Brancaster Chronicle No. 4: Mark Skilton Sculptures

 First posted on 10 September 2013

Greedy Granadilla 2012 H194x265x240cms (2)

Greedy Granadilla, 2012, steel, H194 x 265 x 240cm

3rd August 2013, the artist’s studio, near Bath, Wiltshire.

Those present: Hilde Skilton, Mark Skilton, Anne Smart, Anthony Smart, Robin Greenwood, Sarah Greenwood, John Bunker, Alexandra Harley, Nick Moore.

Mark Skilton: I suppose a constant theme for me has been construction as a means of making sculpture. At some point in the past I realised that I wanted to make sculpture that was complex; it seemed that the kind of expression I wanted to get in sculpture needed a complex arrangement. Along with that, using construction as a method of building, my choice of parts has always been very varied. In fact, I have tried to vary the type of stuff I use quite a lot; so there are bits of stock plate and section, along with forging and found objects. My basic idea with construction is that each part can have its own identity, and is a volume within itself; but when you bring it together with other parts and build bigger volumes, then you get a different kind of complexity happening. The individual element always retains its original identity, but it contributes to a bigger kind of volume. Then these different volumes, put together, make up the sculpture; so it’s an expanding kind of arrangement with volumes, basically… I think sculpture needs to be complex, in order to find the meaning, the kind of things you are trying to find within yourself by making things – I need a lot to play with. But, in the end I would envisage or hope that I could condense or distil all of this complexity into a much clearer kind of arrangement; but I haven’t got a clue about that yet…

Greedy Granadilla 2012 H194x265x240cms - Copy

Greedy Granadilla, 2012, steel, H194 x 265 x 240cm (view 2)

Robin Greenwood: What about the arrangement of the parts…

Mark Skilton: That has changed over the time-period of these sculptures, but I don’t have a specific modus operandi which I employ for each sculpture. So having worked in one way, I try and work the next one in a different way. That spread-out rangy one (Greedy Granadilla) – having made that, you get suspicious of the way that everything is sort of spread out, and I thought it must be possible to condense the sculpture together [again]. I wasn’t convinced that sculpture should have everything available [to see from all viewpoints]; it seemed like in reality things do get in each other’s way. In construction there must be a method of doing that without obscuring the purpose of the sculpture itself. With that in mind, I then made this one on the table (Pompous Pomegranate). My main idea with this one was to make volumes with holes in them, that you can see through and so comprehend the rest of the sculpture even though it has something in front of it. This works better than I thought it would as an attempt to condense or compact that sort of arrangement [as in Greedy Granadilla]. The earlier sculptures [Mulberry Migration and others] I felt conformed to more of a pre-conceived idea of sculpture, not in their construction, but in their final arrangement… the way it occurred to me was that I was trying, subconsciously, to get back to making a ‘block’, this idea that sculpture always evolved from a block… then from that I was able to move outward in that one (Greedy Granadilla), but then, having spread out, became suspicious of that rangy-ness, and so tried to compact it again in that one (Pompous Pomegranate).

Greedy Granadilla 2012 H194x265x240cms (4)

Greedy Granadilla, 2012, steel, H194 x 265 x 240cm (view 3)

Anthony Smart: A year ago we were standing here [looking at Greedy Granadilla], and I thought it was absolutely amazing… fantastic… and I went home, thought about it… came back yesterday, and I thought, what’s he done to that sculpture? It’s so supple… not as I remembered it before from the floor up like that [pointing at the top of the sculpture]… with this overbearing thing coming down, gripping it… I came in and thought, ‘what has he done?’ ; and you [Mark] said, it’s exactly as it was!… What does that say about a sculpture? I still thought it was fantastic, but I came yesterday and thought, God, he’s improved that; it’s even better. And you’ve not done anything to it. I’m completely blown away by it. This sculpture has gone beyond, in my opinion, any of its imperfections – they count for nothing. The spirit of it, the plasticity of it, the meaningful-ness of it, the use of the material; the height of it, the width of it, the breadth of it; Robin said recently sculpture has to have everything. Here’s a very good example. This sculpture has everything; what else is there? This is truly amazing… I don’t suppose it is perfect, and we’ll hear shortly of its imperfections. But I do think certain things arise in the processes of a lifetime, and when they do you’ve got to stand up and recognise them. This is it. This is not paying lip-service to David Smith, Caro, Gonzalez as the masters of abstract steel sculpture. This is a completely independent enterprise… but if it owes, it owes to all of us here…

