Brancaster Chronicle No. 24: Mark Skilton Sculptures

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Pompous Pomegranate, 2013-15, steel,  H.222x303x202cm.

1st August 2015, at the artist’s studio near Bath.

Those present: : Hilde Skilton, Mark Skilton, Anne Smart, Anthony Smart, John Pollard, Alexandra Harley, Sam Cornish, Nick Moore, Robin Greenwood, Sarah Greenwood, Noela James, Patrick Jones, Shelley Latham, Andrew Barrs.


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View 2, Pompous Pomegranate, 2013-15, steel,  H.222x303x202cm.


View 3, Pompous Pomegranate, 2013-15, steel,  H.222x303x202cm.


Truculent Ptarmigan, 2014-15, steel, H.126x151x135cm.


View 2, Truculent Ptarmigan, 2014-15, steel, H.126x151x135cm.

  1. Jock Ireland said:

    Thank you, Robin, for bringing in a link to my Abcrit comment.

    I’d like add to that comment, briefly/quickly, now.

    First: I have to say that I hope it goes without saying that I’m NOT trying to make fun of Mark’s work: my comments might seem ridiculous: they might be ridiculous—but I respect/admire/am tremendously excited by Mark’s work, by Anthony’s, by all the work I’ve discovered through Brancaster, Abcrit, etc.

    I do see Laocoon and His Sons in Mark’s sculpture—kind of “generally”—but NOT “vaguely.” The small piece Sam and others talked about at the beginning of the Chronicle I see as a snake. It’s not JUST a snake. It’s also a piece of music, a steel sculpture, an abstract sculpture. I don’t think Mark was trying to make a snake. It’s not really a specific kind of snake, but it’s different from the “snakes” Anthony Smart makes. (I see Anthony’s “snakes” as cobras: Anthony “is” a snake charmer.) I know what I’m saying is at least partly ridiculous, but I think it’s partly “objectively” true too. I see the “legs” of Pompous Pomegranate—the “legs” that trouble Anthony so deeply—as figures, as Laocoon and his sons. The “congestion” talked about in the Chronicle is human drama for me.

    All this might seem to be just a ridiculous fantasy. What’s interesting to me is that at some level I really don’t think it’s “news”—I don’t think it’ll be in any way surprising to Mark or Anthony (at least at some level). They might want to dismiss my “thinking”—but I think this is the way they do “think”/work now. Mark talks about the small piece I’m calling a snake as not working, as needing to turn in on itself—did he say, “in order to become a story”?—he did say that had the thing turned in on itself it would have turned into another Pompous Pomegranate. Anthony, in Brancaster Chronicle 22, says (in effect) that it’s harder to charm two snakes than just one. I’m NOT trying to say Mark and Anthony are storytellers, not abstract sculptors. I guess what I am trying to say is you don’t have to read Stanley Cavell or Michael Fried or Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe or Todd Cronan (wonderful, wonderful writers though these guys are) to “get” Mark’s or Anthony’s sculpture: their work is, in a way, as accessible as Laocoon and His Sons, or Rembrandt’s Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph.


  2. Mark Skilton said:

    Hi Jock
    Do you think that these sculptures are more representational than abstract?
    You seem to be suggesting that my intention in making them is to give expression to the scrap pile of psychological debris that is cluttering up my mind, rather than anything vaguely sculptural and that there is something fundamentally inevitable about this.


  3. Jock Ireland said:

    Hey Mark–

    When it comes to sculpture—good sculpture—your sculpture—I have trouble make a distinction between “representational” and “abstact.”

    I also have trouble with the word or way of thinking often associated with “psychological.” Often there’s some kind of explanation associated with “psychological”—an “explanation” that is too often unsatisfactory for me. Though I do remember reading a long time ago Erich Neumann on Henry Moore and liking what Neumann had to say. Point is: talk about snakes might seem to be “psychologically” loaded. Maybe it is. We all have “psychologies.” That’s fine with me. I’m just not thinking about that.

    Your work seems to me to be driven by “sculptural” ideas—“ideas” that are NOT vague, but that are not easy to talk about. Another book I read a long time ago and that I’ve reread many times since is Bill Tucker’s Language of Sculpture. Remember what he says about gravity? It’s gravity that allows me to see figures in your sculpture—that seems to make my seeing them “inevitable”—even “fundamentally inevitable.”

    Am running off now to “teach” sculpture. Pray for my students!


    • I think your last point, Jock, about gravity and its relation to figuration might be an interesting line of discussion. I can almost see your point.

      Immediately after this discussion, Anne Smart and I were talking (Anne might recall this differently!), and we agreed (though I can’t remember quite how we got there) that firstly, the work was terrific; secondly,that the Brancaster discussions on sculpture were really getting somewhere; but thirdly and most interestingly of all, that the next thing that we would both do, if Mark’s big sculpture were ours, would be to chop it up into pieces and reconfigure it… or would that be de-configure it? In other words, to scramble what might be considered an over-determination of the parts and their structured ‘functions’ in relation to how the work stands in the world and in relation to gravity. And that by doing so we would possibly make the ‘legs’ less leggy, the ‘core’ less of a core, the whole thing less of a self-referential proposition about how ‘in the world’ it held itself up… or how it was some kind of metaphor for how it held itself up, against gravity (or is it a metaphor, or illusion, of gravity?).

      And would we, in doing so, go further towards a goal of making the thing more abstract, by deconstructing that deterministic metaphoric content, rendering that content just more naturally, less strivingly, abstract…? and put it all (the content) back in the melting pot…

      Is the undeniably powerful physicality of this work really abstract?


      • Mark Skilton said:

        What the hell is deterministic metaphoric content!


      • ‘Deterministic’ means here that the pieces/parts of a sculpture are made with a predetermined position and visual/physical ‘function’ within the configuration in mind. Let’s say, in this case, that the stuff happening in the middle is supported or suspended by other stuff around it, with the intention to make that stuff look like it is doing those physical jobs. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be predetermined; it can just evolve to take on a specific role in the physical set-up to become deterministic in it’s outcome.

        The metaphor is to do with what you yourself have described – giving the appearance of, or referencing, things in the real world that do certain physical tasks. You have talked about sculptures having to obey the laws of physics, albeit illusionistically. At least, that is what I understood you to have been saying…


  4. Perhaps its time to consider how sculpture could be made in a more fluid, more dynamic way, achieving an ability to occupy its space and relationship to what it stands on in numerous ways. A difficult task no doubt with heavy materials and spatial sculpture but not impossible with access to the necessary facilities. This is not a criticism of Mark’s sculpture, which I have only seen on-screen, and unfortunately my internet speed is so poor that I’ve been unable to watch/listen to the filmed discussion satisfactorily so apologies if my comment has already been covered at that event.


  5. Mark Skilton said:

    I take the point that the physical role of parts within a sculpture do make those parts deterministic and therefore not abstract. However I cannot see sculpture where physicality is reduced or absent, for then we are back to a pictorialy determined method of construction.


    • I don’t think a pictorial determination is the only alternative (if one wants an alternative, and maybe you don’t, because you are doing so well). The illusions of physicality (unless of the literal, materialistic, non-illusionistic kind, which we are not very interested in) seem inevitably wrapped up with references/allusions/metaphors/whatever of and to the real world, particularly to bodies, and maybe this in part explains the problems that Jock and others have in trying to not see figurative and ‘organic’ things in the work.

      The illusions of spatiality seem less burdened with with such references (if you think they are a burden), since, in sculpture, space is just space. Three-dimensionality too is a metaphor-free area of content (?). Three-dimensionality certainly doesn’t imply pictoriality, just the opposite. Three-dimensionality and spatiality might be more abstract directions than physicality – if that is where one wants to go with this thing…


  6. Andrew said:

    These sculpture discussions do really seem to be getting somewhere and this was a particularly good one. I found the film of Mark’s sculpture quite frankly inspiring and although I have only seen a smaller one in the ‘flesh’ at Thursday’s Bow PV I am no less impressed.

