Words by Mercedes Smith
Tremenheere Gallery presents work by Royal Society artist Phil Booth, from huge sculptures, to bronze works no bigger than the palm of your hand.
This May, you can see work by one of the UK’s foremost sculptors, exhibited at one of Cornwall’s most beautiful art galleries. Titled Encounters at the Interface and on show at Tremenheere Gallery, this exhibition is sculptor Phil Booth’s first since his acclaimed show of large-scale works at Uillinn Gallery, Ireland, in 2017. Taking centre stage, as it did at Uillinn, is Phil’s five-metre wall sculpture ‘Gwennap Head WSW, SSW, ESE’, a richly abstracted, landscape inspired triptych of aluminium, wood and acrylic that defines his distinctive and visually powerful style. The compass references, WSW, SSW and ESE, refer to the directions in which Phil studied rock formations looking towards the sea from Cornwall’s remote Gwennap Head, before developing his drawings through to the final sculpture.
“It is a very involved process of development,” says Phil of his practice, “until the work stands by itself conceptually, but still alludes to the landscape that inspired it. I begin with line drawings, which leave room for abstract interpretation. From those I move to collage with coloured paper, which allows me to experiment with form. Next, I create a maquette in white card, and that process takes the work closer to its final form as it moves from two to three dimensions.”
From there, he makes instinctive decisions about the final sculpture. “Certain shapes need more visual weight,” he explains, “and others provide structure. Still, the process is not fixed and things will change again in the next phase of construction. Sometimes a collage will give me direction on colour, but my colour choices never make any sort of figurative reference.” Here, he recites a quote from Professor Andrew Cecil Bradley’s historic Oxford Lecture series of 1901: “The nature of a work of art is to ‘be not a part, nor yet a copy, of the real world, but to be a world by itself, independent, complete and autonomous’.” A truly complete and autonomous work is what all artists strive for, and Phil has spent a lifetime dedicated to that pursuit. His 50-year career as an artist, researcher, lecturer and elected member of the Royal Society of Sculptors has given him an exceptional formal and theoretical grounding, resulting in highly conceptual and deeply impactful work.
Phil studied Fine Art Sculpture at Manchester College of Art and Design, with a Higher Degree in Sculpture, graduating in 1972. In 1978 he won a two-year scholarship to Japan under Saitama University’s Professor of Aesthetics. During that time, he wrote three separate theses about the formal qualities and meaning of Japanese Gardens, which he describes as “referential pieces, rich in formal qualities. It changed my thinking,” says Phil. “During the 70s my work was mostly conceptual – formal connections were not important to me at that point, it was the flow of ideas that was important. But I saw things differently in Japan, and I brought that thinking home with me and developed it, and began to follow a strong, formal direction that culminated in the coloured reliefs.” During his scholarship Phil learned to speak Japanese, and over the next 30 years his relationship with Japan and its aesthetic traditions continued. In between teaching posts at Falmouth University, he spent two years as Visiting Professor of Sculpture at the Nagoya University of Arts. Later, in 2000, he was invited to take up a sculpture residency in Seto, Japan, and from 2002 he spent eight years as Professor of Design, again at the Nagoya University of Arts. It was during that time that he rekindled his interest in Japanese Gardens and began “unpicking the threads of the relationship between ourselves and the landscape. I felt a disquiet with the Western approach to that idea. I started making box works, works about containment, works that were a celebration of nature’s dynamics, colour, energy and rhythm.” A collection of Phil’s small box works, including several pieces from his Japanese Tadachi Fall series, will be included in the Tremenheere show, alongside Gwennap Head, the equally large-scale Ptolemy’s Conjecture, and A Journey to the Interface, a diptych at over six feet long. “My larger sculptures are always inspired by the landscape,” says Phil, “but that’s not the case with my smaller works: in the box works I am interested in exploring visual language in a non-referential way, but everything I do follows the same visual language, and the ‘conceptual’ is always there in the background, guiding my hand”. Like the landscapes that inspire them, his large works have a limitless quality, and what the artist describes as “a diffuse edge.”
The Sound of Water – Exterior
The Sound of Water – Interior
Journey to the Interface (normally displayed horizontally, as a dipitych)
One notable art critic has previously described Phil as “an artist with an interesting sense of vastness”. In contrast however, this exhibition will also include works on a notably smaller, almost miniature scale. In 1997, during Phil’s tenure at Falmouth University, his faculty was involved in a project to resurrect the ‘Medal’ as an art form. “During the Renaissance,” says Phil, “before it became favoured by the military as a commemorative object, the medal as an art form was not necessarily commemorative at all, but contained within it a particular concept. They were originally a much more open-ended means of expression for artists, and my work here is part of the movement to reinstate that freedom. These medals enjoy the juxtaposition of both the figurative and the abstract, creating connections and surprises within the limits of their form.” Two of the bronze medals that Phil created at Falmouth were acquired by the British Museum, and other, more recent works are included in this show. Typically, art medals would have been single objects, but Phil has developed the form into two adjoining pieces, making them pleasingly interactive works that fit in the palm of your hand. “In traditional art medals the visual language leans towards the figurative,” says Phil, “but mine are often abstract when closed, and figurative when opened.” Adding to these wonderful curiosities are inspirational haiku’s, etched into each medal’s surface, further illustrating Phil’s interest in Eastern philosophies. One medal, titled Random Encounters, has the pattern of subatomic particles on the outside, with the astonishingly similar pattern of uncurling ferns on the inside, and includes the words ‘Random observations, Locations of light, Encounters with physics in nature’. Another, titled The Sound of Water, combines a leaping frog and splash with the words of 17th century Japanese haiku master Matsuo Basho, ‘At the ancient pond, A frog plunges into The sound of water’.
A Unique Disconformity
Outcrop Due South
“In essence,” says Phil, “whether in my large or small scale pieces, my work sets out to ask critical questions about the layered and often dysfunctional relationship between ourselves and the natural world. Embedded in the language of my work are explorations of the space between mathematics and art, geometry and flow, abstraction and figuration, experience and myth.”
See Encounters at The Interface from 8th May to 11th June at Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, Gulval, Penzance TR20 8YL. All are welcome at the exhibition preview Sunday May 23rd, which will be attended by the artist.