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World Sculpture News, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter, p. 58


Lionel Bawden at GrantPirrie Gallery

Reading the title of Bawden’s latest show, “new works on paper”, one expects to be confronted by a suite of drawings. However, anyone who knows the artist’s oeuvre will delight in this quirky pun. Lionel Bawden constructs sculptures from hundreds of coloured pencils fused into a fractured mass. For this exhibition, they sit atop stacks of luscious Nordset paper masquerading as pedestals. While a cute play on art world vernacular, aka new works on paper or pencil on paper, these are serious sculptures by Bawden.

What sets this group of five works apart from his earlier sculptures is that they are uncharacteristically ‘white’. Audiences have become expectant of Bawden’s popish orange against aqua and lime green pencils, a colourful combustion echoing the linear energy of the forms themselves. In contrast, these white works present a different tension between their obsessive materiality and a minimalist aesthetic, hovering in GrantPirrie’s pristine gallery with the confidence of pre-historic relics. It is a quiet awe.

Clearly, presentation is key to this exhibition. Bawden has lined his sculptures along a central axis that is dramatically light so the objects seemingly float on their knee-high displays. Walking their line one is drawn to their subtleties. They are at once architectural, geological, biological and sculptural.

The immediate reference is the stalactite, that Greek derivative meaning ‘that which drips’ and describing the hanging mineral deposits of limestone caves. This calcifying is echoed in the whiteness of these works. It reaches a pinnacle in, “the amorphous ones (the vast colony of our being)” 2008, where Bawden’s pencils almost become liquid, their geology undeniable.

Bawden is extremely astute to spatial dynamics and we see it in the push/pull between internal and exterior space in this work. It is ruptured horizontally, forcing a binary experience for the viewer: on the one hand we are drawn into its organic centre, oddly sexual as a jaggered orifice, and yet our eye is pulled along its sanded skin and velvety waves. We read its transfer of weight like an oscillograph, flitting between vertical suspension and its roller-coaster fall. It is a fantastical visual journey Bawden offers his audiences.

The viewer stands witness to Bawden’s laborious ‘shaping’ or erosive narrative that describe his forms. They are equally evocative of a carved sea-shelf or perforated coral. This is beautifully illustrated in the sculpture “the clouds and rain” 2008. Here the sharp mechanical edges of the pencils have been honed into organic ribbons that twirl and weave through space. These are timeless and palpable works.

While the sense of gesture in Bawden’s sculptures captivate, it is his surfaces that complete them. His choice of the hexagonal-shaped pencil allows the armature to be built vertically, stacked and fused along their flat edges. Displayed lower than eye-level, our eye skids along their surface of exposed pencil leads that form a leopard-like coat to the sculpture. This patterning skews as the pencils are sheered causing the lead to become elongated or elliptical. It is a strange malleability that animates the surface and contrasts against the framework of raw geometric pencils, clustered with the tensile grandeur of a pipe-organ. Removing the colour has allowed the viewer to enjoy with greater clarity the sensitivity of Bawden’s mark-making.

It must be said, however, that it is Bawden’s extravagant use of paper-plinths that sets these new works apart. In some ways, the title of the show becomes trite after the initial smirk and belittles the object’s poetry. Bawden references in his statement [and arguably appropriates] a work by Felix Gonzales Torres, “Untitled (Passport)” 1991, a like stack of blank pages symbolising the un-narrated journey or imagined landscape. Bawden attempts to extend the metaphor of Torres’ blank page with an second installation in an adjacent gallery.

Here, through a vitrine of letters, he plays with the notion of ‘the letter’ as an endangered species and calls on the cliché of its evaporating thread between sender and receiver as a metaphor for the stalactite and stalagmites timely path. Sadly, the idea becomes overworked in its attempt to be smart. Returning to the main gallery where the sublime presence of a white object on white field says it so completely, this writer is prepared to opt for beauty over the conceptual. The strength of this exhibition undoubtedly lies in the object.

Gina Fairley 2008