    What ‘imagery’ folk read into the work is really neither here nor there, with such powerfully autonomous objects we are all apt to do so to some degree, it’s bound up with making ‘sense’ – do we need to make ‘sense’? Surely if even such ‘self possessed’ objects can open up a rich suggestive metaphorical world then we are all the better for it? A problem only comes if we ourselves close the sculpture off first, if when faced with any new object “in which of it’s earlier categories the new object belongs? Into which ready open drawer shall we put it? With which ready-made garments shall we invest it?” As an existing box ‘abstract’ now seems too small.

    Maybe it’s about time we dropped ‘abstract’ from such sculpture? Personally I find sculpture and object making so essentially ‘real’ so bound up with the ‘physics’ and ‘mind’ of being here to find the term severely lacking other than perhaps serving to separate such activity from ‘representational’ sculpture – modelmaking. Abstract seems so tied with painterly image making problems, of 2-dimensionality, illusionistic ‘space’ or deriving of ‘essences’ from Mondrian trees etc…I can’t really use the term with any conviction. I don’t know what term we may use instead, faced with such interesting phenomena in my space do I need one at all?

    Anthony Smart mentioned ‘sculptural space’ in one discussion and try as I might I still don’t get it!
    The power/draw and thrill of making such ‘real’ sculpture seems to come a good deal from precisely it’s sharing of ‘our’ space not some ‘other’ space. Too literal, maybe?

    I have to say again, very thought provoking artwork, film and discussion.


    • “Surely if even such ‘self possessed’ objects can open up a rich suggestive metaphorical world then we are all the better for it?”

      Couldn’t disagree more. In what way are we better off? We have, for a start, possibly missed the direction of travel of Mark’s work. Maybe that doesn’t matter, but if we pursue that line, we also miss the opportunity to focus much better on what the sculpture is specifically doing, physically, spatially and three-dimensionally. And we will then, far from opening things up, in fact shut down the fantastic possibilities and potential of sculpture free from such out-of-date associational baggage. As soon as you start going down that road of exploring suggestive metaphors, it’s the kiss of death for both the sculpture and the discussion.

      “Abstract” is a difficult word; “abstract sculpture” is a difficult world. Get used to it. We have to press on.

      I don’t get a sense of the “Laocoon” thing that Jock gets (other than the vague and meaningless visual similarity of a big lump surrounded by smaller writhing things), but I am very reminded by “Pompous Pomegranate” of the project Mark did 35 years ago, just prior to a number of us getting involved with a thing called “Sculpture from the Body”, of a transcription of an Etruscan lion sculpture. The set-up, proposition, configuration, whatever you want to call it, is very similar, as is the handling of the physical content, though it is here more advanced, sophisticated, articulate and “loose”. I don’t know why I never thought of it before, but now I have, it’s very clear. I guess it’s for Mark to say whether he feels this connection to his earlier work is true, and whether that’s where he wants to be going. There is nothing wrong with it, and it doesn’t stop me thinking the work is terrific, but it puts in doubt the ambition of making the work more abstract. To me, it puts a limit on the sculpture. But Mark might feel differently.


  7. I think Jock is on to something with his comparison with “Laocoon”. It seems to me that Mark’s work is the realization of vectors (forces of movement) rather than volumes per se. As a result, the “lines of force” in a work like “Pompous Pomegranate” (tension, torsion, the downward pull of gravity and and the upward arc of kinetic energy) resonate quite well with the forces at play in “Laocoon”. Far from a “meaningless visual similarity” between the two, there’s a much more basic -dare I say “abstract”- energetic relationship between them.

    But I recognize that even energetic relationships, while not visible, are not wholly abstract as they rely on constant reference to our physical experience of the world via our bodies as the mechanism by which we experience. Thus even simple contrasts such as hard and soft, tall or short are made in reference to ourselves, our flesh. I think this reality throws in doubt the quest that anything can be made purely abstract. Its like trying to analyze all the movements of a basketball game while your in the middle of playing it. It cant be done, you have to step out of the game in order to do so, and I’m afraid that for the foreseeable future we wont be able to step out of our bodies and create works that are not at least tangentially in dialogue with them.


