebooks and drawings and finished pieces suggest that for her the experience of making clear resolved sculpture is not cool and detached. The works are autonomous with no imperative from the artist to make particular meanings yet at the same time they reveal or allude to a rich range of sources and experiences. At every stage the relationship between source and making is a reflective one. Paths of ideas are followed and throw up possibilities which can lead to new developments so that an invented form is seen to be ‘like’ something with that ‘something’ being pursued for a while, or conversely, the perceived reference may be rejected and action taken to remove or mute the associations. The process is dense, complex and lengthy and may only be traceable in retrospect. The work lives somewhere between the necessities of engineering and the elusive intangibilities of feeling and response. It is formally resolved and structurally assured but its operation in aesthetic space is like an ever moving cloud that hovers round it.

In Joanna's work drawing and making are a single activity. Notebook drawings indicate forms to be developed and explored through direct making or through further more controlled processes of drafting and pattern making. The cutting of metal sheet, whether by hand or by more sophisticated methods is in itself a process of delineation and shape making akin to drawing. From patterns the steel is rolled and joined to make three dimensional forms which have volume yet are not solid. The tension in the skin and the geometry of the panels make both an inside and an outside as if pressure has kept them in equilibrium. The way that structure is a response to internal and external energy is reminiscent of the marine micro organisms drawn in the nineteenth century by D’Arcy Thompson who first understood that the skin needs no skeleton and like a soap bubble the form is a direct result of balanced internal and external forces. The echo of natural forms is there to be discovered in imagination: it is not overt.

The geometry of the pieces is also reminiscent of Uccello`s perspective diagrams of a chalice and a torus. But unlike them there is here no rigid application of a fixed system; subtle adjustments and deviations have been made which energise and give individuality and complexity to the sculptures.

The associations that are evoked by the work are not entirely self contained and they both influence and are influenced by where they are shown. At Yorkshire Sculpture Park during 1995–96 (see project Inside Out) a set of small forms in oiled steel, shown under trees and seen close to, grew increasingly like strange fruit or seeds as they weathered and became brown over the winter season. The same pieces at which have been at Roche Court in Wiltshire since mid 1996 are placed at the edge of open woodland on a slight slope and can first be seen across a wide unmown meadow. In the distance they take on the character of a small herd of grazing animals in a wildlife park.

In the larger pieces one is more aware of inside and outside in a very physical sense. In the largest sculpture in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park exhibition the inside was emphasised by its darkness and echo. It was as if one could fall in. In misty damp morning light the impression was of a reverse cornucopia, not spilling its contents but sucking in the atmosphere. A pair of similar pieces exhibited in the sculpture court at Ferens Art Gallery, Hull in February 2000, took on a very different feel — the sense of inside and outside was again strong but here the sculptures became like discarded industrial components and the space around them like a turbine hall.

The overt subject matter of the new drawings in the current exhibition consists of numerous separate forms which have evolved small individual differences of character. These are drawn in graphite and conte are delicate and curvilinear. They may have organic associations. Unlike earlier notebook drawings they do not seem to be available for interpretation as traces of movement in space or as three dimensional objects and their edges might even suggest that they are not objects at all but cuts in the surface revealing another surface underneath. Where there is a suggestion of volume it is more the virtual volume that would be produced by rotation than of anything solid.

But the forms are laid out across the paper as a field or a progression and it is this that is important. Most of the drawings are long and have to be scanned, either from a distance by a head and eye movement, or closer to by moving past the image. The sensation of space within and in front of the works has been triggered by placing the field of shapes slightly off centre or allowing it to be cropped by the edge of the paper. In some drawings this extension beyond the frame is horizontal suggesting lateral movement which may have an implied direction where the field seems to start at a point already within the frame. In others the field of images is cut at the top and bottom as well as to left and right so that the space seems to extends upwards and downwards as well as from side to side.

With all Joanna's work one holds two ideas in the mind at the same time; the material and formal devices she uses are part of the finite material reality of the work, the possibilities and responses that are generated are as boundless as the imagination allows.

Martyn Chalk
March 2000

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Martyn Chalk is a practising sculptor and is Visiting Professor in Studio Practice at the University of Derby

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