Does rebellion fuel progress? There is one history of modern British sculpture that goes like this: the carvings of Henry Moore gave way in the 1960s to the “found” metal constructions of his former assistant Anthony Caro, who took sculpture quite literally off its pedestal and put it on the floor. But Caro was, in turn, shunted out of the limelight by his former students Bruce McLean, who defied Caro’s strict formalism with impermanent sculptures of rubbish or water, and Richard Long, who made forms from natural materials in remote places. So much for the anxiety of influence.
Born in 1983, Neil Ayling is an heir to that tradition. One of a small group of assistants to Caro, he is also a sculptor in his own right, with his first London solo show now on at EB&Flow, a young gallery in Hoxton. When I arrive, his work has been installed but there’s nobody about. I am drawn to a piece whose sleek metal planes have photographs of glass buildings printed on them. I walk round it once, then again. It’s a beautiful, puzzling thing: its photographic architectural features are stuck on to a sheet of steel that is bent and folded against, rather than with, the contours of the buildings. The imagery defies the object’s flat surfaces – a long photographic pipe makes a sheet of steel appear rounded – but when seen from another angle, the material reveals the illusion of photographic depth. It’s a power struggle between two and three dimensions.
Although Ayling is primarily a sculptor, his work always starts with a camera. He spends a lot of time photographing London: “I get infatuated with a building. I’ll have pictures of it all around the studio,” he says, after emerging from a back room and greeting me warmly. “I put the pictures into Photoshop to de-clutter the view. I take out the people and everything that isn’t the pure shapes. Then I make paper models to explore all the different variants for folding and see what’s possible with the image.” All his works have a pictorial surface: high-resolution vinyl prints are lacquered on to steel and, in the case of one work, a black and white print is “absorbed” into a concrete slab – the concrete having been cast straight onto the print which was laid on a plastic sheet on the studio floor. “You can see the creases in the paper and the ripples in the plastic,” Ayling runs his fingers over the surface of the sculpture, “You get this sense of process, which I really like.”
Ayling’s art is about the transition from three dimensions, to two and back to three. “Just bringing outside material into the gallery isn’t enough,” he insists, “it needs to go through some sort of manipulation through my eyes, my hands, to make it sculpture.” Is that why he edits so much out of his photographs, down to a few isolated architectural elements? “When I was a teenager I used to skate,” he explains, “Me and my friends would go to specific sections of a city where we knew there was a specific set of stairs or a handrail and we’d skate that handrail for ages, and that would be it for the day. We’d focus right in on a specific obstacle. I think it comes from those days.”
His work is unmistakably of his own time and experience: it’s hard to imagine Caro, who is now 87, being inspired by skateboarding or the possibilities of Photoshop. Flection, the title of Ayling’s exhibition, means “a deviation from the straight course” – and although his steel folds remind me of the apparent weightlessness of Caro’s massive steel works, he is consciously forging his own path. “If anything, you see how [Caro] has treated material and put sculptures together, and you get an idea of what you want to do by not doing what he’s done. I mean, you do take bits, of course – but I wouldn’t say I go back to my studio and try to make Anthony Caro sculptures.”
Despite that, he admits that he didn’t know how to weld when Caro first took him on one summer during his BA at Winchester, having been recommended by his tutors, Ian Dawson and John Gibbons, both of whom worked as Caro assistants. “He really took me on as an apprentice and taught me all the techniques of metalwork. Now he lets me use his studio at the weekends: all the steelwork in this show was done with his welders.” There are other perks, too. Caro was recently invited by Kings Cross Community Projects to make an environmental wall sculpture in the formerly industrial area, but passed the commission to Ayling. Though he’d never done a public commission or made anything so huge – eight by 12 metres – Ayling applied what he’d learned working on Caro’s large “Chapel of Light” installation in Bourbourg, France. The result will be unveiled next spring. “It’s a sculpture with a series of pods for plants going up the wall,” Ayling says. “But I think the sculptural content is strong enough for it to be read as a sculpture rather than a facilitating structure.”
After brief spells at Antony Gormley’s and Anish Kapoor’s studios on finishing his BA, Ayling returned to Caro. At Gormley’s studio “it’s very clean and there’s very much a process involved, so I didn’t feel there was much scope to have a direct relationship with him and the making process. But at Caro’s, those relationships are integral. The piece is so fluid it can change even when it’s about to leave the studio.” Caro – who taught at St Martin’s School of Art (as it was then) for almost 30 years – favours young assistants. “He likes to know what’s going on,” Ayling explains. “I think he feeds off the energy we bring to the studio.”
As I prepare to leave, Caro and his wife, the painter Sheila Girling, step into the gallery. They walk slowly round “Prime” (2011), the piece that first caught my eye. “Look at that!” exclaims Girling, peering closer. “Very interesting indeed,” Caro replies, “and very experimental, too.”
‘Neil Ayling: Flection’, EB&Flow, London, to November 5, www.ebandflowgallery.com