Brancaster Chronicle No. 14: Alexandra Harley Sculptures

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Fraindre, 2012, limestone & acrylic rod, 20cm H.

20th July 2014, Bermondsey, London.

Those present: John Bunker, Anthony Smart, Anne Smart, Emyr Williams, Robin Greenwood, Sarah Greenwood, Alexandra Harley, Patrick Jones, Sam Cornish, Mark Skilton, Hilde Skilton, Nick Moore, John Pollard.

Mark Skilton: [Discussing Fraindre] Are the acrylic elements meant to be tensile elements?

Alexandra Harley: Basically, that is a sculpture that came out of one piece of stone and I wasn’t enjoying it, the stone wasn’t working and it didn’t do what I wanted it to do. So I thought I had nothing to lose by cutting it up and though there were aspects of this that I really did like, but what I felt about the stone, was that it was all surface and there was no ‘inside’ of it. By cutting it up I was able to get at more of the ‘inside that I wanted and having done that I was then trying to create the movement in the piece that I had originally tried in the stone. I then had these elements hanging up, propped up all over the studio, miles away from each other, next to each other, trying to see if I could re create the movement within the stone that I was looking for in the first place. So tensile? I was using the acrylic to join it because it was the least invasive.

Mark Skilton: Yes, the trouble is it is also ambiguous, isn’t it?

Alexandra Harley: Yes it is, but it was the best compromise I could come up with.

Mark Skilton: So having got to that, what do you think the acrylic is actually doing to the sculpture? They are part of the sculpture…

Alexandra Harley: …and you cannot ignore it. It’s there.

Mark Skilton: I mean this bit here [Perspex rod sticking out one end], I mean that’s not got any kind of structural role, yet it is an important part of that sculpture.

Alexandra Harley: Yes and it was 6ft long and I kept cutting it back and I tried other pieces of stone on there…

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Fraindre, 2012, limestone & acrylic rod, 20cm H.

Mark Skilton: Oh right, OK. Reading this, reading these particular volumes, I imagine it as something under tension, this thing actually trying to pull that over this thing, expressive of that kind of movement. In steel, you often get a good bit and then you get another good bit and if you want some kind of communication between the two, you can stick a bit of angle-iron in there and it does the job, because the angle-iron is ambiguous, and it can do many different things depending what’s on either side; and that’s what the acrylic is doing, it’s being that ambiguous junction. You are reading in what should be there. It’s like when you hear music, there is a gap and you know what’s coming next, you know what the notes are, this is what this is doing.

Alexandra Harley: The problem is, I could not create a junction with another piece of stone. I could not create that connection across that space with stone. I had wood, metal rod, all sorts of things, trying to make that connection. There were two things I could do; I could either jack the whole thing in or use the acrylic.

Anthony Smart: Can I make a suggestion? I was very keen that we start with the wood one, and the way this talk is going at the moment, we might look at this piece [Fraindre] slightly differently if we look first at that one [Rifa]. I can see where Mark’s going, but there might be a more fruitful way…

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Rifa, 2014, wood. 32cm H.

Emyr Williams: Before we go and look at the other one… I wonder if you could have modified the acrylic; for example if you sanded it.

Alexandra Harley: I did cut into the acrylic several times and I did sand it down and I am not saying that what I ended up with was what I wanted, but I might re-visit that idea, because that would draw it back down.

Anne Smart: If that is all right with you, we could move to the wood one [Rifa].

Anthony Smart: I have dragged you over here and this is my reason for doing so. This is an incredibly unassuming little piece of sculpture, and me being me, thought there was not a lot going on in it. But I have really been looking at this thing and I am quite blown away by it. I could look at it on and on and on, and I am nowhere near sorting out the quite wonderful things that are happening. And what has really taken my imagination, and why I have bought you over to this before we look at those Perspex rods, is that this has sensitivity to wood – particularly to that kind of wood, where you are not having to cut and introduce shape. You are picking up this piece of wood and it’s the way you pick it up that introduces its sensitivity; how it is held in space and how it touches on to something else which then takes you on… Now if you’re not careful, that can sound like it could be a steel sculpture, but it isn’t. And it is the first time I’ve seen a wooden sculpture and really got off on it. So what am I saying, you don’t have to cut it and shape it; now probably you can’t cut it and shape it because the lightest touch would, well, you know… I have done a bit of wood-work, and you can’t work into that [pointing at sculpture]. So you are doing this, bringing the feeling of that wood by placement, and the placement is facilitated by these rather inept pins, and there are so many things that those pins could be, but they are just like playing the first note and there’s some got stuck on it. But, the way they keep the distance of these bits of wood, spatially, that first note is so meaningful, and I’m wondering, if armed with this, we go back to the Perspex and maybe read into the Perspex as well. I can get inside these bits of wood without you doing anything more than kind of holding them in relation to one another and the thing positively sings as a tense felt thing, spatially. And there is more work done to this little group here [pointing] and maybe that is having its effect here with the ‘log’ bit with a cut out of it. It is also absolutely marvellous, but so are these quite bland bits of wood. I can feel inside the material. I can feel the grain and the cut, and I know its split isn’t it? It’s come off where it wants to come off, so there is already a literal tension. You are harnessing that literal tension by the way you are placing it, you are taking it to another level and I have never seen anything like it. This is really, really good, and where you go with this I have no idea, because I have never seen it before. But it positively sings, and if you were you to try to do this in steel, it would be pointless. And it is the way this wood splits, is ‘riven’… There you go – bingo!

