Catalogue for the Exhibition at Annely Juda Fine Art
…at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.
Burnt Norton. T.S. Eliot
Nigel Hall’s studio is a sanctuary of calm. An old church hall in Balham, with high ceilings, white walls and good light, it provides a still point in a perpetually moving and chaotic world. Nigel Hall does not use email, Facebook or Google. Not for him the overload of information that pours relentlessly down our technological highways. His notebooks – the same black linen ones he has used for years -sit neatly on the shelves of his office next to his work room; a continuous record of nearly five decades of observation. These form a visual diary and include measurements, objects and shapes that have caught his interest; lists and evocative phrases, landscapes and Swiss views. Every winter for eighteen years he has gone to the same hotel in the Engadine near the Italian border, overlooking a large and, usually, frozen lake. The region with its soaring mountains, which he draws in different weather conditions and at different times of day, has provided a good deal of inspiration, along with the bell tower in the nearby village of Soglio, which infiltrates over and over again as a defining vertical motif within his work. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Giacometti, who was born in nearby Borgonovo, is an artist Hall reveres.
Chinese Whispers II, 2007
Hall is a craftsman. His sculpture is made by hand with the sort of skill and care learnt from his grandfather, a stone mason, who once restored West Country churches and cathedrals, in a manner that would not have been unfamiliar to Thomas Hardy. This legacy of carving has left its stamp, for carving is a slow business. The chisel cut, as he says, “will, at one and the same time, make a line, an edge and a shadow. [This] has resulted in a preoccupation with linearity, precision, light and shadow and spatial interval.” Carving draws a line through space to create an edge where dark meets light and the outside connects with the inside. Hall prepares his designs on paper and then traces them onto plywood to create skeletal armature-like Balsa wood models. One imagines that as a boy he must have enjoyed making model aeroplanes and that, if stuck on that proverbial desert island, he would be able to build a canoe. Touch and an intuitive physical relationship with his materials are central to his work. He does not have assistants except, occasionally, to help him lift work that is too heavy for one man to manoeuvre.
The poetics of space and the articulation of its geometry form the language of his sculpture and drawings: outer and inner, surface and interior, containment and release. In his essay The Dialectics of Outside and Inside Gaston Bachelard considers how: “outside and inside are both intimate – they are always ready to be reversed, to exchange their hostility”. He suggests that, “the centre of ‘being-there’ wavers and trembles. Intimate space loses its clarity, while exterior space loses its void, void being the raw material of possibility of being”. The space that Bachelard is referring to is, of course, both philosophical and measurable, both psychological and physical. For Bachelard, as for Hall, actual space becomes a metaphor for human experience; for our relationships to the world and to others in it. At its most fundamental it reveals, by contrast, what is ‘I’ and what is ‘other’. Yet as Bachelard suggests, nothing that truly concerns intimacy can be shut in and completely contained. Inside and outside are permeable. Nigel Hall’s sculptures consider surface; surfaces that both enclose and separate, that define the ‘self’ in relationship to the ‘not-self’. Meaning resides in the dialectics between what is hidden and revealed, what is open and closed.
Chinese Whispers XII, 2010
Hall’s interest in poetry is underlined by his series of ‘book drawings’ based on the writings of such poets as Hart Crane, Walt Whitman and e. e. cummings. In these a web of diagonal lines, created using carbon paper and a dried-up ballpoint pen, link the beginnings and ends of stanzas. Although he considers his drawing and sculpture as distinct practices, his finely poised sculptures often feel akin to drawings in space. Essentially he is a Romantic in that his inspiration so often begins in landscape. “My work has always been about place,” he says. “I am fascinated by the way geometry can be discerned in landscape.” This was illustrated to dramatic effect by the siting of his sculptures in a recent show at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. His language is essentially abstract, though rooted in the real, particularly the rhythms of the natural world, while his grammar consists of circles, cones and ellipses that enclose and occupy space to reveal light and shadow. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that Oriental art and Japanese culture, particularly its gardens, architecture and printmaking, have been a considerable influence. Hall has often visited Japan. His sketch books are full of drawings of the grids made by the logs of pearl fishers’ rafts or of rope knots tied around a tree at a Japanese shrine. Like that spare poetic form, the haiku, his works are simply what they are; yet they are also much more than is, apparently, revealed. As with all successful minimal art and poetry, what is left out is as vocal as what is retained. Absence speaks volumes. A still silence forms the central core to these works.
Born in Bristol in 1943, Hall was a war baby. His perceptions were profoundly influenced by his parents’ stories about bombing raids on the Bristol docks. Freeze I and II, student works of the mid-Sixties, capture these anxieties and spring from an incident witnessed by his mother during a raid when a bomb shook a window and the curtains were sucked out and left flapping by the blast. In these early works Hall attempted to encapsulate space, to create a potent sense of inner and outer, and an impression of the void hidden behind the walls of these surreal, Martello Tower-like structures.
The music of Miles Davis and time spent in the Mojave Desert in southern California during the late Sixties also had a lasting effect, providing him with a route into abstraction. That boundless, empty landscape, with only the occasional water tower or telegraph pole protruding from the horizon, provided a new lexicon of images. Soda Lake, 1968 was his initial response: a foretaste of a sparer, more minimal art, in which “space and its components determine how the space is channelled, trapped or disclosed”.
Included in this current show of sculptures and drawings from 2007-2011 are Chinese Whispers II, 2007 made in polished wood and Chinese Whispers III, 2010 and Chinese Whispers X, 2009, made in bronze. Titles are important to Hall and this one suggests the way in which one work influences and transmutes into another, keeping modified elements which gradually metamorphose as in the game of Chinese Whispers. Everything is always the same, yet different. As Heraclitus understood, a man can never step into the same river twice for neither the river nor the man remain the same. Despite their abstract form there is something body-like about the looped spaces of these works that seem to inflate and conflate like lungs drawing breath. As in many of the drawings, with their dense black charcoal forms that intertwine with tendrils and knots of coloured gouache, the lines touch and pull apart in a play of intimacy and withdrawal. Skeins, knots and twists suggest both circularity and connection. As T. S. Eliot writes in Burnt Norton:
Drawing no: 1505, 2009
Ends and beginnings, doubles and shadows, the past and the present. As in the beautiful and tender Shadowed, 2008 where one form nestles like a memory inside the other in perpetual co-existence, Hall acknowledges Eliot’s claim that only by ‘form’ and ‘pattern’ can art reach a point of stillness. Since 1984, Hall’s sculptures have become more dense, solid and grounded. In his elegant birch veneer pieces, in which the surface is covered in a white stain coated with a clear, water-based lacquer and polished with wax, or in his black patinated bronzes, a subtle pairing and doubling often occurs. Though the language is abstract, his forms precipitate emotions concerning relationships and associations.
Through a distillation of careful thought and long practice these quietly meditative works evoke a sense of calm and order. The observer’s mood is constantly subverted and challenged. Vistas open and close, invite and exclude like changing views within a mountainous landscape. There is a feeling here of fullness and emptiness, of stillness and movement, as if all opposites are contained within the whole. For to quote Heraclitus again: “Couples are wholes and not wholes, what agrees disagrees; the concordant is discordant. From all things one and from one all things”.
Nigel Hall The Spaces Between at Annely Juda Fine Art from 31 Mar to 13 May 2011
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images © Nigel Hall 2007-2010