Matisse was not alone among artists in benefiting from an excursion into the third dimension: those who come instantly to mind include Degas, Gauguin, Miro and Picasso. To this august company we might now add the name of Maggi Hambling who, best known for her expressionist handling of paint on canvas, has recently turned sculptor.
Her experiment began with the suggestion of a friend that she should paint plates. 'I said 'No. All artists do that'. But then I thought about it and decided I'd like to make some things.' She wanted to sculpt. But, rather than the figurative bronzes that we might have expected, Hambling began to work in clay. It was a bold move, as she hadn't handled the stuff since student days in the early 1960s. Now she had to go back to school. At the ceramics department of the Royal College of Art in London, her mentor was a former student, Matt Groves, with whom she worked one day a week for five months.
'I was a complete novice,' she admits. 'Ham-fisted, inept. I felt I couldn't do anything at all. It was Matt who showed me the possibilities. He would roll out a flat slab of clay, which I would cut out with a knife.' The first pieces she made were similarly flat, two-dimensional wall-mounted works. It wasn't enough. 'I wanted you to be able to walk round the pieces. That's what sculpture's all about.' A growing awareness of what she wanted to achieve was turned to frustration by her lack of knowledge of the medium. 'The people working around us thought that I was trying to make the clay do impossible things.'
Her initial aim was to develop her Sunrise series of paintings of the late 1980s. In Dragon Sunrise the sun's rays are transformed into the legs of a dragon and it was Groves' success in rendering these three-dimensional that marked the breakthrough. The sculpted Dragon Sunrise, set free from the sky of Hambling's painting, excites her: 'I like the fluid, fragile planes next to that socking great clumpy head.' This fluidity and movement, common to all of these works, is important to Hambling. 'I wanted to make things move through space.'
One of the results is Male Dancer Bearing Moon, an arch of striding legs which seems as if it will topple over at the slightest breath. 'I'm very interested in balance. If somebody is walking along they're in a particular movement. I hope that moment is caught here.' While 'dance' occurs in many of the titles, there are other, more gentle sorts of movement here. The rising sun is echoed on a more domestic scale in the anthropomorphic Flower Waking Up which 'is having a bit of a problem dragging itself up, just as some of us do sometimes'. Hambling's new art is pervaded by her own alternately dry and earthy humour.
There is also a a sense of the slightly sinister wit of Miro, who promised in 1941: 'It is in sculpture that I will create a truly phantasmagoric world of living monsters'. Hambling's menagerie, biscuit-fired, painted with liquid clays and finished with bright enamel, may not be spectral, but it is made up of creatures of another world. Like Miro's sculptures, whose celestially symbolic titles they also echo, many are the dreamlike inhabitants of the artist's paintings. But there are also new entities here. 'These creatures are inside one, waiting to come out. You have to wait for them. They surprised me. I'd never painted flowers. That was a big surprise. I was discovering things in the clay that had obviously been lurking in me for quite a while, but had never had the chance to come out.'
Something else that the sculptures have liberated is the gentler side of Hambling's art which, while it has always been implicit in the pathos of her often savagely expressionist oils, has never been allowed to come to the fore. Now it emerges in the theme of waking couples and in the personable intimacy of her creatures. However, as in the achievement of the Surrealists, to whose work these pieces are best compared, this sensitivity is tempered with gravitas. The combination is particularly evident in the very personal work Hermaphrodite Self Portrait, a tailed beast with a question-mark coxcomb, and the largest pieces on view, Reclining Moon Woman and Rearing Serpent, which came about after a trip to Egypt where Hambling 'discovered the goddess Nut, who supports the universe'.
Quite by chance this discovery reinforced an idea that had already engaged her attention and which now, in the new medium, could be defined within its own space. In formal terms, it is this space that lies at the crux of Hambling's sculptures and which is exemplified in the attenuated form of her Male Moon Bearer in the course of whose creation she realised that structure and form had come to outweigh colour. The piece's focus, a void, is a profound contrast with the internal density generally seen as characterising Hambling's paintings, and it is telling that it is the exception to these, the unusually fluid Laugh series begun in 1990, that she cites as the direct antecedent of the sculptures.
'My large oil-paintings were becoming more and more like objects in space. I was using my hands to apply the paint. The Secret Laugh is to do with a great space coming through the centre of the painting. The idea of there being nothing in the middle of a painting has always fascinated me. In sculpture the space is there already. You don't have to invent it . . .
'I'm very excited about painting again,' she says. 'It's very different. This has had an effect. It has opened me up again to the stuff of paint - however it goes on the canvas.'
Works in clay by Maggi Hambling are at the CCA Galleries, 8 Dover St, London W1, to 3 July.
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