John Bunker: Agreed!

Anne Smart: Agreed here!

Sam Cornish: It is interesting the way you [Alex] were talking about suspending the different elements away from each other in the studio, and then you talked about how they are held just apart from each other.

Anne Smart: Do you mean specifically in this one here, with the little pins?

Sam Cornish: No, I mean in the stone. Alex talked about parts having a suspended relationship to each other and the Perspex is kind of a way of giving that suspension and that lightness, I presume, giving it some permanency. That really struck a chord with me when you were talking about how these things are delicately held apart from each other.

Mark Skilton: Interesting, that term ‘held apart’ and I think it’s a bit of a problem, and again it is with the wooden pins. If you imagine this thing were [more] together physically, you could still maintain the space that was between the elements. If you had just a bigger hole with a bigger bit of wood stuffed through it, what would that do to the whole thing? I have a problem with the delicacy of it. I know that’s the thing that makes it, but it is also the thing… It feels like if you just give it a tap, it will just fall apart.

Alexandra Harley: I thought very hard about what you were saying. I had a big log that I had split and it would not, could not go back together again and I knew that when I split it. I had split it several ways. I thought I could either sand it down or squish it back which made the process of splitting it in the first place a bit pointless. I liked the fact that they would not go back together again. I wanted that separateness. I wanted them to be apart but I still had to join the things together.

Anthony Smart: Good point. There is absolutely no question that there is a deliberate choice which is very, very difficult. The easy choice would have been to have done that with them [put them together] and pinned them secure, and it would have been a nice robust little object. It also would have been as dead as a dodo. This is alive, but it’s doing it in this weird way. And part of it is doing it through these cack-handed pins.

Anne Smart: Well, does anyone think, like I think, that after looking at it for a while I actually can make myself not notice the pins?

Anthony Smart: Oh no, I’m on the pins!

Anne Smart: Really?

Anthony Smart: Get down [to look at it]. The piece needs you to be at different levels.

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Rifa, 2014, wood. 32cm H.

Anne Smart: But the pins have this tendency to look this slightly, err… what is the word? Fragile. I like the word fragile, but…

Robin Greenwood: I think the problem with the pins is that they are all the same. If they were different, or more different…

Anne Smart: Why are they all the same thickness?

John Bunker: They do not do the job you think they do; some of them just penetrate.

Anne Smart: And some of them work together in groups, and some work singly, so you can read the form together as one.

Mark Skilton: One of the bits I especially like is there looking down right through the centre of it ,where you get a feeling of it opened up and everything expanding outwards.

Anthony Smart: And you would never in a million years, you would never do this in steel. This is probably the first sculpture in wood I’ve really liked.

Anne Smart: And also its scale is right as well. It doesn’t look like a big thing in miniature.

Anthony Smart: It’s very happy, when you get down to it. The thing is quite confident.

Alexandra Harley: It was on the studio table last week, it is very, very recent and I have only just finished it a few days ago. It was huge, this bit came right out, this bit was further over here and this bit reached further over, so it was actually much bigger, and I took it all away, I thought I didn’t need any of that. The pins, well, I felt if I started messing around with different sizes, that wouldn’t work. I decided to cluster smaller ones rather than have one big one.

Sarah Greenwood: I quite like that you have a group of three there, then there are two there, and one going that way. Somehow the direction of some of the groups seems to be more coherent in the way they are going, which maybe would do something. I haven’t worked out which ones are absolutely necessary. This bit here, I really like that. The way that group of three comes there, two going into there and one that comes across, so that you actually really feel this is how you hold this joint together.