Mark Skilton: …and to our combined history…

Anthony Smart: You can’t believe it’s standing here and nobody knows about it. Yet if you were to replay Robin’s idea of dropping a Constable into an abstract painting show, and watch what happens – well, drop that (Greedy Granadilla) into the David Smith show at Tate Modern and watch what would happen, and the stuff would scatter to the cloakroom… this is far better than anything Smith had in that show. This construction is superb…

Mulberry Migration H152x233x212cms 2011

Mulberry Migration, 2011, steel, H152 x 233 x 212cm

Alexandra Harley: You were talking about complexity… there are bits of this (Greedy Granadilla) that would stand alone, and there would be a lot of us that would be really proud to have made that bit; and yet you’ve not allowed that to stand on its own. The sculpture is bigger than the sum of its parts, and yet some of its parts are fantastic. I like the way you have put it together; I love the laminating of the metal; you are really forcing some of the ideas about what you are doing with it; you’re packing it together, then sometimes you open that out, so it pulls apart…

Robin Greenwood: It seems to be about pressure; putting the pressure on, taking the pressure off, so you have this articulation of… I don’t think it’s an articulation of space so much as an articulation of the material, and the ‘state’ that it’s in…

Mark Skilton: …yes, that makes sense…

Alexandra Harley: … and also, you’ve forged a bit, you’ve stuck a bit of cut plate in there, then another bit of forging and they are all sitting quite happily, working alongside each other…

Hilde Skilton: So it comes down to the sensibility of the construction… the integrity… you read the way Mark articulates one bit of steel with the next bit of steel – and Tony has this too in his work – it informs you, it tells you what it’s doing, it doesn’t just ‘place’ there. Even if you are not analysing it, this live-ness comes across.

Pompous Pomegranate 2013 H138x148x129cm (3)

Pompous Pomegranate, 2013, steel, H138 x 148 x 129cm (view 3)

Robin Greenwood: You said at the beginning you didn’t have a modus operandi, but I think you do. It’s to do with manipulating the material, that is your thing, that’s what you do… If there is a chink in your armour, I think it’s to do with the space in the sculpture, the ‘full’ space of the sculpture; that seems to me to be more questionable than the sequences, the pressure on and off, which runs through the material. So you deal with the material much more than you deal with the space. It’s true that you create volumes, but that’s not the same thing as making space. This is obviously a conscious effort to get away from that more lumpen, contained configuration…

Mark Skilton: …but of course, once you have got away from that, you have got space that you have got to handle; the more space you have, the more you have to handle it.

Anthony Smart: I think if you (Robin) were talking about any of the other sculptures, I’d let you get away with that; but it is not true about this sculpture. The space in this sculpture is perhaps not its greatest attribute but… it’s sorted out enough…and I’ve just been walking round this sculpture. What is the point of walking round a sculpture? Is it to find what the sense of it is? No. You walk around it to ‘get off’ on three-dimensionality. It’s what you have to do with sculpture, you have to walk around it. It’s like a book, you can’t just read page 1, you’ve got to read all of it. You’ve got to listen to the whole piece of music. With sculpture you’ve got to walk around it, casting your eye up and down it. And look at this thing coming into the space here… all the way through there, and these two things turning out… look at that moving away, and this thing pulling down to the ground… it’s plastic, it’s spatial. I think it’s spot-on, as spot on as we can be at the moment. I think the fact that I got it so wrong when I first saw it, even though I thought it was really good, I missed everything that is really good about it, thinking it was something else. But this might be really good – I mean really good, and how would we know… It’s doing many things… and to take on that amount of space, with clarity… it’s great.

Pompous Pomegranate 2013 H138x148x129cm (2)

Pompous Pomegranate, 2013, steel, H138 x 148 x 129cm (view 2)

Alexandra Harley: The piece over there on the table (Pompous Pomegranate) has a very different feel to it.

