Nigel Hall: Sculpture + Drawing 1965–2008
Yorkshire Sculpture Park, until 8 June
As you drive into the 500 acres of 18th-century parkland which provide the magnificent setting for this retrospective of Nigel Hall’s work, you are met by a tall sentinel-like sculpture, which stands near the entrance. Called ‘Crossing Vertical’ (2006), it’s a dynamic column of arcs and perforations, an excellent introduction to the prevailing interests of this artist, whose chief aim is to animate and reveal to us anew the space we inhabit and so often take for granted. This sculpture has a companion piece, ‘Crossing Horizontal’, which currently reclines in front of the main galleries further into the park. Both pieces are fabricated from corten steel, and have that orangey-brown patina of weathering which makes them look more organic than geometric. In ambition and imaginative realisation, they prepare us for an exceptional experience.
As I’ve had occasion to note before, Nigel Hall (born 1943) is not perhaps as well known in this country as he should be. His reputation stands higher internationally than it does here, which is an unforgivable omission on the part of British curators and museum directors. Do we have so much native talent that it can be allowed to go unsung at home? No, we do not, and there isn’t a single sculptor of comparable worth working in the territory that Hall has taken for his own. This in-depth examination of his work in a major British venue is thus long overdue, though it is nevertheless very welcome. It should help to place him where he belongs: firmly in the front rank of sculptors in this country, an artist who brings a sophisticated formal invention and contemplative breadth to both public and private space.
To offer a true perspective on Hall’s achievement over 40 years, work has been borrowed back from many public and private collections, and the resulting exhibition gives a fine account of his sculptural and graphic preoccupations since student days. The earliest work is presented in the Garden Gallery, where some of his witty and original drawings can be seen side by side with such sculptures as ‘Lone Figure with Balloon’, the two ‘Freeze’ pieces, ‘Large Interior’ and ‘Three Silent Shapes’. In these more figurative sculptures, Hall positions figures and objects in space in such a way as to articulate their surroundings in terms of scale and relationship. From the beginning, he showed a particular interest in the spaces between his sculptural elements, the intervals. In a way, these are of as much importance as the elements themselves.
The early concern with leaning-back trance-like figures, light bulbs, trailing flexes, windows and rooms gradually gave way to more abstract preoccupations. The ‘Three Silent Shapes’ of a Sixties sculpture pointed the way forward to a greater involvement in line and geometry, which resulted in the wall pieces made from rafts and extended lengths of painted aluminium tubing. An example here, ‘Cave No 10’, hangs at the far end of the Garden Gallery, with one of Hall’s dramatically (im)pure circle drawings. Here, too, are a couple of dark 1970s charcoal drawings, the paper mostly black, and a bronze from the 1990s, ‘Narrow Fex Valley’. Hall has always identified and disclosed the geometry in his surroundings, and since his discovery of the Mojave Desert in 1967 the landscape has played an increasingly important role in his work. Despite the strange design of the Garden Gallery, with diagonal props holding up an ancient wall (the building was once a cart lodge), Hall’s work looks well here. Particularly in the far end of the space, which is largely given over to a group of his book drawings, evocative linear arrangements based on the internal structure of passages of prose or poetry he admires.
Outside there are sculptures to be seen in the landscape. If you return to the terrace beyond the main galleries, the principal piece here is ‘Slow Motion’ (2001), composed of six standing ovals in two tiers, made in steel painted a delicate pearly grey. It’s a splendid sculpture which regroups itself as you move around it — sometimes an oval will stand alone, or elements will overlap to give a completely different reading. It looks good both close to and from a distance, and holds the eye as the visitor traverses this area of formal garden, down to a pond in which ‘Soglio VI’ (1996) is sited on a base, taking watery reflections on its rusted corten steel surface in soothing, flickering rhythms. Nearby are the large black square-ish structure (usually at Essex University) entitled ‘Views of the Interior’ (1992), dealing with the literal bracketing — note the shape of parentheses here — of interior and exterior space; also ‘Kiss’ (2000) in cherry red, lurking romantically under the trees; ‘Stretched/Compressed’ (2006), a smaller comb piece sited at the end of the terrace; and ‘Venetian Twist’ (2007) in phosphor bronze, a gorgeously elegant love-knot, or variant on the symbol for eternity.
I noticed some skid-marks on ‘Kiss’, which indicate all too plainly that kids had been climbing on it. A sculpture park is not an adventure playground and children should be inculcated with respect for art, especially when it is work of calculated precision like Hall’s which even the slightest mark of bird lime can alter. One of my favourite of the outdoor sculptures is ‘The Now’, a green patinated bronze from 2000, consisting of a wedge like an axe blade leaning on an angled cone. Another is the swooping curve of ‘Wide Passage’ (2007) which traces a shallow trajectory between earth and sky before returning to earth again. The main part of the exhibition is housed in what are modestly called the Underground Galleries, the new buildings at YSP, which have a useful mix of natural and artificial light, as well as the floor space and height to do justice to a major show.
Here are four large galleries hung with a mixture of sculpture and drawings, superlatively displayed. I’ve never seen Hall’s work look so well. From the anteroom, in which a number of maquettes and small sculptures are arranged on four shelves, to the project space at the end, which is devoted to drawings, this suite of rooms is immaculately installed. Just to pick out a few favourites, look at: the arch with suspended clouds, called ‘Magnet’ (1966), like a portal to another world in gallery one; the piquant pink piping of ‘Geography of an Unnamed Place’, and the slow blue, black and green swirls of ‘Cedar of Lebanon’ (to be seen here with an actual cedar tree behind it through the window in the park), in gallery two; ‘Black Minus’ from 1975, a long extended tubing piece in the third gallery; and the sequence of recent big wooden pieces in the fourth gallery. The placing of these sculptures is breathtaking.
The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is an independent art gallery, a registered museum and charity, and has been in existence now for 30 years. It’s a beautiful place to visit, and there’s an excellent restaurant to re-stoke the inner self. If the weather is inclement, you can retreat to the galleries and study the smaller-scale work. It being April, there were showers when I visited, but the sunny intervals were sufficient to view all the outside sculptures, and the range of light from overcast to bright showed off the work in a variety of different aspects. More perhaps than some sculptors, Nigel Hall makes his sculptures to reveal themselves as you walk around them, so much so that still photography rarely does justice to them. The YSP, with its range of superb galleries and open spaces, is the perfect context for his work. The show looks terrific and will confirm to even the most cursory visitor that we celebrate here one of Britain’s major sculptors, an artist of decided i
ntegrity and vision.