Anthony Smart: It’s also wonderfully intelligent, this thing hanging, and it pauses there, a fantastic thing to happen in a small sculpture. You can almost feel the weight, the way that thing is almost bouncing on the end there, and then you come back in with this thing bracing through it, stretching out; amazing! You have been doing this for years, but I have never come across one that pulls it all together.

John Bunker: This reminds me of ripping paper, when you have a large sheet of paper with many layers to it, and when you rip it and the layers come apart, there is a natural sense of them still belonging to each other. What you said at the beginning, about a collection of splinters, so they come from one solid, but you have allowed them to break apart and they have found their own sense of shape. There is a sensitivity of bringing them back together in a new form or structure of their own. I can relate to that.

Robin Greenwood: I am not sure I understand that. I don’t quite see that the bits have all come off one log. Have they?

Alexandra Harley: Yes, it is all the same log cut into smaller sections, and some were cut with a bandsaw.

John Bunker: Where you have made an incision, sometimes there is an edge, you have dealt with that combination incredibly spatially.

Robin Greenwood: And it’s a very original space, not familiar

Mark Skilton: I worked in wood for a little while, the naturalness of the wood, that is the unique thing, the split of it, the fact that it is riven timber, reveals the liveness in the timber, the process of growth and what-have-you, which is something you don’t get in steel. So I am trying to figure out a way that I could use that sense in my own work.

Robin Greenwood: So you quite like it then?

Mark Skilton: Yes!

Anthony Smart: Absolutely. I just keep wanting to point bits out: this here – it’s not clapped on the side of it. The tension in this thing! It stands off it, and that other one stands off that, and that one stands off that. We were talking about space yesterday, and this is space running with tension in the most amazing way, and it is so simple, so accessible, and of course when you get a long view on it, the space is getting involved with that one here, and pushing and then you’ve got this bowing… and then, off they go again, tension here, cutting through. And I love the way that sits on there, and sets that thing up, so obviously it can’t hold itself up there. What’s holding that up, it’s the pegs isn’t it? You can go inside the mind of those pegs, you know what they feel like, because they have the weight of the sculpture sat on them.

Mark Skilton: There is something about the lightness of weight that adds to the spatiality of the work. These things, they don’t look wrong, you can almost sense them floating on this cushion of air, that helps the way you read the space inside. In steel, space is often forced into a piece of steel and you have to work hard to get in there, so there is a massive effort that goes into making a spatial area; a matter of teasing the matter apart to allow the air in there. The wood just seems to float naturally with that. If in your mind you could change that to a piece of steel then it doesn’t really work. It just wouldn’t be believable.

Anthony Smart: It would be quite numb, and you can’t think your way into a piece of steel, it is not about that, you have to cut into it in some way, open it up. That’s the incredible thing, you haven’t opened this stuff up, you have been bold enough to put it in as it has come. It is all about the sensitivities, how you put it there. Everything hinges on that, now that gets you inside the wood.

Emyr Williams: Talking about the fragility, could you have gone even further?

Alexandra Harley: Possibly, I don’t know. I thought about the size of each pin and I whether I needed 2 or 3, so it didn’t swivel about.

Anthony Smart: This stitching – these pins are in stitch mode – they are like a dovetail joint, very strong, in a bizarre sort of way, the pins are made to stitch like that, as a dovetail would, it’s really so expressive. You have just got those two touching, then held apart. And it is specific because it is held, being a dovetail it can’t go any further than that, it can’t increase or decrease. In steel, that would be a weld there, a different thing altogether, it could be great, it could be shit, who knows. This is great!

John Bunker: What can we take from this if we move back to the other sculpture?

Anne Smart: I would agree with that, it is the way these pieces are brought together. What are the problems with that one, if it does have any problems.

Emyr Williams: Do you move between materials?

Alexandra Harley: No, wood is always going on somewhere, and stone is just something I have been doing in the last couple of years. I have recently been trying out ideas in clay.

Sam Cornish: The importance of wood is in how it is releasing the qualities of the wood. To me, it doesn’t seem particularly important that in this piece [Fraindre] these are made of stone, these elements. They could be made of something much lighter, almost as if you have a densely grained enough polystyrene or something like that.

