In the late 1960s, Ravensbourne College of Art in Bromley, Essex, was a cluster of new build rectangles surrounded by green-belt land. Here, the fledgling sculptor Alison Wilding and her fellow students would often work outdoors, contending with the vagaries of weather and Bromley Common as a site. One early piece created in her first dank and foggy autumn term she recalls in particular: numerous metal plates in the grass, which slowly became enveloped by mist and disappeared.
The experience was literally transformative, both for the sculpture and the artist, setting off an interest in how edges and boundaries can be established and collapsed, in the change and containment of space and objects, which has shaped her approach ever since. The story too, with its fog rolling across the wet park, has the romantic gloom that frequently makes her suggestive, abstract work so affecting.
At ‘Right Here and Out There’, the De La Warr Pavilion’s small survey of Wilding’s output since she emerged as part of The New British Sculpture generation, in the 1980s, I’m drawn in by Drowned (1993): a towering cone of pond green, barely translucent acrylic surrounding a concealed steel support. The label promises more but, in spite of the shifting seaside light through the gallery’s glass wall, it is impossible to see the gold leaf on the steel or the hemisphere of chromed copper that holds it all together within the sculpture’s top. Instead there are reflections and almost-glimpses, and the stubborn fact of the material itself, hard and impenetrable and yet so like a pool overrun by algae. Indeed, for all her works’ physical immediacy, the artist is adept at inviting poetic and personal associations to run their inevitable course. Thoughts come of plunging in, seductive oblivion, of the particularly lurid green of the plant life in Millais’ Ophelia (1951–52). (Wilding nearly drowned once, in the Danube.) Objective reality vies with imagination, memory and metaphor.
Wilding repeatedly deals in binaries like these. Soft, wrinkled sheets of loosely-woven gossamer silk threads are the ground for twinned hard marble lozenges resembling breasts, spearheads or pyramids seen from the air. Light glows gently through plastic, which can just as easily turn dense and shadowy, while curving metal cylinders enclose voids. Ancient and modern collapses, as with the neoprene mats spread out on the floor like animal hides or the wood ash that gently stains tablets of Crystacal plaster. What looks like weighty cement can turn out to be painted airy foam.
Of the established categories her work flips, not least is that of male and female. From the earliest sculpture of the 1980s, gender asserts itself, in erotically charged abstractions that often carry more than a trace of violence. Not included in the current survey, Minge (1982) is a confrontational copper V, a bird-like form recalling splayed legs and the V of an up-yours, with a fold of womb red wax at its centre. More tender in its attentive handling of materials, is another lauded, absent work, Nature: Blue and Gold (1984): highly polished brass given a coating of goose-bumps and cut into a shape suggesting a bird’s mouth or more obviously, labia or testes. Clasped at the tip of this split form is a similarly sexually polymorphous wooden egg that, depending how you choose to look at it, is about to be cannibalized or born, swallowed down or pushed out.
At the De La Warr Pavilion, Dark Horse 1 (1983), a black sheet of neoprene, resembles a horse skin. At one end however, is a white hunk of Portland Roach stone, positioned at an angle to suggest an animal head but also a cock and balls, conjuring the (in art historical terms) unusual spectacle of a male lover, spread-eagled and vulnerable. This rethink of sculpture’s upward thrusting, phallic inclinations is apparent too, in those aforementioned lozenge shapes that Wilding has returned to over the years. Often installed outside within plant life, they hover close to the ground like breasts or round bellies, sleeping animals or shields. Apparently at rest, they nonetheless induce a certain anxiety. What could happen next? Their intentions or use is left unclear.
While Wilding lets questions like these remain open-ended, her sculpture is typically moody, veering from the quietly mournful to downright nasty. Her many works that use enclosed objects tend to seem more encaged than protected. In Hum (2002), an iron ball is encircled by painted aluminium, recalling the rings of Saturn, the planet synonymous with melancholy, and which the title nudges us to interpret as waves of sound, perhaps a solid cloud of stormy thoughts. Cuckoo 1 and Cuckoo 2 (both 2015) meanwhile, play a bleak joke on jolly balloons, transforming them into dense menacing black eggs, nested within rings of galvanized steel, which balance delicately on their jagged edges like a mantrap’s teeth.
Wilding has made many works where metal sheets enfold and conceal space, not mass but void, unsettling the relationship with sculpture’s interior and surface skin. In 1989 however she had a watershed moment, alighting on a novel technique that allowed her to essentially do away with surface altogether. Creating a sculpture within the Hagia Sofia, she witnessed the repainting of its famous dome, a business enabled by the construction of an elaborate wooden scaffolding. This structure she went on to develop in complicated assemblages of hard plastic strips, which are stacked like immense house of cards. Stare into the mass of golden-brown PVC strips that make up one half of Assembly (1991), and you are soon lost as the edges of its individual parts dissolve in reflections and shadows. The steel shell that it’s paired with on the other hand is a tough and impermeable skin around a black nothing.
Uncertainty is the watchword in Wilding’s work, which again and again, through a frequently wondrous and painstaking manipulation of materials and space, forces us to rethink what we are looking at. From a distance, Assembly’s PVC suggests both a soft toxic yellow cloud – the fog of that early art school encounter – and a hunk of amber, but what it preserves is darkness and the unknown.
Alison Wilding, ‘Right Here and Out There’ runs at De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-On-Sea, until 16 September.
Main image: Alison Wilding, Assembly, 1991. Courtesy: the artist and Karsten Schubert Gallery, London; photograph: Rob Harris