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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)