    • Who mentioned purity? Let’s not try to boil down ‘abstract’ to some kind of shrivelled-up esoteric territory; let’s open it up to every possibility and excess… like Mark does.


  8. Well of course no one explicitly mentioned ‘purity’ but I think the implication is there when phases such as “making the work more abstract” come into play. “More abstract” has “less representational” as its corollary, so as something gets “more abstract” it is more “purely” so. Unless we’re talking about complexity, which is a totally different matter.


  9. Mark Skilton said:

    Firstly I don’t get the comparison with the Lion, unless you are referring to the way that one element has a physical bearing on another, which is also true of your work and Tony’s.
    Secondly you cannot have three Dimensionality and spaciality without a strong physical ordering principle. Space and three dimensions only make sense because of the physical stuff that’s in it. Otherwise you will end up with a pseudo-optical piece of rubbish as has been done at various times in the past.
    Thirdly I agree with the ambition of abstraction to be free of constraining references and am irritated by those who only see what they think is there and cannot be bothered to see what is really there. Abstraction does require a lot of work on the part of the viewer perhaps it should come with a warning.
    Despite all of this I think the mistake I made with Pompous Pommegranate was with treating space as a physical entity which had the effect of making the physical bits less spatial.


  10. Jock Ireland said:

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Andrew! It’s time we dropped “abstract” from such sculpture!

    “Figurative” is a difficult word; “figurative sculpture” is a difficult world. Robin and Mark will get used to it. We must press on!

    I agree with Robin and Anne Smart about Mark’s work: it’s terrific; and the Brancaster discussions ARE getting somewhere—taking me places I’ve never been to. But Robin and Anne kind of lose me with their talk about chopping up Pompous Pomegranate.

    I think there’s a connection—a connection I’m not trying to dismiss, but a connection I don’t really understand—between chaos and abstraction/abstract-ness (maybe between the sublime/the terrible, those Romantic ideas, and abstract-ness) for Robin and Anne. (I remember years ago a young woman patting me on my head and telling me my tolerance for chaos wasn’t as high as hers.)

    I think Raymond Mason is another terrific abstract/figurative sculptor—not unlike Mark, certainly closer to Mark than to, say, Sean Henry, a more strictly representational sculptor. Mason made The Crowd in the mid ‘60s. He then (in effect) chopped it up and reconfigured it as A Tragedy in the North ten years later. Sculptors do that kind of thing.

    Could Robin and Anne have done it for Mason? Could they have chopped up Mark’s transcription of the Crouching Lion at the British Museum (the British Museum has a Crouching Lion in its collection: I don’t know where Mark’s transcription is: there’s a reproduction of it in the great little catalog Have You Seen Sculpture from the Body? the Tate published in 1984) and turned it into Pompous Pomegranate? And what would be going on were they to chop up Pompous Pomegranate and go to town? I don’t really have an answer to that question—just more questions, more fussing with words.

    (I think Robin’s connecting Mark’s transcription to Pompous Pomegranate is brilliant, eye-opening, etc. Robin’s learning! Robin’s teaching! But thinking about the connection as a “limit” to Mark’s sculpture is crazy. (It’s silly Romanticism. I thought we were more “advanced” than that!) Mark is Mark. He was born one day. One day he’s going to die. He’s grown since the day he was born, but he’s still just Mark. That’s plenty for me.)

    I like the idea of making Pompous Pomegranate less of a self-referential proposition—but I don’t really see it as a self-referential proposition—certainly not as JUST a self-referential proposition. When Robin talks about something more naturally, less strivingly abstract/when he talks about a melting pot—I like it/I hear something “optimystical”—but I don’t really understand it.

    I think the undeniably powerful physicality of all Mark’s sculpture IS really, simply abstract—one abstract quality of the piece: balance, movement, proportion, etc. are other abstract qualities/dimensions.