Mark Skilton: Yes… I suppose having spread out into space, I then got a bit panicky. I suspect my reaction was to just press it down, maybe make it more conventional again.

Alexandra Harley: What you seem to have done is compressed it slightly and then opened up some of the spaces within some of these areas, so that they can flow through.

Sarah Greenwood: Are you working on it at this level [on a table]?

Mark Skilton: Yes… this is where it was made…

Sarah Greenwood: …whereas the others were made on the floor….

Mark Skilton: I thought I would work smaller, because it takes so long to work on the scale of this one (Greedy Granadilla). Hopefully I could work quicker [on this scale] and set up more things. It started off like that, but then what happened was it started to push in a certain direction that looked familiar; so I tried to push it more, expanding more volumes into it to see how ‘bonkers’ I could actually make it.

Pompous Pomegranate 2013 H138x148x129cm

Pompous Pomegranate, 2013, steel, H138 x 148 x 129cm. (view 1)

Anthony Smart: I think the most interesting place to start from is here [Pompous Pomegranate view 3]. It shouldn’t really be working at all because it sets itself up as three ‘things’ when you are standing there [view 1]; and so when you come to here [view 3] it should be a disaster. The sculpture looking from this end is flexing, it is a physical experience. There is so much tension between the elements. These tensions are being transferred down and back and then down again. Before you know where you are, you have worked your way through to a point furthest away.

Hilde Skilton: They are unusual volumes, aren’t they?

Anthony Smart: The whole language of the steel has completely changed from Greedy Granadilla.

Alexandra Harley: But there is still that ‘laminated’ aspect. Still that bulk building…

Anthony Smart: This thing is coming over and this thing is coming through and round; it’s like folding some weird pastry. As it turns, it opens itself out here and here and here.  It’s turning in every conceivable bloody direction. And I know we say ‘What is three-dimensionality?’; it’s there… that’s it! And that’s why it’s out all over the place. That’s why it’s called three dimensions. If you get stuff out all over the place, this is the only discipline that can do it… sculpture does this! That’s what it’s for and that’s what it’s purpose in life is. Whether it’s completely there that remains to be seen. It’s not quite there yet. I am a bit mistrustful of the length of the piece, but I like the change in the steelwork [from Greedy Granadilla].

Alexandra Harley: What you [Mark] seem to be doing at the moment is taking blocks of material and areas of the sculpture and not only folding them inside out, but making some very specific turns with the space. I think it’s astonishing to have an area that you are articulating so strongly, and I really like that.                                                                                                             

Anthony Smart: (now talking about Fruity Blueberry) This thing here [the top] and this thing here [the bottom] are great, but this thing here, I can’t get [between the two] and I still want to move this section right out here; get it [the middle section] opened out somehow.

Robin Greenwood: It is a bit ‘lined up’…

Anthony Smart: Yes, which is a real shame. If somebody said ‘cut one of Mark’s volumes up,’ here it is, take this [the top part] to a Caro table piece show, drop that in on it. It is a superb thing… and there is another one there [the bottom part].

Fruity Blueberry 160cmsx180x102 cms. 2009 no1 (2)

Fruit Blueberry, 2009, steel, 160 x 180 x 102cm

Robin Greenwood: If you stand here you can see that thing [the top] and that thing [the bottom] at their best; but making a plane through here [the middle] doesn’t help. That doesn’t get you down… but I agree, that [the top piece] is one of the best ‘things’ I’ve seen… [editor’s note: this ‘thing’ is unphotographable!]

Anthony Smart: You look at something like this from a couple of years ago and you realise the problems Mark is up against, when you take on all this stuff; and you’ve got quite a way to go to sort this out, and yet in two years you’ve done it [in Greedy Granadilla].

Mark Skilton: Yes… this one (Fruity Blueberry) was trying to push its own configuration outwards a bit, but it just took a bit of imagination to move it through this one (Mulberry Migration) into that one (Greedy Granadilla), so that by the time I got there I was saying, yes you can really embrace the space; and this is what three-dimensions is, you’ve got to go out as far as you can. I was talking with Tony about this one (Mulberry Migration), and about its ‘U-shape’ configuration, because it constrains all the meaning and live-ness in the sculpture because of this ‘horseshoe’ shape imposed on it. I think [a good kind of] looseness can come from having the confidence to abandon all that.

