Bryan Kneale comes from the Isle of Man and, after winning the Rome Prize from the Royal Academy Schools, was one of the leaders of the British sculptural revolution of the 1950s and 60s. In 1970, against the advice of his friends and fellow-artists, he was the first abstract sculptor to join the Royal Academy. Many others followed, and the RA was saved for a while from its institutional fear of innovators. During the 1980s, Kneale was both head of sculpture at the Royal College of Art and professor of sculpture at the RA. But although this heavy load of teaching and administration left him little time for making sculpture, he did make a great many large coloured drawings of animal, bird and fish skeletons (from the collections of the Natural History Museum), which threw a bridge of naturalism between his earlier abstract sculpture and the work he has been creating full-time again since he retired from the Royal College in 1995. These drawings also, of course, enormously increased his knowledge of the natural world and his repertoire of forms. He is still doing drawings of this kind, on a smaller scale, and there are three, as well as some pencil sketches for sculpture, in this exhibition.
His sculpture is all metalwork and the first impression you get of it is the pleasure he takes in the material itself — brass, copper, steel, aluminium — its colour and consistency, its thickness or thinness, its seeming malleability. However, as he pointed out in an interview in the catalogue for his first major exhibition in 1966 at the Whitechapel Gallery, ‘The stuff itself is cold, heavy and quite vicious to handle; the necessary tools are unbearably noisy and your hair and lungs are full of iron filings. You do not have a pleasurable time in making a sculpture, but you can see what is happening: this new reality occurring at the very moment you are touching it…You do not design it and then just carry it through; you design in the process of making.’
But, as he goes on to say in the same interview, that is only half the story. The other half is the sculptor himself, his experience of life and his emotions: ‘The impact of various forms on one another and how they react with each other are conditioned by my feelings, which are not static …I feel that these very tensions and explosions in my mind must flow through my work. I use myself as my own raw material…The way I approach sculpture is conditioned by the fact that I am basically some kind of Manx peasant.’ The series of six small pieces called ‘Genesis’ in this exhibition are variations on a larger sculpture first shown in 1966 and since destroyed, in which a V-shaped slice of steel was held together by two spring-loaded arms ending in sharp hooks. The new variations play with these hooks, meeting or not meeting, safely clasped or dangerously groping — like a nasty moment in a James Bond film.
Kneale has lived in London now for most of his life, but even in his latest work there is the same sense one gets from Ted Hughes’s poems of an ancient, harsh, partly mythical land — the skeleton beneath the skin. Several of these sculptures have titles from Greek myth, and the balance and curvaceous elegance of two wall-pieces, ‘Sparta’ and ‘Hera’, are classical in feeling, even if abstract and asymmetrical in appearance. But they are also, in their way, skeletons, and the three remarkable spherical pieces which stand on the floor — ‘Cumae’, ‘Crucible’ and ‘The Shrine of Dedalus’ — are pitted, scored and half-shattered as if by some force that has attacked them from without or exploded from within. ‘Crucible’, with its outer shell of copper, fractured into ragged fragments at the top to reveal a brass form like a stamen inside, seems most like a seed-pod that has burst, unless it is a helmet that has been whacked with an axe, while ‘Cumae’ and ‘The Shrine of Dedalus’, both made of stainless steel, are more like broken sanctuaries or even worlds. Balance, geometry and order are in tension with suggestions of savagery, damage, disorder. A sculptor with a classical training who is also a ‘Manx peasant’ no doubt has race memories of the Vikings and their Norse terrors as well as Ancient Greek ones.