Today, medicine takes the cellular and the genetic as its horizon. Its big mechanics – the orthopaedics – are a Victorian epistemology. Even in this context, I can no longer say ‘at the turn of the century’ and expect you to understand that I mean the19th to 20th, but I do. I mean to direct you to engineering and ceramics, which collide in the practice of setting broken limbs in plaster, a tactic that developed in proximity to the huge Eurasian land wars we see depicted in paintings by Elizabeth, Lady Butler.
In their conception, the modular forms Nick produces in his studio from the materials of ambulatory immobilisation involve buckets of water and sacks of hydroscopic dust. Lumps of claggy earth, paddled into shape, are repeatedly set in bandages, the resulting casts prised off and reassembled along limber lines. Oblong characteristics, acquired from Hepworth and Moore, Nicholson and Nash, are suggestively familiar of that period – InterWar – when the exploded human form consolidated archaically, neolithically, seeking solace in ideas of genial agriculture, childhood and pure colour. Disappearance and permanence (the clay has slipped away) affect consciousness in the same way, shadowing each other. When history exhausts the archive, what’s left? Riddles, recombitants and that vast ludic space between your ears.
Nick spent time on residency at the Tate St Ives in 2006 and marks the experience of encountering Hepworth’s work stored in the converted dance hall cinema that was her studio as especially significant. Stored, the work is in limbo, and it is limbo – a dance and a suspension, bending and binding – that informs him. His own sculptures are siblings in the studio, as much a room for rehearsal as for making. Beckettesque, they sit surrounded by the rudimentary implements that brought them into being, jesting with props that properly belong in a cleaning cupboard – broom handles, mop-heads and sorts. Gradually, tottering towards independence if not autonomy, they force their maker to reside on the periphery, responding to the demands that issue forth now and then from their private huddle. He implements tools and offers them geegaws. They dress-up. Even in plaster, the polished, deliberate surfaces of Hepworth aspire to stone and bronze, graceful and pedantic, materials that Nick’s sculptures don’t have time for, (of course ‘even’ qualifies plaster as an auxiliary material – propositional and prosthetic).
Herbert Read, the Yorkshire-born artist, curator and writer who gave so much body to British Modernism, once wrote an article entitled ‘Distortion’ for a BBC magazine called ‘The Listener’. It is important to frame him as ‘Yorkshire-born’. It is something immutable – a meaningless absolute – that he shared and appreciated with Hepworth and Moore in their ‘gentle nest’. ‘Distortion’, wrote Read in ‘The Listener’ (and the circuit described by these words – Wrote, Read, Listener – is a circuit that describes the Speaker as silent); ‘Distortion’, wrote Read, ‘is a word with unpleasant associations for listeners, but as some of the letters evoked by these weekly notes bear witness, it indicates one of the real difficulties in appreciation of the visual arts. I should be prepared to say, in a very general and perhaps paradoxical way, that all art is distorted. Even classical Greek sculpture, which I dealt with last week, was distorted in the interests of the ideal. Was the line of the brow ever in reality so straight, the face so oval, the breasts so round…?’ Distortion is a process of appropriation and reproduction – there is no appropriation or re-presentation without distortion and re-orientation. With the action of a vortex, Nick’s post-colonial process spins Hepworth and Moore together with the tribal artefacts that came to them as raw ideals; the splinters and weird bodies evident in Nash spin with the baby-boom psychedelics of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Where Hepworth and Moore pegged their notions of home to the immemorial as represented by the English landscape and the spiritual integrity of colonially sourced figures, masks and relics, Nick’s work deal with domesticity as a consequence of life spent indoors, massively informed yet disconnected in a time when staggering equivalences are the bedrock of a new grotesque. On show in gallery and exhibition spaces, his sculptures adopt pedestals that relate Brancusi’s columns as the legs of occasional tables and desire eclectic, patterned backgrounds, the better to emphasize their bone structure. In limbo, they can present a version of what psychedelia took from Victorian ornament, what – sliding the frame along – the Memphis Group took from Kente cloth, (and, by way of Elvis in Tennessee, from Ancient Egypt).
I started this piece making reference to a Victorian epistemology represented by orthopaedics. Involving human bodies and hard materials, it had a critical mass that produced melancholic physicians who took anatomy seriously but also, if we want to extend the metaphor, drôle hospital porters to wheel patients to radiology, (I have in mind Marcel Duchamp). The limits imposed on movement by traction and plaster-casting quickly became comedy staples and plot devices. I would suggest that, like L B Jefferies’ full leg cast in ‘Rear Window’ – hidden in plain sight – Nick’s ‘calcified ghosts’ of Modernist tropes are just such MacGuffins, giving him the excuse to scope across temporalities and speculate about what his erstwhile neighbours have been up to.
(Levels of familiarity and proximity – given names, surnames, brand names/given forms, sur-forms, brand forms – which is closest to you? Here in the catalogue, there in the exhibition? With whom are you most intimate?)