Anne Smart: One of the things we’ve been talking about is the use of words, and for me it’s a revelation about how you work, which I’ve suddenly become aware of, and the ability you have to put things together. And so what I think is fantastic about this piece (Greedy Granadilla) is… well you [Robin] said something [on abstract critical] about spontaneity, and ‘how do you do that with a welding torch? ‘And so spontaneity does not mean ‘of the moment’ for me, because spontaneity is in that sculpture in bucket loads. If I think about all the things that that means, somehow you’ve put together all of these solid things with an incredible open feel. Ages ago we used to describe it, in the eighties… we used to say, ‘it works’; which is such a shallow description of the thing. But this is working, and so well, and in a million ways. And it’s putting to task the things we know about. And can I just say as well that I think it’s very difficult for people to listen to your explanations, because they are so modest.

Anthony Smart: You are a natural…

Robin Greenwood: …a complete original…nobody makes sculpture like that…

Fruity Blueberry 160cmsx180x102 cms. 2009 no1

Fruit Blueberry, 2009, steel, 160 x 180 x 102cm (view 2)

Alexandra Harley: This work absolutely holds you…

Robin Greenwood: …it does, but you get a kick as soon as you walk in the door. As soon as you are in the door, you think ‘fucking hell!’

Anthony Smart: As we are seeing better things, I’m starting to think that these words we use – gravity, space, physicality, sensibility, all kind of amount to one thing – sculpture. All these things have to be in and have to be working at the same time, as they are here. And that’s when our discipline just flies; painters watch out – can you live with it? Sculpture is amazing when it happens. So it’s difficult to take this discussion to the next level… because the work itself is the next level.

Comments made previously on

  1. Robin Greenwood said…

To digress for a moment… In the spring of last year I went to a corporate sponsored bash at the ‘Picasso and Modern British Art’ show at Tate Britain. Pretty awful it was too, with the suits being chaperoned around the show by guides who were giving out glib commentaries for the sake of their entirely ignorant audiences. But by far the worst of the evening was the keynote speech by some Tate apparatchik whose name I never caught, who not without considerable hubris boasted that these days Tate would never be caught napping on the best of new art, as they were in the bad old days when fuddy-duddies ruled the purchasing committees and Picassos of considerable virtue went begging. Oh no, they wouldn’t, not now, they were right on the case these days…

Except they are not, are they? The big art institutions never are. Nor the big commercial galleries. If there was any kind of serious meritocracy in sculpture, or genuinely accountable discourse about its more objective values, Mark Skilton’s recent work would be gracing the turbine hall of Tate Modern or the Duveen Galleries of Tate Britain or any of Larry Gagosian’s caverns right now, and be the subject of intense public debate. What is central to his art rightfully belongs in the public domain. Skilton espouses the highest of ambitions for the discipline of sculpture, whilst harbouring few if any pretentions for his own career and artworld status. Consequently, his sculptures are languishing in a lonely studio in Wiltshire and you couldn’t get a Tate caretaker to give them a sniff. Will these works ever ‘make it’? I expect they will, but not for fifty years or so; not until the extreme affectations of the present artworld elite have run their course and are long forgotten.

The more self-conscious amongst us are entirely jealous of Skilton’s ability to turn out such extraordinarily inventive sculptures without contrivance or conceit. Skilton immerses himself in the construction of three-dimensional content, and has the technical ability to successfully bring together all manner of diverse metalworking. There is a lot needs to be said about this work that I for one cannot yet articulate; serious writers should beat a path to his studio door, because whilst these sculptures might well look rather exciting even in photograph, that does them no justice whatsoever. There are any number of achievements in them that are quite unphotographable, and what’s more, are awaiting some kind of insightful analysis. My feelings about them are rather complex, not entirely uncritical, and not yet definitive; but the term ‘like’ doesn’t to any degree cover them. This work is new and true, the product of real individual vision, different from anything previously done in sculpture, but wholly beneficial to it. That in itself is a massive achievement.

Posted at 3:28 pm on September 15, 2013

    • Robert Linsley said…

A question. What exactly do you mean by “diverse metalworking?” Is there more than one kind of steel, and more than one kind of welding?

