Leicester Botanical gardens

Art to restore the public spirit

8 AUGUST 2014
Maria Gamundi, Ninfea
Maria Gamundi, Ninfea

In straitened times, power of sculpture to inspire is explored at outdoor exhibition free and open to the public •World-class artists come together in Leicester for exhibition dedicated to Professor Sir Robert Burgess, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester,
•45 sculptures by 33 internationally-renowned artists on display in 16-acre award-winning garden
‘A public exhibition shouldn't be self-indulgent, it should be an effort to enrich people's lives. Sculpture has a way of energising people - and I want to bring that to Leicester’- Helaine Blumenfeld OBE

Wet weather has turned the Botanical gardens in Leicester, UK, into lush, green areas which become backgrounds for this year’s captivating exhibition (June 15 to October 26.) The drama created by a large number of monumental bronze and marble sculptures joins the voices of smaller works which carry with them more delicate marks. The variety of materials and styles offers a sense of grace and power which stem from the artists’ preoccupation with ideas, intimations and materials. Its shapes and rhythms can, almost always, be read without complicated explanations.

The gardens make their own demands on artists and organisers. Placing sculptures requires discernment and artistry as well as ‘permission’ from plants and trees which have already cast a spell over various areas; and all this is only a fantasy without trucks and hoists and the people who can manage them. The mix, when it works, is like any fine performance: worthy of applause.

This pathway curves, among trees and open spaces, through to a rock garden. It introduces the visitor to various contemporary approaches to sculpture and to some of the materials which are used. The thoughts embodied in stone or bronze are often different from ideas in which modern materials are a basic key to the form and presence of the work. Materials are part of the message.

Near the entrance to the gardens EXHALATION, by Peter Randall-Page, is a solid, almost egg-shaped, mass of granite. Its surface has been chiselled to create small relief circles covering the entire surface and transforming a ‘rock’ into a mysterious, almost delicate presence. Halima Cassell’s bronze MAKENDO rises as a curve, with an intricate decorative flow of pattern. Traces of figure and plant seem to be embedded in its substance.

Andrea Geile’s LEVEL THE FIELD is a large ‘wheel’, upright, made of rusted steel. A variety of leaf-like shapes of the same material are welded into a decorative pattern, allowing light through a charming but tough tracery. Nearby, a tall standing box framework of metal rods reveals suspended stones, half dipped in gold. A broken and partly gilded rock rests on the floor. A tickle of enchantment and a teasing sense of mystery surround this work called THE SOUND THE UNIVERSE MAKES by Miles Halpin.

With a shock, Salvatore Anselmo’s massive, life-size TORSIONE emerges before us as a clear cut and bold presence. The dramatic impact of this huge Carrara marble figure is compelling. Interplay between the sensuous power of marble and representation of human flesh gives poetry to its form. Shelley Robson’s DANCING IN THE CLOUDS (2) uses the same marble, offering an elegance of mass and a purity of form. Monumental, although not huge, the curl and fold of shapes with sharply honed edges suggest perfection.

Dan Michael Archer offers two structures. Each, initially, looks like a relatively small cubic chunk of stone. The limestone 4 WINDS appears at a glance to be unfinished. The four openings on each side of a cube create a hall-like interior space suggesting the sort of mystery we find amidst ruins. The marble of SILVES seems more precious, with a sense of polish and fine-tuning. Only one tall, vertical ‘corridor’ connects front/back, inside/outside. A sense of silence prevails, with a hint of beauty and the peace of order.

Stephen Duncan’s COCOON 1 and COCOON 2 with their surfaces of bright copper leaf are some of the most dramatic works to be found. Presented against green trees and a shadowy background, a leaf motif with a more-than-naked human presence, with its companion piece, where the figure is absent, are enticing and memorable. Richard Thornton’s YELLOW CURVE is like a flow of visual music, with a tall, slim, upright stainless steel panel capped by a flow of curling circles in yellow metal. Bill Forster’s THE THREE GRACES, with delicate vertical fragments of wood, create a flickering upward movement as it stands in front of a small rose bush in bloom. Amidst rocks and plants in a garden, Carol Andrews’ GRANDIFLORA arises, appearing for a moment to be an exceptional plant. In some lights, a convincing ‘impostor’ – but always a robust and amiable presence. Her nearby, CRITICAL MASS, rising like a caterpillar or a wounded accordion, is strangely memorable. Ken Ford’s bronze MEDBOURNE captures a mix of landscape and a sense of place. What appear for a moment to be abstract shapes turn into houses, trees, a church: poetry.

A slight detour to the right takes us to a lawn below the Herb Garden where Louise Plant’s SKP1 installation reveals two tall, stainless steel structures, like drawings in the air, which shine and interact as patterns as we move around them. Nearby are Halima Cassell’s two small upright concrete forms, EFFIGY and GRAVEN. Like small totems carved with various patterns they suggest signs and symbols.

The Beaumont lawn contains some of the largest sculptures, often with a direct visual impact. This section of the exhibition is primarily ‘abstract’, and each piece captures us by virtue of its rhythm, structure and overall mass. The voice of each sculpture is strong. We can read signs of mystery and familiarity, rhythm and monumentality, shock and delight.

ASTEROID, by Hex offers an enormous, commanding presence. Facets of stainless steel shine and alter with the light - and are not ‘of this world’. Nearby, three huge stainless steel frames stand in a row, and when we move, patterns of space alter as views of frame against frame change. BEYOND is the title, and the sculptor is Diane Maclean. Her WING stands at the opposite side of the lawn. Made of galvanised steel, which has a raw surface, we encounter what seems to be a piece of industrial fencing with pipes screwed into what looks like a bolted metal belt – to create a huge rhythmic wing, both graceful and raw.