Anthony Smart: Not to be disrespectful, but you are cack-handed and you have made a virtue of it by not becoming a master carpenter, by always insisting on this fragility, so you have built up your own take on how ‘stuff’ is, and how it can be expressive. And I think there is something going on in there, I am pleased Sam has pointed that out. Because you have used two materials, there is vulnerability about the material and you do feel pressure in a different way to the way you feel pressure in a single material. There is a kind of fragility at that point, and I again, get off on that. There is hardly any contact with the floor at all, the width of that is what is supporting the thing. I do like that, I didn’t think I did, but it is alright. I love all this, you have a totally different language, this is a totally different thing to that, these things grinding into one another. I don’t think the Perspex rods are quite doing it for me. It needs some wooden pins…

Alexandra Harley: The wood pins didn’t work in there

Anthony Smart: That’s alive there and I do like this one because I can put my hand on it and pull this thing round [top piece of Perspex that heads out into space]. That shaping of these things is not to be underestimated. I mean this is a fantastic thing, and this mad idea of putting this thing skewered on the Perspex, so it can rotate about the Perspex…

Anne Smart: Disregarding the rods, I like the way you bring light into the volumes. The light that you bring in is probably why Sam was able to say they could be polystyrene. The way that they are carved makes them look lighter, and you see light, you almost make these big things transparent, in a way.

John Bunker: This is a really interesting thing to try to do with the stone, so dense…

Anne Smart: …and maybe having this handle-able size is really good for them. The wooden one, which is more complex in the way it is built up, the light that is flooding around and through that one, I look at this one and realise how light and spacey and airy you’ve made this stone, disregarding the way you have put them together.

Emyr Williams: One thing I was curious about was that the two elements, they have specific roles, one joins and connects, and I was curious if there was some way they could swap roles at some point.

Alexandra Harley: There is a maquette in the studio at the moment doing that with wood and lumpy bits of clay. I have begun that process and it is really quite interesting, but it wasn’t good enough to bring. It came out of trying to do something more specific with the rod.

Anthony Smart: I have a feeling there is a lot more going on in this stone and I need to spend more time looking at it.

Nick Moore: What really impresses me is the way you have taken the weight out of the stone, that weightlessness

Anthony Smart: When you were talking about light, were you talking about the Perspex?

Anne Smart: No, I was talking about the light that Alex finds in the way she manipulates the material and the way the light then flecks over the surface. The light changes over these facets and the way she has carved it so some of them are angular and some of them are softer. There is a complexity there which is very, very low key, but then the thing that came through for me was not lightness but light, which is different to space. In many ways that would be a traditional way of making the object. You can use the light to make it look more realistic. But here, this one is using that same sort of technique if you can call it that, to make something completely abstract. I am quite interested in that at the moment both in this and in painting.

Anthony Smart: The only other Perspex with any relevance is Tim Scott’s Counterpoints and what you have there is a clash of two materials. One is ugly tough and industrial, with a pin bolt through, the Perspex must hate it. And there is a funny relationship because these Perspex pins which are the structure, they need the stone, and they link it in such a way that there is leverage on every single one of them, sometimes at both ends. So it is thinking your way inside the stone, where normally stone is a surface issue. So as Sam says, she‘s got this traditional modulation of light, so it is eating into the stuff and exposing its vulnerability, and it is feeling for the stone, and then you poke this thing in and suddenly you realise it is standing on these pins again and it could all go off, ‘pop’.

Robin Greenwood: This vulnerability thing you think is a key issue?

Anthony Smart: Yes, I do, done in a different way because it is a different material. You have only got to look at Robin’s sculpture, with this element here, it isn’t half feeling the weight of that. You do have to cope with the literal and the illusionistic. This is a different way of exploring that.

Robin Greenwood: Well I agree, I think vulnerability in a material is really interesting.

Anne Smart: Yes, I do too.

Robin Greenwood: Maybe that’s still not the right word though, maybe it is about feeling something physical happening, and you get the feeling from the material.

Anthony Smart: Yes, you know, Alex, you come out with these tiny things, but its massive what you are doing, brilliant.

Robin Greenwood: And it is on the hoof somehow, a bit like something said about Fred’s painting; it only just scraped in through the door, didn’t it Alex. But if I may make a criticism… I don’t particularly like that, where there are two cuts that just feel like a little like sections through something, and I don’t get that anywhere else. It just feels like the thing stops a bit prematurely there.

Anthony Smart: I got a bit tangled there too, but there is the rod [sticking out]… that Perspex rod is meaningful, it lets you into to the nature of the rest of the work. You can’t help but put your hand on it and give it a yank…

Robin Greenwood: But isn’t it slightly denied by that face. This looks like a sort of section through a loaf or something…

Anne Smart: I think it makes it looks like it is the back of the sculpture…

Anthony Smart: But, that cut couldn’t be at any other angle or at any other position, because it is that cut which meets this one from underneath that puts the thing sitting on a hard edge, a sharp edge, and you feel that sitting on the floor. The thing is really clever. Extraordinary! Maybe everything you have done over the years has been brilliant and I never saw it…

Robin Greenwood: Maybe that is a good place to finish.

