In touch with the elements

Primal patterns of a seemingly chaotic world come to the surface in sculpture

In his essay “Carving and Modelling”, the now rather unfashionable, psychoanalytically inclined art critic Adrian Stokes wrote: “Carving creates a face for the stone, as agriculture for the earth, as man for woman. Modelling is more purely plastic creation: it makes things, it does not disclose, as a face, the significance of what already exists.” Stone, he suggests, “is the symbol of the outwardness, of the hoarded store of meaning that comes to the surface”. Carving, therefore, acts as a form of disclosure, a means of revealing “deep” harmonies, not only within the stone itself, but within the human psyche.

The sculpture of Peter Randall-Page, perhaps best known for his contribution to the Millennium Seed Bank at the Eden Project in Cornwall, can easily be understood in relation to Stokes’s description. This summer Yorkshire Sculpture Park presents an extensive exhibition of his work, with more than 50 pieces showcased in the gallery and the park. This display features ambitious new and recent works, including two monumental sculptures made especially for YSP from Kilkenny limestone, each weighing more than 13 tonnes and standing over two metres high.

Influenced by organic forms and scientific structures, his ambiguous sculptures refuse to be defined as either figurative or abstract, biomorphic or mathematical, but disclose something of what it means to be human within the natural world. The possibilities they reveal are multiple, for, like a poet, Randall-Page uses metaphor to suggest meaning. His interests in Euclidean geometry, botany, philosophy, music, patterns and structures form a constant refrain that runs through his massive Kilkenny limestones with their black-grey surfaces, as silky as the skin of a whale, his gritty flint and granite works, his fired-clay pieces and the painted bronzes.

Yet Randall-Page describes himself as “an absolute rationalist”. He does not believe in a collective unconscious in the Jungian sense. Rather, he says, “plants, in common with the rest of the world, enter our consciousness as subjective feeling as well as . . . information; we recognise them as an aspect of the biological system of which we ourselves are part; they nourish our spirits”.

His concern with patterns of order in an apparently chaotic universe is central to his practice. He explores symmetry, camouflage and how systems of geometry break down and adapt themselves within the natural world, much like natural selection itself.

These binaries are apparent from the first room in the Underground Gallery. Here cloud-like pieces, made of Rosso Luana marble from Carrara, are based on four of the five Platonic solids, and share their internal geometry. Yet despite their theoretical underpinning, the sensuality of Shapes in the Clouds (Plato Dreaming of Artemis), made in 2005, is reflected in the voluptuous curves and coloured veining of the stone, reminding us that Artemis was the Greek goddess of fertility. Within the same gallery is the older piece Mother Tongue (1998). The intestinal curves of the dark Kilkenny limestone, suggestive of both tongue and gut, are based on a mouse’s gall bladder discarded by Randall-Page’s cat.

The sculptural vocabulary of Corpus and Fructus (both 2009) is bodily and botanical. Corpus is divided into two lobes, so that the internal coiled gut seems to push against the taut outer membrane like an embryo inside a yolk sack; while in Fructus, the weighty lobes suggest not only overripe fruit but also the pendulous multiple breasts of the Ephesian goddess Diana.

Order and chaos are further explored in the harsh geometric patterning incised into the coarse-grained boulders of Finnish glacial murrain. Here, geometry must adapt to the natural form of these huge stones, so large elastic nets are stretched over the surfaces in order that they can be mapped and subdivided into sections. There is something very powerful about the boulders, which are thousands of years old and silent witnesses to the world’s history. Their monumentality stands in contrast to the innovative series of wall works made of fired clay and based on the memory of patterns created by raindrops or the delicate symmetry of an insect’s wing.

Randall-Page’s work is informed by a lifelong study of organic form. Nature’s myriad complexities provide the catalyst for his work; from the underlying mathematical principles that drive life and growth to the intricate patterns of the natural world.

Peter Randall-Page's exhibit will be at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield until January 2010. For further details visit: www.ysp.co.uk