Cast in her own image

Maggi Hambling's bronzes are a leap into the unexpected. Which doesn't surprise Louisa Buck

Maggi Hambling is that rarest of species in the British art world: a respected maverick. Respected, but not respectable. As the first artist in residence at the National Gallery in 1980, she painted the warders and herself as monkeys; and her career has been characterised by audacious leaps into the unexpected ever since.

Now she's made her first bronze sculptures, and they won't stand still, either. Coffins on legs (such as Coffin Running, pictured), wheels and rockers skedaddle and cast crazy shadows; vertiginous spindly structures sway and teeter with miraculous equilibrium, supporting animated miniature figures and balancing on twiglet legs and star-shaped claws. They don't look like first sculptures; in fact, they don't look like any other sculpture at all. What they most closely relate to are the drawings which, even in her most extravagant abstract modes, have always underpinned Hambling's art with a sharp-eyed splicing of rigour and spontaneity, and it's no surprise to discover that the starting point of these sculptures is the pouring of molten wax into cavities drawn into sand.

In a page from a sketch book reproduced in the catalogue, Hambling orders herself to "Leave it!" and here she has found the confidence to do so. Chance is allowed to play a crucial part, with surfaces remaining rich and rough from the ancient "lost wax" method of casting, and bobbly, furry edges showing the seeping and creeping of the liquid wax. There can be a dangerous folksiness in sculpture that casts found objects - but Hambling pulls it off. The globular, humanoid profile of a melted car part becomes a pair of howling coffin bearers or a serpentine skein of talking heads; a fist- sized stone becomes the body of Christ, the face of Godot, or simply itself, dangling ominously by a thread.

Hambling has visited Mexico and the tombs of ancient Egypt, and this shows in these sculptures; there is something ancient and non-European about their grand but intimate scale, their sense of ceremony, and the way in which death is treated with humour and affection. There's also an uncanny similarity to the 6th and 7th century BC bronzes of those mysterious, hedonistic early Italians, the Etruscans, whose drinking vessels and votive objects hovered on wiry wheels and cloven hooves, and sported populations of lively Lilliputians dancing around their rims and crowding at their bases.

These bronzes may mark a new departure for Hambling, but they also stand as a consolidation and vindication of her previous changes of direction. Whether she is painting Max Wall or the Minotaur, incandescent Suffolk sunrises or explosive abstract studies of the human laugh, Hambling's aim has always been the dogged and often unfashionable quest to capture the complexity of human experience and feeling in art. In these bronzes, she comes very close.

n At Marlborough Fine Art, London W1 (0171-629 5161) to 4 March

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