7 comments
  1. It would be interesting to explore the issues of “placed” as opposed to “formed” as these seem to play a significant role in sculpture – in general. The former coming out of construction and the latter from a modelling or carving tradition – two seemingly opposing approaches, yet ones which often sit side by side in the most advanced of works . The action of forming: for example the cutting of stone or steel and the resultant energies that are expended and instilled into the work have in themselves a singularity and I wonder if this is compromised rather than complemented by the placing of parts? I suppose the proof is in the pudding. However could the pudding be richer if it was simpler rather than more complex? And in fact is the complexity issue running the risk of a literalisation rather than a visualisation? Is there an issue of obligation to “work things up into a sculpture?” This is not directed specifically at Alex’s work, rather it’s just a view from – an intrigued – painter towards sculpture.

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    • Being someone who uses both placement and forming in work, I find it difficult to untangle the two…. Are they two distinct approaches? What Alex has is the wood. It was very interesting to look at some sculpture that was not made of steel. (And to hear how the other sculptors came to grips with that.) Does the wood suggest a journey (of making and/or seeing) by its grain? How the flakes fell or were eased away from a block and how Alex reconfigured them felt so strong but didn’t feel ‘carved’ or ‘formed’ as such. For me, the tiny pegs and their holes acted as a kind of punctuation- a way of drawing up contours and accentuating rhythms latent in the wood. Is that ‘placement’? I need to see the Perspex and stone piece again but all the sculptors thoughts were really interesting in relation to this piece. Great stuff!

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  2. I cant comment at length as I missed the main crit ,but I will say I witnessed the extreme care and respect from the other sculptors for Alex’s work.This dignified both the crew and the occasion,being a hallmark of Brancaster debate that makes it so special

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    • Robin Greenwood said:

      Well said Patrick, and I think we should single out Tony Smart for doing a really brilliant job here of illuminating the rather too easily-overlooked achievements of Alex’s sculpture. It is one of the pleasures and strengths of Brancaster that one’s view of an artist’s work can be radically transformed on the day by such intelligent and unexpected insight.

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  3. Jock Ireland said:

    Am enjoying Brancaster Chronicle No. 14. Anthony Smart says, “First time I’ve seen a wooden sculpture and really got off on it.” What about Tom Doyle’s work: http://www.tomdoylesculptor.com/? Or Sidney Geist’s: http://www.ericfirestonegallery.com/exhibitions/the-talented-mr-geist-selected-works-from-the-estate-of-sidney-geist-1914-2005/the-talented-mr-geist-selected-works (nice pins/pegs in image no. 6)? Not trying to suggest this American work is better than Alexandra’s. Just thinking you all in Brancaster might not be familiar with it—and I’m thinking the American stuff might be described as decisively “abstract” (even though I don’t really know what that word means); maybe Alexandra’s wood piece isn’t “unfigurative”: I’m NOT thinking, look: two legs, a head, etc.—I am “thinking,” maybe there’s some contrapposto at work “organizing”/”forming” the piece. Anthony Smart again: “We were talking about space yesterday, and this is space running with tension in the most amazing way, and it is so simple, so accessible, and of course when you get a long view on it, the space is getting involved with that one here, and pushing and then you’ve got this bowing… and then, off they go again, tension here, cutting through.” Sounds like contrapposto to me—from thousands of miles away. . .

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  4. Noela James said:

    What these sculptures made me feel( when I saw them the day before the critique) was the notion that Alexandra had deconstructed a natural material and completely transformed it into a kind of new life form. I too got the feeling of cheating gravity with the stone and perspex piece. The wooden sculpture has a tamed elegance and controlled flow while still showing its intrinsic tension.

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  5. Cutting up the stone to get into it is a pivotal decision and one that indicates the healthy give and take which underpins true art. It lifts it above art made out of design or planning and is the other side of a significant line in the sand. I say this as I see a lot of art being made -often spawned by the national curriculum – which places an emphasis on ” quantifiable outcomes” . Art made in these conditions is compromised. What Tony was able to articulate so well was this give and take and clear minded decision making that Alex has employed in making these works. I mentioned after the discussion that I enjoyed the fragility of the wooden one and likened that to a butterfly’s wings which although fragile have and need real strength to function. I enjoyed Tim Scott’s recent forays into plywood which although different have a similar sort of intimacy – it is the response to the nature of the chosen material, being controlled yet not having an imposed form at odds with this nature. The perspex in the stone one adds a forced logic but one which can work it would seem if it has a real function. It would be good to see some more of each kind to see just where this would lead…..

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