    About the setup/proposition/configuration of Pompous Pomegranate I’d say (and I know I’m being ridiculous again): in the Crouching Lion sculpture the lion is staring down a snake, a homework assignment: in Pompous Pomegranate the snake has jumped up on the lion’s back and bitten him. Mark’s handling of the physical content in Pompous Pomegranate is more advanced/sophisticated/articulate/“loose” than it was in the Lion project—and that allows him to engage with a more advanced/sophisticated/articulate/“loose”/complex spiritual content. I identify the spiritual content of Pompous Pomegranate with the Laocoon and his Sons sculpture/story/myth. It’s about striving, limits, mistakes.

    Is this spiritual content “really” there? Is it ridiculous to suggest that it might be? We don’t live in a time when spiritual content gets a lot of respect. I think the Brancaster folks with all their talk about/with the attention they’ve devoted to abstract-ness/physicality/3-dimensionality/spaciality/whatnot have created a place/a “space” for spiritual content—a very precious, wonderful place.


  11. Mark,
    Thanks for your answers. Not sure I agree entirely, because of the metaphor business, and also because I think that three-dimensionality and spatiality, if taken far enough, might themselves be able to bring about some other kind of physicality, perhaps different from the one that relates quite so directly to things (like bodies) standing up in the world, working against gravity. I’d certainly like to think that the content of abstract sculpture could take on things other than just that.

    Not sure I quite understand what you call a ‘mistake’ of treating space as a physical entity – can you explain that a bit more?


    • Mark said:

      The mistake that I refer to is in giving space a physical presence when in fact it has none. Only material can have physical presence but needs space in order to operate visualy. The trick is to have enough space for the physical stuff to interact sculpturaly but not so much that the space between objects has to adopt an illusory presence in order to justify being there.


  12. The first thing that strikes me about Mark’s sculptures is the visual dominance of the making process, the building up and joining together of small sections or details and the progressive establishing of these elements in space to form a whole. It is somehow not easy (at least for me) to visually get past that making process and the great looking detail to grasp the overall character or wholeness of them (I am making these comments having only seen the images). I wonder if the raw finish that we see in the images is felt to be the ideal for experiencing these pieces and what visual difference a more overall colour,such as could be achieved by uniform rusting or painting, might make.


  13. Andrew said:

    Robin & Jock, er… yes and yes, but I am going to usher off my ‘abstract’ misgivings and musings behind a metaphorical fence for the moment because I too would like to hear more of the nuts and bolts end of the spectrum.

    With that in mind, from the videos so far and what of Robin’s and Mark’s I have seen I’ve been thinking about the following:
    The notion of a ‘core’ in Mark’s Pompous Pomegranate sculpture versus the approach of Anthony’s less massed ‘growth’ and Robins circulatory ‘arcing’.
    Beginnings and endings of paths, points, nodes.
    How struck I was by the step by step ‘path like’ quality to the building of all three sculptors so far.
    Anthony seems to be expanding ‘event’ like into a space, both Mark and Robin’s seem to acknowledge ground more for me, but both in slightly different ways.
    There appears space ‘held’ in both their work, on seeing Ptarmigan close and on video evident in PP too, Mark appears to build with many dense, but opening volumes, less evident in Robin’s ‘paths’ – those ‘boxes’ were interesting.
    If space is ‘held’ in Anthony’s it seems more ‘planar’ between vertical paths.

    We have to get up from or put onto ground, Anthony mentioned ‘not returning’ and seems to find ‘ground’ very problematic, what thoughts on this necessary interface?
    Can we escape allusion to foot, sled, reflection, en pointe, pad etc…does it matter?

    Further to Terry’s comment on finish, I actually found the opposite and was surprised, I have often been horribly distracted in sculpture by obtrusive welding, poor or indeterminate cleaning up etc…(many a Caro) on seeing Ptarmigan not at all, the whole destructive trail of breaks, busts, burns and slag disappeared because of the violent consistency of it across the whole, quite liberating!
    My own neurosis only re-awakened by those passivated machine screws – sorry Mark!
    Those are neither here nor there in the end, can’t seem to get the raw ones now.

    Of the ‘visual dominance of the process’ I had, prompted by Alex, on seeing Robin’s work thought – evidence of performance. Which seems there in Marks too, maybe making it less object.

    So of centres, paths, points of departure/arrival and volume/space skirted or enclosed I’d like to hear more.


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