EXHIBITIONS / Animal, vegetable or mineral: Organically-grown, the puzzling sculptures of Peter Randall-Page are still looking for an ideal place to put down roots

AT ONE point in the exhibition you come across, in a display case, a box of little specimens. There are seashells, cones, seed pods, nuts. And it looks like the answer to the rest of the work. This is, so to speak, the sculptor's dictionary. It contains the essential elements which are taken up, generalised, and carved in marble very many times their natural size.

Peter Randall-Page's sculpture is pregnant with the shapes of nature, its curves, spirals, coils, sinews, bulges, and cleavages. Pregnant indeed - these compact lumps, usually in highly polished black Kilkenny limestone, are shaped with fecund swellings, lines of growth and succulent folds. Randall-Page is a few years younger than better known figures like Bill Woodrow, Richard Deacon, Tony Cragg. But while those men have picked up on second nature, the world of industrial production, he has stayed with or gone back to nature, original version.

The first large-scale showing of his work is on tour this year. It has been in Yorkshire and Edinburgh, and is now at Bristol, its last stop. In each place, some of the works have been shown inside, and some outside - the balance at Bristol being in favour of inside. There are just two groups of three pieces each - including Vessel, Cone and Millfield Cone - set in the ruins of Temple Church. Many more are in the galleries of the Arnolfini Centre. But it is the kind of work which raises the question whether, in or out of doors, an artistically planned display is quite what it desires. Though they are solid enough, these are unplaceable pieces.

For one thing, what precisely are they sculptures of? Some like Vessel and Cone are quite directly representational. But mostly you can only say what they are taken from. In the three Fruit of Mythological Trees say, fruit and fossil are present only in connotation. And if this vaguely organic description makes them sound like Henry Moore, they aren't at all. Mainly because in Moore different natural forms metamorphose into one another - flesh into bone into rock - while in Randall-Page, there is complete ambiguity. A single piece might equally represent walnut or worm-cast, frog-spawn or berry-cluster, pineapple or pine-cone, serpent or intestine. The medium is stone, but you can't be certain whether the subject is hard and dry or squeezy and slimy. A curly thing called Animal Vegetable Mineral spells this in its title. It is the kind of ambiguity that points to a fundamental unity. If the sculptures could be said to have an argument, it is that nature works with a basic, universal, species-indifferent vocabulary. (I'm not sure how tendentious this is.) At bottom there are no differences. Everything blends.

If you look for cultural allusions, you find a similar thing. They are absorbed and blended. You might spot many references: Celtic knots, Gothic foliage, classical swags; primitive artefacts like the ice-cream-scoop body of the Willendorf Venus and the multi-breasted torso of the Ephesian Diana; or the purer geometrical shapes of moderns like Brancusi. Randall-Page is conscious of all these precedents, but not self-conscious - because here also he doesn't feel there are big differences. He's just tapping in to the same sources as these earlier makers, and nature doesn't have a history (again perhaps tendentious), so there's no occasion for any anxieties of loss, and no need for stressed quotations or archaism.

No occasion even perhaps for individuality. Though eminently hand-carved, the work tries to be anonymous. There are of course 'ideas' - what form is to be fused with another, and the overall policy of making compact shapes, with nothing sticky-out. But beyond this, it doesn't come over as personal or idiosyncratic. These aren't his curves and coils: he picks up from Creation's ways, following its cues and not imposing.

Nor does the work - being so sober - make you think too much of weird sports of nature, or sci-fi biological fantasies. There is something of that in Moon Vessel, a sort of sucked-in octopus which might breed aliens. And the very sobriety can prompt cheeky counter-responses. The sensuous rolls of New Touchstone may suggest our old friend the 'rude' potato. The stone is very tactile, and touching isn't forbidden. Running your hand over the bulbous cluster at the end of Where the Bee Sucks, you might check yourself mid-fondle and think suddenly of 'something completely different - a man with three buttocks'. The point though is not to be pointed in such ways - to insist it is nature's own ideas that are brought out and monumentalised.

The works almost aspire not to be works of art. The artist has said something like that himself. And this comes back to the question of their placeability. What are these objects for? Where are they for? They're very attractive. They hold their place in gallery or garden. But it seems to be only a stopping off place (like cars in a showroom) not a destination. They would prefer to stand as ritual objects, the symbols of a fertile nature cult. But here history, and its losses, re- asserts itself. The rites which these objects hope for may have existed once, and might again in some form, but as things stand the sculptures can serve only a vague and undefined spirituality of nature. One might say - and it's true not only of Randall-Page's work - that one of the things it represents is a world in which it would have a rightful place.

Arnolfini Centre, 16 Narrow Quay & Temple Church, Victoria Street, Bristol (0272-299191), to 4 Oct.

(Photographs omitted)