Posted at 4:33 pm on September 15, 2013

      • Robin Greenwood said…

I think there is more than one kind of steel – there are a few bits of machinery in there – but also some forged pieces that have been manipulated when hot by hammering, which look and feel very different from stock steel. Generally, there is a greater variety of stuff in this work than you might commonly find in abstract steel sculpture and a greater number and complexity of parts. More than anything though, the diversity is visual.

Posted at 4:48 pm on September 15, 2013

    • Robert Linsley said…

Any stainless, galvanized, or non-ferrous metals?

Posted at 12:09 am on September 16, 2013

  1. Ashley West said…

Mark, This is all very intriguing. Can I ask a question, maybe a naive one, but I’m not a sculptor. When you make these sculptures do you permit yourself to break off pieces, dismantle, re-shape and so on, in a way that is common and physically much easier to do in painting, or do you follow the different discipline of an additive process where you have to deal with, incorporate or resolve each decision, through the next one? I suppose the latter is bit like subsequent phrases in musical improvisation – you can only resolve through moving forward.

Posted at 10:38 am on September 14, 2013

    • Mark said…

This is an interesting question which I think is at the heart of abstraction, being tied to improvisation and spontaneity. The first part of your question was, do I remove whole areas and rebuild? I used to in the past, but very rarely nowadays as I have found it important to keep a memory of what there was before when changing something, so part of a phrase may be removed, but not all. This helps me to keep some kind of continuity of decision making, which can also be read by the viewer.
The improvisation in the work is never free improvisation, but only after a lot of consideration, and more to do with changing or developing an existing context. It is to do with changing what is there rather than replacing what is there. This takes place over a long period of time so that although the work has a strong feeling of spontaneity , it is not a quick process, as observed by Anne Smart in the discussion.
I think that the comparison with musical improvisation is a bit misleading as although musicians are committed to the notes that have been played and can improvise in response, they also have the option to repeat the melody, bringing what has gone before back to the present, whereas sculpture and painting exist only in the present.

Posted at 8:02 am on September 15, 2013

  1. Peter Reginato said…


Posted at 6:04 pm on September 13, 2013

  1. Sandra Porter said…

I have been to see this sculpture and it is indeed a very impressive body of work. I find that it is what Mark says about it that makes the most sense in the ‘chronicle’. He is very interesting about his process and he is totally absorbed in his relationship with his materials and his action, his ‘making’. He comes across as an artist of great knowledge and integrity and constantly questions what he does as he negotiates the development of each sculpture. Although the Brancaster Chronicles may have come across a little awkwardly at times, it has brought artists to our attention that we may not otherwise have come across (in this case 3 miles down the road from me and I had no idea!) so I hope it will continue and grow.

Posted at 9:11 pm on September 12, 2013

  1. Saul Greenberg said…

It’s hard to know how to respond to this article.
The protagonists are well respected and serious practitioners, yet there is a feeling of self regard and small collective massaging about this and all the Brancaster Chronicles.
There are so many superlatives in this particular piece, that response seems futile. Without the rest of the community seeing/experiencing the work, we just have to take you few’s word for it. Not that i don’t trust you guys )) but it’s not really good enough if any broader dialogue is wanted.
Isn’t there a sympathetic gallery space somewhere that could show this work and make this conversation a bit more inclusive?

Posted at 8:00 pm on September 12, 2013

    • anne smart said…

Hi Saul
Good to hear from you
You are absolutely right…and on the day in Mark’s studio in front of the sculptures the overwhelming tide of opinion was completely behind the work.
It was special..not a common occurrence
We urge you to go and visit
Most importantly that you put forward your take on it
look forward to hearing from you
Tony Smart

[All the work in these exhibitions can be seen in the artist’s studios.. arrange through Anne Smart ..details available via this site}

Posted at 7:56 am on September 13, 2013

  1. C. Morey de Morand said…

reference Robin Greenwood and Tim Scott, great predecessors.
C. Morey de Morand

Posted at 3:58 pm on September 12, 2013

    • Robin Greenwood said…

Truly, I think not. He’s too original.

Posted at 11:03 pm on September 14, 2013

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