Helaine Blumenfeld’s THE SPACE WITHIN offers three monumental bronze figures on circular plinths in the centre of the lawn. They are surely figures, although we cannot actually find face or arm or hand. Separately, they are intriguing and sensual presences, and together like a string trio, they create a complex and mysterious music; such sublime and earthly music! Nearby, Jay Battle’s solitary dark and rough bronze TWOFOLD stands three meters high as if it were some primitive stele charged with power.

STAINLESS STEEL CURVE, Richard Thornton’s shining column with eight curling loops, rhythmically rising to a circle at the top, brings the word ‘ecstatic’ to mind. Rebecca Newnham’s LAUNCH stands quietly: a curve whose lined surfaces suggest a stringed instrument. Walking through and around reveals the hum of its presence.

The delight of birds in flight immediately strikes us as we focus on John Sydney Carter’s BLACK SEABIRDS and WHITE SEABIRDS. In each sculpture, movement shapes, wing shapes and the emergence of bird shapes – are built into an intricate structure, with memorable grace and a sense of flight.

Between two hedges at the bottom of the lawn, a mysterious mark seems to glow against the shadowy trees. From close-up, Almuth Tebbenhoff’s TREFOIL is a slender painted steel structure with a portion painted in yellow, like a signal to the eye.

The Lawn space is about figurative work. Many of us, when we recognise a seated or standing figure, a face, a bull, an eagle, find some comfort in knowing – or seeming to know – what we are looking at. Very quickly we seem to be ready to have an opinion, often based on the slightest crumbs of information. Here, we might be perplexed to find representations of various familiar figures spread across a lawn, surrounded by vast trees and by shrubs and very green grass, with perhaps more meanings than at first the eye presumes.

MELANCHOLIA II, by Hanneke Beaumont is a relatively large area dominated by a life-size beautifully modelled figure, clothed and seated at the top of three large metal steps. She gazes downwards at a table which holds an empty picture frame. The lyrical mood is melancholy, which delicately controls part of the garden. By contrast, under a nearby tree stands Peter Walker’s SYMPHONY FOR THE BULL, made of steel and structured out of cubist shapes, which offers the pleasure of its rhythms – and of being a bull.

In the centre of the garden a stunningly ‘real’ eagle appears. LANDING/LEAVING by Robin Bell has a broad wingspan of over three meters. Bronze with detailed beak and feathers, it is fine sculpture and a commanding presence - not easily forgotten. Angela Conner’s ROCKING LADY is a surprise. A well formed and outstretched horizontal figure, supported only in the centre allows for a gentle rocking motion. Add to the mix, the flat surface where face and frontal view should be – and a sense of mystery hovers.

Two very different figures in contrasting materials stand nearby. Salvatore Anselmo’s gentle and compelling VENUS, a torso without a head, emerging from a mass of marble, presents an homage to classical sources. Laurence Edwards offers something entirely different in THE SETTLER, where bronze, treated to suggest a damaged antique image, creates a poignant figure, standing upright and naked, bearing objects hanging from pieces of rope. The contrast could not be greater. And, from a different world, an edge of ‘pop’ offers a brilliant jolt of colour in John Buck’s YOU AND ME.

In the formal gardens, instead of open lawn, gardens have been laid out and carefully planted in a structured way. The long, thin pond creates a strong atmosphere as it commands a space adjoining an arbour. Even before installing the exhibition, there is much variety of decoration and vegetation to catch the eye. Sculptures with a strong outline are often effective. The space also suits work which requires close-up viewing, allowing us to focus easily on delicate elements.

On the garden side of the path above the Lawn, a series of relatively small and varied sculptures can be found. Guy Portelli’s gracefully engineered ORCHID offers a metal stem with ordered curves capped by stylised blossoms, given coloured glass centres. Andrea Geile’s PYLON DELIGHT presents a surreal mix of a pylon standing on a globe made from welded shapes of flowers. Peter Newsome, in ETUDE uses transparent glass curves, rising and crowned by triangles of decorated blue glass. It stands on a dazzling floor and music comes to mind.

Within a formal garden, Tom Allan’s white marble sculptures, with clear outlines, stand. GOTHIC TREE ARCH seems on one side to be just that, but on the reverse side only tree shapes reign. Like a small poem, it provokes pleasure. His HIGHLAND RIVER with harp-like shapes is visual music. A trunk of bark is decorated with bright leaf shapes in Lorna Green’s FALLING LEAVES. Margaret Lovell’s SIEME II presents two tall, vertical sculpted strips of treated bronze, which suggest a tension; even an electric charge.

A long narrow stretch of lawn on either side of the pond demands only certain sorts of sculpture to fit the space. On one side, two thin totem-like assemblages, each 3 meters tall, stand precarious and as thin as Giacometti’s long figures. Questions arise: What, How, Why? None of the odd bits which fit together are recognisable, but slowly the sheer fascination of these flights of spirit take over. The sculptor is Richard Baronio, and the titles are ASPIRATION and THINGS I MIGHT HAVE DONE. Across the pond, Maria Gamundi’s NINFEA, brings us an enchanting detailed image of a nude women floating amongst water lilies. Finely finished, this is a delicate romantic work which provides a memorable finale as we leave the arbour.

Text by Alan Caine