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— With Permission from the Stone: Essay by Clive Murray-White

With permission from the stone



Clive Murray-White



Most artists express the ideas that dominate their age. But there are some we only understand if we accept that their work embodies a spirit, or simply an existence, that their age has forgotten or repressed. In such cases, we need to broaden the field of critical categories, although this does not necessarily mean going back to outmoded aspects of creativity or study. No, this forgotten spirit is often one society would like to address, even if most of the time it does not know how. Artists whose aspirations seem irrelevant to the present may actually answer the deepest wishes of the time. Yves Bonnefoy, Alberto Giacometti, Assouline, New York, 2001



It usually happens this way: I go to the hardware store, grab the one thing I need and then start wandering around. Soon Heather comes up and asks the same old question (“What are you looking for?”) and gets the same old answer: “You know me; I never know what I’m looking for until I find it”.


It’s much the same when I make sculpture.


I count myself lucky to have found a subject that, whilst almost commonplace, is so wide ranging in it’s potential that I’d be surprised if it ever stopped fulfilling all my sculptural needs. I’ve come to see the intelligent human head and face as capable of expressing more than anything else, and hence, as the ultimate symbol of all times. I read my current sculpture as implying that the body has eroded away, with only the intelligent head remaining. This, in turn, can be seen as a metaphor for the state of the planet – tempered by an optimistic belief that human nature, as before, will endure and survive even the most challenging circumstances.


If I had to design everything carefully and then spend weeks making it, almost mechanically, I think I would go completely mad. At the very least it would be the most miserable and mundane of fates. The better option is to keep the work’s final state open, and so allow myself to make decisions as I go. This keeps my mind active - and continually expectant about which chords the eventual outcome will strike.


Just when any work of art is finished is an eternal problem for all artists, but more for some than others. In my case, especially so. To me a sculptural fragment is always more interesting and more fertile than the perfect whole as it gives the spectators the chance to finish the sculpture in their own minds. Tracking through my past to find the trigger for this, one memory keeps recurring: when I was in my twenties something sent me on an obsessive reading spree. All of Ibsen was followed by all of Strindberg and about half of Bertold Brecht. Writers only supply us with words – the dialogue and a few guides to set the scene – and I soon realised that what excited me during this youthful quest was just that. I had to imagine everything else and, in effect, bring the characters to life. This is how my sculpture works – by suggestion rather than by statement. In other words, I give you the script but you direct the play. All I offer is a partially developed fragment of a character and invite you to cast it in the finished play.


Of course it is not quite that simple. Whether in a play or in a sculpture the whole idea relies on the character being engaging. As a sculptor, my job is to get this character to emerge convincingly, and for this to happen the stone must contain the tangible evidence of my work – the full range of both my values and my methods. The stone must remain as stone and the marks left by the carving must have their say. These are all given roughly equal status and thereby create a kind of democracy of parts within the whole; most importantly, they will all jostle and struggle with each other if a memorable sculpture is to emerge. But I also need to feel that the role I chose for the model is in there somewhere and the overall form of the head must evoke the being within.

The methods used to achieve this presence are almost impossible to describe.  I certainly can’t categorise them all but there are several that seem to make a major contribution.


My previous interest in Marcel Duchamp and his ready-mades led me directly to the venerable Chinese, Japanese and Korean traditions which had used found objects (in their case, natural rocks) for 2,000 years 1. These carefully selected stones invariably contain an intrinsic and significant sculptural presence and, most interesting to me, they are chosen for their ability to somehow encourage the viewer to contemplate both the presence of nature and the nature of existence.


Most Western artists who use stone tend to start with a bland rectangular block. They then remove all what they see as excess (what is not art) and thus aim to fashion their version of sculptural presence. My process is different. I select my stone, a marble boulder, very much as I imagine the Asians do. Acknowledging this presence from the outset, the stone is set up in my studio as if it already were a work of art. I say, “as if it were art” because regardless of the vast range of statements, narratives and emotional effects a ready-made can carry, they can never quite get past this “as if” status; they always end up acting as, or pretending to be, works of art.


My next stage is to find how this chunk of nature can allow, and even encourage, a human being to live inside it. I say “inside” as I lean to the idea of the head sharing the stone rather than simply coexisting with it. Then add in the idea that the head can think for itself and so communicate like a human being and we get closer to what I’m aiming at in terms of a sculptural presence. The stone is animated by the character and the character uses the stone as its embodiment. It all happens inside the stone - and with its permission. 


Sculpture is never about words. It’s about things that sculpture alone can do. It comes with its own silent but comprehensible language and it can be read from anywhere. Best of all, a sculpture is a single, concise, permanently re-visitable object; unlike the performing arts which require time to elapse (a poem, play, film or piece of music) a sculpture can potentially convey the same presence and weight in a single glance. But, as with flesh-and-blood people, whilst the first glance tells us much of what we seek, it’s never the end because it’s never enough. We need to keep looking and listening because there’s a (slightly) different person in front of us every day. I like to think by sculptures work just like that.


Since its establishment in 1984, the Charles Nodrum Gallery’s exhibition program embraces a diversity of media and styles - from painting, sculpture & works on paper to graphics and photography; from figurative, geometric, gestural, surrealist & social comment to installation & conceptually based work.