Nigel Hall's sculptures are points of stillness in a chaotic world
The poetics of space and the articulation of its geometry are the essence of Nigel Hall's work. Now, a major exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park is reassessing his output over 40 years with an extensive survey of both his sculpture and his works on paper.
In his practice as a sculptor, Hall has been primarily concerned, through his execution of elegant and thoughtful lines, with enclosing and occupying space in order to reveal light and shadow. Although his language is abstract - the grammar consists of circles, cones and ellipses - he is a Romantic, in that his inspiration often begins in landscape.
"My work has always been about place," he has said. "I am fascinated by the way geometry can be discerned in landscape." Resident in London, he has nonetheless sketched in the open air since he was eight, when his family moved to the Gloucester countryside. Since then he has steadily created what he calls "portraits of places". These are not literal representations, but distillations of his response to the rhythms of landscape, translations created with a vocabulary of abstraction.
He always carries a small notebook in which to record new sculptural ideas. These form a visual diary and include measurements, lists and evocative phrases. The notebooks fill two shelves in his studio, providing a continuous record of four decades of observation.
It would be easy to pigeonhole Hall with that phrase "an artist's artist", which denotes both respect and a certain rarefication. Yet such a definition is too restrictive. Certainly there is a quiet, metaphorical quality about his restrained artworks. Like the sparse words of a Japanese haiku, they are both simply what they are and so much more. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that the Japanese printmaker Hokusai has been a considerable influence.
Hall's interest in poetry is also underlined by his series of "book drawings" based on the writings of Hart Crane, Walt Whitman and E E Cummings. A web of diagonal lines, created using carbon paper and a dried-up ballpoint pen, links the beginnings and ends of stanzas. Although he considers his drawing and sculpture as distinct practices, the finely poised and elegant sculptures often feel akin to drawings in space.
Unusually among contemporary artists, Hall is first and foremost a maker. He does not, even at the age of 64, have a posse of assistants, but takes pride in making the work himself. His grandfather was a stonemason, which has had a profound influence on his approach. The chisel cut, as he has said, "will, at one and the same time, make a mark in space, an edge and a shadow. [This] has resulted in a preoccupation with linearity, precision, light and shadow and spatial interval."
Placed throughout the park, his sculptures have a natural sense of rightness and seem to sit organically within their allotted space, whether the work in question is one of the two monumental Crossing pieces (vertical and horizontal), made in 2006, in which the sky forms a natural backdrop to the comb-like fingers of Cor-Ten steel, or his elegant Views of the Interior, 1992, which acts as a frame or proscenium arch for the surrounding landscape.
Hall was born in Bristol in 1943 and was raised, a war baby, in an environment that encouraged creativity. His perceptions were profoundly influenced by his parents' stories about bombing raids on the Bristol docks. Freeze I and Freeze II, student works of the mid-Sixties on display in the garden gallery, capture these anxieties, and spring from an incident, witnessed by his mother during a raid, when a bomb shattered a window and the curtains were sucked out and left flapping by the blast. In these early pieces Hall has attempted to encapsulate space and there is a potent sense of inner and outer, as well as an impression of the void hidden behind the walls of these surreal, Martello-like structures.
The music of Miles Davis and time spent in the Mojave Desert in southern California during the late Sixties had a lasting effect and provided Hall with a route into abstraction. That boundless, empty landscape, with only the occasional water tower or telegraph pole protruding against the horizon, provided a new lexicon of images. Soda Lake, 1968 was his initial response. It was a foretaste of a sparer, more minimal art, in which "space and its components determine how the space is channelled, trapped or disclosed".
Since 1984, Hall's sculptures have become more dense, solid and grounded. For his elegant birch veneer pieces of the early Nineties, in which the surface is covered in a white stain, then painted with a clear, water-based varnish and polished with wax, the language is still entirely abstract but the emotions precipitated are those of relationships: a subtle, tender pairing and doubling occurs in many of these forms.
These quietly meditative works, which evoke a sense of calm and order, are the distillation of careful thought and long practice. The sculptures convey feelings of fullness and emptiness, stillness and movement. As you walk around them, your viewpoint and mood are constantly subverted and challenged, your experience of them opening out and then closing in as planes and vistas change. In essence, it is the visitor that provides the dance and movement around these elegant and poetic still points of contemplation, in what T S Eliot referred to as this constantly "turning world".
Nigel Hall Sculpture and Drawing (1965-2008) at Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 8 June 2008