publication of the International Sculpture Center
Subtext of Form and
A Conversation with Peter Randall-Page
by Brian McAvera
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Red Fruit, 1987.
Red marble, 60 x 38 x 40 cm.
photo: Stephen White
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.
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-Pages 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 Londons Natural History Museum.
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?
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.
Forbidden Fruit, 1995.
Ouroboros: 76 x 191 x 187 cm.
110 x 102 x 100 cm.
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  and helped
me to take down my degree show. He introduced me to galleries and to the
art world. Id 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 meI couldnt find much poetry in Minimalism and
1980 you won a scholarship, traveling to Italy to study marble carving.
What did you learn?
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 its a very simple conceptyou
take off the bits you dont want. Youre 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 youre carving or drawing, that process
of decision, action, and appraisal is almost imperceptible. The stone,
in terms of carving, isnt a blank sheet. Its 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
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?
Bronze Dreaming Stone, 2000.
Bronze, 150 x 293 x 180 cm.
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 emotionsthe 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
dont think that sculpture is the best medium to deal with current
socio-political, cultural commentary. Im interested in what makes
human beings tick. Stone is a vehicle for my fascination with the human
mind and imagination. The medium isnt the message as far as Im
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 doesnt
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. Its physical and repetitive, keeping the body busy
and liberating the imagination at a deeper level.
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,
Mother Tongue, 1998.
limestone, 115 x 190.5 x 111 cm.
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.
wanted to relate to people in a straightforward way. People have difficulty
with the visual arts in ways that they dont with music. You rarely
hear people say of music: Whats that for? or Whats
it supposed to be? My hope is that public art can be more accessible,
part of peoples 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. Theyve
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.
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. Youve
had wide experience of both. Which do you prefer?
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, theres a tremendous amount of liasoning with engineers,
architects, and committees, so its easy for the integrity of the
work to become compromised.
Womb Tomb, 2000.
Granite boulder, cave: 229 x 335 x 270 cm.; well: 213 x 270 x 230
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
contextwhat people do in the site and how they use it or might use
it. Often theres 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.
Its 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 doesnt 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, Ive done a number of inlaid panels on buildings, which
Id 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. Its
important to explore things without the pressure of having to make them
work, to be allowed to fail.
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?
Im 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 dont possess. Fundamentally, Im interested in what makes
people tick in a general waythe psychological subtext to our liveshow
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. Its 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. Its very
easy to go too far with the illusion. Often, by doing less, one can create
the balance more effectively. I dont want the illusionistic aspect
to be the first thing that people are aware of.
Hundred Year Stone, 1995.
110 x 140 x 130 cm.; 110 x 140 x 90 cm.
Our most intimate
understanding of three-dimensional form comes from our own and other peoples
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 insidea 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. Its
a parallel world. The illusion Im 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.
preoccupations are with, as youve 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.
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 viewers attention is drawn inward. Then, much of the work
in the early 80s was based on specific forms in naturethe
way things grow and are, a reinventing in a different material and scalein
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 Ive 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
daisytheres something uplifting, for me, about perceiving
these underlying structures in nature, like a glimpse beneath the surface
of things. Id never used geometry as a central element in a work
because I felt that it would produce a coldness, but recently Ive
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. Im 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. Whats exciting for me about this way of working is
that the result is like nature, not in verisimilitude but in operation.
whorls or loops, or lines doubling in on themselves like ancient Irish
boulder carvingshas always played an important part in your work.
Recently youve wrapped a glacial boulder with ropes soaked in hot
wax and taken an iron cast of the surface shell. Why is pattern important
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. Its
the fishnet tights theory of sculpture. Pattern also implies growth, evolution,
and changeone 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 Ive often drawn and made in sculpture are usually based on
a continuous loop, folded and knotted in various ways. These forms dont
exist much in nature, but they have their own inbuilt rules, possibilities,
and restrictions, which produce variations akin to those in nature. Ive
often made carvings in which one is aware of an inaccessible interior.
Recently Ive made casts, which are rather like husks. The pieces
were made around unworked bouldersthe 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 youre aware
that its hollow, that its a membranethis 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, Ive worked on the surface with ropes soaked
in wax, essentially drawing on the surface, trying to respond to, and
animate, the given form.
impelled you to become a sculptor?
hard to know. Ive 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.
Body and Soul, 1996.
Zimbabwe black granite, 100 x 200 cm. diameter.
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 wasnt 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
encompassindustrial design, theater, landscape, bridges, architecturea
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. Its
way beyond Picasso, Modigliani, or Gaudier-Brzeska. Brancusi leaps straight
to volumetric abstraction, the relationship of surface to volume.
use of organic forms, often fruits or seeds, often produces sculpture
that is very sensual and sometimes overtly sexual. How deliberate is the
PR-P: I dont
think you can delve very far into your less conscious mind without bumping
into sexuality. Its 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 energyhermetic
and discrete in themselves, like an unexploded grenade of organic energy.
The very idea of seed suggests internalized energy: seeds are potential
energy personified. Theres 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.
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. Im an absolute
rationalist. I dont believe in a collective unconscious in the strictly
Jungian sense, but it would be pretty remarkable if certain forms didnt
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.
is a critic and playwright living in Northern Ireland.