An exhibition of some weight
PUBLISHED: 09:00 21 February 2014
Ahead of his first major exhibition in the South West for 25 years, MERCEDES SMITH talks to internationally celebrated Devon based sculptor Peter Randall-Page
At the middle of Eden Project’s ‘The Core’ is an artwork which has become a focal point in the cultural landscape of the South West. Tipping the scales at over 70 tonnes, artist Peter Randall-Page’s carved granite Seed is one of the biggest sculptures ever made from a single piece of rock. No doubt you have seen it and - if you have the barest outline of a human soul – have run your hands over it, but you may not know that its creator, one of the world’s foremost contemporary sculptors, can be found right here in Devon at his studio on the outskirts of Dartmoor.
Arriving at his workshop which consists, as you might expect, of a farm-sized complex of barns and outdoor work areas, I am welcomed by various members of Peter’s friendly team, a team needed to create and handle some of the largest artworks you are ever likely to see. The man himself, who proves a little harder to find, emerges from his work area covered in a light dusting of powdered rock.
Peter Randall-Page makes drawing and sculpture inspired by the study of natural phenomena, particularly organic form. His work explores the underlying principles that determine natural form, the maths and geometry of biological pattern and the structures that make up every huge and tiny object in existence: think the hexagonal structure of a honeycomb or the rapid cell multiplication of new life. Accordingly Randall-Page himself is an unusually articulate and intelligent man whose belief in the communicative power of art is as solid as the rock he carves.
“Of all the ways we can communicate, making an object is just one. But one that has the unique ability to articulate the experience of inhabiting a physical body in a physical world,” he tells me. He then shows me three perfectly astonishing sculptures, recently returned from an exhibition in Frankfurt, which echo Eden’s Seed in form but not quite size.
Still, they are easily 12 feet high, made of rich black Kilkenny limestone and are overwhelmingly magnetic - I find I have laid my hands on them before I even speak. They are cold and smooth, with softly curved grooves you can’t help but touch. I start with the obvious question. How much of their artistic power lies in their size?
“I think the power of these works is not just in their size,” Peter tells me. “People are simply not used to encountering solid volume on this scale.”
I consider this and see he is right. Artwork this large and heavy pulls you in. Like gravity. Several tons of art makes for a significant physical encounter between audience and artwork.
“It works on a subliminal level - encountering a solid lump of stuff,” he continues. “Your imagination is drawn from the surface to the actual interior of the object and the internal dynamics that its outer form suggests. I think size and weight carry with them a certain power, but an object must not be so large that you can’t relate to it in terms of human scale. Primarily scale is a matter of relationship between the human hand and the universe”.
He illustrates this point by giving me some sculpture that fits into the palm of my hand. I explore its weight and surface as we discuss the multisensory nature of his work. Made for both public and private spaces, the majority of his sculpture is sited outdoors and therefore, I am glad to say, not ring-fenced by gallery ropes.
“The most flattering thing is when kids climb all over my sculpture,” he says. “Kids are all about sensory experience, they’ll put their cheeks against a sculpture and run their hands over it.”
Regular Devon Life readers will know that I am a particular fan of site specific sculpture, primarily because it is made to belong to a place and therefore to the people who frequent that place. Art that is outdoors - that you can touch - is inclusive. It brings art into the everyday. “Art is something that humans do. It’s something they have always done and as such should be an accepted part of daily life,” Peter agrees.
We next look at five unfinished works in rippling Rosso Luana marble and, as Peter explains it, I am in awe of the manual labour involved in this type of sculpting.
Various hand and power tools are used to carve solid stone sculpture based on Randall-Page’s mind bending understanding of maths and structure, but in the end these works have to be a labour of love. Taking up to a year to carve from single cut blocks of stone, when finished each takes a whole month to polish by hand with wet sandpaper.
This February, these five works are destined for a special twin venue exhibition entitled New Sculpture and Works on Paper which will be Randall-Page’s first major exhibition in the South West for twenty five years. From 1 February to 29 March, visitors can view the finished Rosso Luana sculptures at Plymouth University’s Peninsula Arts, and from 1 February to 10 May a series of new large-scale ink drawings will be on show at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery.
Equally affecting on the senses, this collection of poured ink-on-paper drawings run disconcertingly upward, like plants reaching for the sky. Expressing the relationship between fluidity and control the drawings investigate mirror image symmetry and the natural organic patterns of branch and root.
Is the success of his work due to his ability to distil all things down to their essence, to a universally shared understanding? I ask finally. “It’s always a leap of faith to put these things into the public arena,” he says with wry humour. “I suppose it’s based on the assumption that people are more like me than …. not”.
New Sculpture and Works on Paper will run until 29 March at Peninsula Arts and to 10 May at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. Further information: peterrandall-page.com