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December 2, 2012 8:31 pm
On Welsh slate, Richard Kindersley has inscribed Philip Larkin’s lines: “This is the first thing/I have understood:/Time is the echo of an axe/Within a wood”. If sculpture cast in bronze is indestructible, timeless, carved works slow time in a different way, incorporating the experience of physical effort, chisel on stone, knife on wood, and an artist’s direct engagement with materials to convey expressive vision.
A century ago, carving became a talisman of modernity for sculptors seeking freshness and immediacy. Eric Gill’s sensuous, compressed coloured stone nudes, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s tenderly observed “Crouching Fawn”, a Henry Moore abstracted figure and Barbara Hepworth’s alabaster “Two Forms” open this exhibition, along with less celebrated works showing the diversity of pre-second world war carving. Richard Louis Garbe’s ivory/wood mermaid reliefs are pure art nouveau; Leon Underwood’s carrara marble “Nucleus” has cubist angularity; the simplified lines and elemental quality of John Skeaping’s Cornish serpentine “Pig” and “Duck” recall prehistoric cave drawings. Skeaping was married to Hepworth until 1933, when she left him for Ben Nicholson and abstraction; among the most poignant works here is Skeaping’s elongated burnt cedar wood “Crucifix” in memory of his and Hepworth’s son, killed in 1953.
Today, carving is employed as readily by conceptualists – Gavin Turk’s mock-readymade spade, Alexander Seton’s marble T-shirts – but the heart of this show lies in an exploration of truth to materials and elements of chance and accident. At 79, F.E. McWilliam responded to the mulberry wood surplus after the 1987 storm with figures determined by the variegated grain and structure of wood, which continued to crack as he worked, lending them fantastical turbulence and irregularity. I admire too Peter Randall-Page’s play on the geometry of natural forms, and Emily Young’s lyrical figures, which seem to emerge from the stone, determined by its physical characteristics: each piece tells the story of its becoming, fleeting and unstable as well as weighty and permanent.
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