EXHIBITIONS / On the building site of the soul: John Gibbons' startling welded-steel shapes take on metaphysics - and win

I RECOMMEND John Gibbons' exhibition at Flowers East, for his sculptures are distinguished by their integrity and deep feeling. By Gibbons' integrity I mean that every single aspect of his work belongs to him alone and issues from his own emotions. Far too much of today's sculpture is littered with borrowed or stolen ideas. Gibbons' art is indebted to no one and appears the more resolute and thoughtful for its singularity. This makes him exceptional, but I note that a theme of his work is loneliness.

Gibbons lives and works in London, but his Irish character may help to explain his sculpture. Born on a farm in County Clare in 1949, he spoke Irish until he was about 18, when he went to art schools in Limerick and Cork, before proceeding to St Martin's. Gibbons is the last noteworthy artist to have emerged from the welded-metal tradition of St Martin's famous sculpture department, but I don't think he took a lot from his predecessors in the Charing Cross Road. The abiding influence comes from David Smith, whom he appreciated on a number of trips to America. Not that Gibbons' forms are like Smith's - but their honesty is shared, their straightforward way with metal is similar, and both sculptors have felt that there is something holy in their labour.

In Gibbons' recent exhibitions, large and open structures have been accompanied by smaller and more compact pieces with a sacramental air. They were abstract sculptures, but one was reminded of little shrines. Such works have disappeared in the present show. There are just three sculptures in the upstairs space at Flowers East. Two of them, Exodus and Silence, are large, and fill their respective galleries. Exodus has a tower that reaches nearly to the ceiling. The third piece, In

the Name, is smaller and burlier, and perhaps it is most akin to the shrine-like works of a few years ago. On a grid which functions as a table are a number of shallow bowls, each of a different diameter. They are not functional, but they have a sacred or ritual character. They speak to us of things that are not of this world.

This comes with meditation on the object. Gibbons' sculptures are 'slow' in that they unfold rather than declare their nature. At a first quick sight they are startling, even ugly. They are made of steel that is clearly industrial detritus, and the various parts of the sculpture look as if they lost their role in the quotidian world a couple of decades ago. Some of Gibbons' bits are still covered with industrial paint of a vile yellow colour. This paint is scarred and scuffed, with rust showing through and other blemishes scrupulously preserved. No part of any sculpture is good-looking in itself and Gibbons - as far as his paint is concerned - has endeavoured to make his parts look worse, with daubs of dead brown, blue and viscous black.

And yet this paintwork comes to look right. Give the sculptures the attention they deserve and you find that all their elements are justified. They serve the cause of a rather solemn beauty. This is moving. At the same time we cannot lose sight of the industrial character of the work. Gibbons has noble aspirations for his art, so I hope he won't mind if I stress that he is an Irish labourer. At a basic level, these sculptures are a song to Gibbons' immediate environment - the docks, building-site wastelands, railway sidings, walkways and jetties of the Thames below Tower Bridge.

Sculptors who work with assembled steel rarely give such a frank account of the origin of their materials. They smarten things up for gallery purposes. Note, however, that Gibbons has his own forms of perfectionism. I would even say that he has been influenced by silversmithing. Here and there are polished little details and buttons, as bright and inexplicable as stars. Looking at these new sculptures, one would guess that he enjoys hammering as much as welding. And even when parts are screwed or bolted together they seem to have been joined by hands with a passion for form.

Silence may have more complexity and sculptural intrigue but the finest of the three sculptures is the largest, Exodus. In Silence there is a bunched and virtuoso play of steel walls and cylinders at one end, then a long pipe that travels a little way above the ground to turn into a vertical pole that's like a big stopcock. Exodus occupies its territory in a more stately way. There's a platform of mesh raised on eight legs, this surmounted by two vertical structures like railings, of different heights. This part of the sculpture is joined by rods an inch above the floor to three open and identical flat metal boxes, standing upright and with rods placed horizontally on their tops. And then this passage leads to an open tower with diagonal supports between its intermediate platforms and shallow round plates, seven in all, looking out to the world and the sky.

To describe a sculpture is to simplify it. Exodus is lucid in construction, imponderable when one walks around it to consider its various aspects. Gibbons' art is more mature each time that he shows, and I fancy that he wishes now to enter a realm of metaphysical speculation. It's not simply that Exodus enlarges on his previous hieratic constructions. It's more generous. If you make sculpture like a totem it tends to be self-absorbed. Having made a sculpture like Exodus, an artist looks at the whole world in a new way.

Flowers East, E8 (081-985 3333), to 13 Mar.

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor