Julian Wild Origin

Sculptor, Julian Wild and curator, George Marsh in conversation with 3rd Dimension.

George Marsh
Make-Shift is your second solo show at William Benington Gallery, Julian, and I feel this is an important transitional time for you as an artist. Those who know your practice well will realise that this is quite a dramatic departure. Over the last ten years you have been doing quite high profile public and gallery work, which is characterised by signature bright colours and angular style. But for this show Julian, it’s about engaging with the concept of monochrome, and includes polished stainless steel and even wood which you have never used before. So this is ground zero for a new body of work.

3rd Dimension
What was the main springboard for your coherent vision here? Before, you often hid your surfaces under powder-coating, now you are revealing them…

Julian Wild
I wanted to desaturate the exhibition, so that the only colour is that of the materials. I slightly relished rebelling against what is expected of me – to make sculpture with colour. I wanted to be contrary and look at my work without colour as a means of checking it on a solely formal level. It was a catalyst for paring things right down, and evaluating this very fundamental basis of my process. It also allows a focus on the only colour which is present in the exhibition, such as in my drawing Roll Down; this brings a shift in emphasis to another medium and a lesser known aspect of my practice. Colour is important for me, but this has been a fascinating and challenging experiment.

Julian Wild Slipped
1. Julian Wild, Slipped, stainless steel
(photo: Will Marsh, courtesy
of the artist and William Benington Gallery)

The work Slipped is the larger realisation of a small maquette for your Stripping the Willow series (fig.1). What triggered the final transformation of the surface here?

I made the basic curved shape in clay and cast it into wax, and finally into stainless steel, knowing it would be creating this structure. I wanted to weld it into a minimal geometric form that has been subverted and appeared to have ‘gone wrong’. That I was sure of, but the question of what would be revealed inside was undecided. Up until day before, the interior was white because I wanted the all exhibits to be predominantly monochrome. However, literally at the last minute I decided to cut, polish and heat it with a blow torch to achieve that strange burnished look. The problem had been that the white finish didn’t excite me enough. I felt it was somehow unresolved – it needed to come alive. My practice is all about the process of making, when I am welding I get a dramatic combination of colours forming on the surface of the stainless steel, and Slipped needed to reflect this process.

In your earlier work, although the raw material was concealed beneath powder-coating, there were tantalising glimpses of stainless steel, often in the core. I think that is why you originally wanted the inside painted, to invert what had been done previously, where the painted exterior revealed the interior. However, you realised at this stage that those references were not needed, and that you had done enough to separate the elements.

Julian Wild Slipped detail
2. Julian Wild, Slipped detail, stainless steel 100×22×4.5cm.
(photo: Will Marsh, courtesy of the artist and William Benington

3rd D
Light also plays an essential role with these reflective surfaces, which are activated by external colour and movement.

Yes and this brings an almost visceral dynamism to the surface. The crease and fold of Slipped also alludes to flesh and the body – where the cold, harsh steel can become something organic and living (fig.2). The dialogue and relationship here is the balance and indeed tension between the hard and austere – and the sensual and corporeal. The work is playful and slightly irreverent, and I like the sense that it is collapsing and therefore somehow ‘failing’.

The idea of monochrome as a theme is also a way of bringing together a few different threads and ideas that you have been exploring recently. One of the key factors that anchors the exhibition is your new public sculpture commission Origin, for the Li Ka Shing Centre for Health and Discovery, Oxford University, as they are just building BDI, the Big Data Institute (Main image). The Centre is devoted to groundbreaking biomedical research, which is chiefly genetic and targeted towards curing major illnesses. The work is the first in their new public art strategy, and it was an extremely well commissioned project and set up so that you had no real constraints.

It is very exciting, I think the work will be the biggest public sculpture in Oxford! I received the commission earlier this year and we have just got planning permission. It is the largest work I have ever done and is almost like making a building! It is five metres by twelve metres. The form will feel very engineered and architectural, with painted red steel legs rising upwards, with one slightly twisted in a striding movement. It is essentially two welded forms of powder coated steel meeting in the middle and seemingly fragmenting into a more fluid core of polished stainless steel. I wanted Origin to mirror the transfer of data from two buildings on the site, the Target Discovery Institute (TDI) to the new BDI, and represent the creative dynamism of this relationship. I went to a few seminars to gain an insight into this academic environment, and from this I wanted the work to reflect the idea of collaboration between the scientists – and the discovery of new ideas. A sense of monumentality and the position of the work were also key concerns, because it acts as a wayfinder into the complex, leading people around the courtyard.

Although Origin is a commissioned work, it very much emerges from my studio practice

Yes, I think ideas for the fractured core and inner material had been gestating for some time, as your previous show had pieces inspired by pernicious plants and weeds that turned themselves inside out – separating as they propagated themselves.

Julian Wild Origin detail
3. Julian Wild, Origin detail of the design for the public sculpture commission at Li Ka Shing Centre for Health and Discovery, Oxford University (photo: © Julian Wild)

I wanted to suggest the complexity of forms in nature and science, and as you say George, to the very processes of natural phenomena themselves. Therefore although intrinsically solid, the central section had to somehow float in the air – in a moment of almost frozen dissolution or dispersal (fig.3). That was my initial instinct and a structure was then needed to support this, therefore I think this vision of the work pushed it in a certain direction. It was structurally designed by Structuremode with the two free floating elements that cantilever out of enormous blocks of concrete in the ground, but is not a complete arch -since they don’t quite touch. I think this tension is very expressive and accentuates the overall impression of both weight and mass yet with the core itself appearing weightless and diffuse.

3rd D
How does your recent work at Canary Wharf feed into the ideas that are demonstrated in Origin?

Living in Sussex, I am influenced by watching the local workers making hedges, coppicing, splicing, and splitting the wood apart to expose the innards. My series of works for Canary Wharf, Stripping the Willow conveyed this ability of nature to survive, to be stripped down and then regrow. I regard Origin as a kind of sculptural meditation on these themes. It is a sculpture blown apart, a heavy Tony Smith-like form, where the core is exploding – revealing the material inside the painted form.

Can you explain your mix of traditional techniques and new technology in the preparation for Origin?

It is pretty much the first time I have worked in this way, so it has been quite a learning curve. I began with a 3D drawing programme called ‘Sketch-up’, which is a rather an intuitive way to translate your ideas, so I worked up and designed the piece using this format. However, I knew the middle element of Origin needed to be physically bent, and would have to be analysed by structural engineers. Therefore initially, I made a clay block and manipulated it to achieve the angle I envisaged in my mind. I gave this to a friend with a 3D scanner and the work then existed as a 3D file, which could be incorporated back into the 3D drawing.

This is intriguing way of working between an object that’s physical and one that’s virtual – a meeting of the real and the digital. I then made a 3D print of it and that was not quite right, so I cut and glued it back together, as the hand-crafted still played a crucial role in this development. The 3D prints are inert, like dead objects in a way, they don’t feel like sculpture – so it is still essential for me to ‘make’ and stay connected to those processes.

Julian Wild Turf Stack
4. Julian Wild, Turf Stack, stainless steel 15×29×25cm. (photo: Will Marsh, courtesy of the artist and William Benington Gallery)

3rd D
How does your work Turf Stack relate to the fractured interlocking forms in the interior core of Origin (fig.4), and what inspired them?

I have drawings in the show so I wanted make a physical manifestation of them. I had these pieces that were meant to be maquettes for Origin and ended up being cast in stainless steel for the show. It was important that despite their geometry, the bent interwoven elements needed to have a more creased, organic, living quality. Whilst retaining their essential shape, the once rigid elements flop and meld together and almost have a writhing quality. These emerged from my residency in Kerry, in the South West of Ireland, working in an artist’s studio.

turf stack
5. A peat stack in South West Ireland (photo: © Julian Wild)
It was inspiring from the very beginning! On my first night a lorry turned up with stacks of turf for the fire as they cut the peat into slices in the traditional method with a slean. It is extraordinary to watch these beautiful forms come out of the ground, and then they are dried in layered, sculptural stacks (fig.5), in preparation for burning. With some of my work I get very involved and absorbed in the surface finish, but I was so drawn to these shapes, it was much more an instinctive response – so I felt compelled to make them just before the show.

GM Roll Up also developed from your Irish residency, was it always a wall piece?

Julian Wild Deadly Nightshade
6. Julian Wild, Deadly Nightshade, painted and powder coated stainless steel 530×270×90cm. Bishopsgate, London (Sculpture
in the City 2014)
(photo: Nick Turpin, courtesy of the artist and William Benington Gallery)

I made a whole series of drawings based on the ideas of cutting and peeling. The drawing Roll Down relates to this work, and it was one of the first I did on the residency, so it is like a marker of my early impetus. Roll Up was exhibited in another show originally as a floor piece, but I like to make sculpture that can also work on the wall. Here, it is experienced as a metal painting where the action of folding and peeling the mirror polished corner – reveals the material beneath. My work Deadly Nightshade was also originally a floor piece but having been on the wall for Sculpture in the City (fig.6), it is now in the courtyard of the House of St. Barnabas in Soho Square, London, and I often give the proviso that my work should have this flexibility. The notion of site-specific can be problematic for me, as works can be adapted to create new relationships in different locations, by fresh and vital experiments in curation.

Julian Wild Cairn
7. Julian Wild, Cairn (Church Ope), oak, glazed ceramic 83×24×23cm. (photo: Will Marsh, courtesy of the artist and William Benington Gallery )

Looking at Cairn (fig.7), how does this relate to your experience staying in the beach hut at Church Ope Cove in Portland, Dorset?

Cairn is inspired by the large pebbles and stones on the beach which have been used by the local quarry boats as ballast, and the beach is also often dotted with tottering piles of stones made by visitors. The quarry at Portland is extremely significant for British architecture, as the stone for St. Pauls Cathedral and many other major buildings came from there. Stones used as props and ballast were discarded by the boats on the return journey from delivering to London, and were smoothed off by the sea to be washed up in random piles at Church Ope Cove. The form of Cairn also references weathered rock formations such as tors and the tradition of cairns as stone markers of place and time – elemental ways of building and making sculpture. Indeed, I also came across tors during my residency in Ireland. Yet I had no specific plan about the materials for Cairn, but was simply driven by exploring formal concerns and linear investigation. Thus, I began sketching, and it was so refreshing just going back to basics with pencil and paper, no complex technical processes to hide behind.

3rd D
How did you reconcile this kinship with natural, organic form and the sharp planes that characterise the wood in Cairn?

I started making these drawings exploring the combination of natural rounded forms and the more linear elements, as for me it is about understanding nature and somehow harnessing it. I envisioned a sense of that precarious balance and uncertain form that both tors and cairns exude. Using ceramics also allowed me to contrast that softer, more melted form with the angular wood below.

Later, near my home in Sussex, a tree-surgeon I knew had had to cut several enormous limbs of an oak tree and offered me the wood. I kept several pieces, although not really having any definitive intention for them. Beginning work, I used a chainsaw as oak has a very dense heartwood and I wanted to get down to that layer with straight cuts, and from this rigid geometry – the piece emerged. I was cutting without having a particular outcome in mind, yet through this process, the form just naturally suggested itself; I suppose like sketching in three dimensions and almost drawing with the chainsaw.

Julian Wild Cairn detail
8. Julian Wild, Cairn (Church Ope) detail,
oak, glazed ceramic 83×24×23cm.
Will Marsh, courtesy of the artist and William
Benington Gallery )

I also think that the very doughy shapes link to the fleshy, tactile quality of Slipped.

3rd D
How did you achieve this very liquid glaze and what effect does it have on the interplay between the forms (fig.8)?

I actually imagined a very even glaze – so it was just a fortuitous accident! However, I really like the way it’s dripping over the surface, stopping the work from being too perfect and too finished – indeed adding to the overall organic quality of the piece. There is that sense of natural forces at play, where a liquid surface is in motion – heightening the tension of unpredictability and possible threat to the wood below. I only wanted it a little bit runny, instead it became quite extreme! But I felt comfortable responding to how this evolved, and having stumbled upon this technique, I will certainly use it again. The concept of ‘making through play’ is also significant here, and I remember experimenting with ceramics earlier on in my career and was pleased to pick this up again.

The plinth is important in Cairn. It is like a barrier or an ending, and almost a sculpture in itself – yet is integral to the work. The white Perspex top also gives it a sharp, crisp finish and sets off the organic wood above, galvanising these textures.

When I am preparing for a show, I actually talk more and think more about the base than anything else! The idea of the plinth is such a loaded thing. I was with a curator recently and he would not allow any kind of base, but if you have a small work it can loose impact when you look down at it. I wanted to raise Cairn, but without being on a standard white base. I have been developing the idea of a metal, almost industrial-type work bench as a plinth, as I think that this pared down architectural form has a very subtle power. I chose the polished Perspex top so it gave a feeling of almost growing into the piece. The work took about a year, as I came back to it on and off, as there was a lot of reflection and uncertainty in its journey; in a way the work itself has grown with me.

I remember in your previous show we made plinths modelled on work benches in your studio. I think this language works extremely well here too, as a counterpoint to the wood, and ceramic above.

Church ope 1
9. Julian Wild, Church Ope I, graphite pencil on paper 67×50.5cm. (photo: Will Marsh, courtesy of the artist and William Benington Gallery)

3rd D
These Make-Shift drawings are clearly in dialogue with Cairn and its drawings (fig.9), how did your experience in Calais inform these sketches?

That is really where the title of the show came from. I have been helping a bit in Calais and Dunkirk in the refugee camps, taking out aid and helping to build there. It is very poignant for me, as they have just demolished The Jungle. I took many photographs of the structures, as there was a particular kind of architecture, a distinctive aesthetic, and I wanted to celebrate that. Their method of building was to use pallets as a basis, cover them with a tarpaulin and finally add on random pieces of spare wood. The interior was lined with donated sleeping bags and offered an almost cosy atmosphere, the only semblance of comfort. The overall effect was haphazard, ramshackle and most of all – precarious. I also went to the refugee camp at Sangatte in Dunkirk where the conditions were appalling, as it was literally on a flood plain, and so the mud was horrendous. People would have to walk carefully over pallets to get to friends, and you would hear of babies born in the structures – in these conditions of intense stress life had to carry on somehow.

Julian Wild drawing
10. Julian Wild, Make-Shift (Grande Synthe), pencil on paper 67×50.5cm. (photo: Will Marsh, courtesy of the artist William
Benington Gallery )

On return, I began to make these drawings pretty much immediately, with almost an underlying urgency (fig.10). They were initially about the buildings and their materials but the drawings also function as a metaphor for the vulnerability, precariousness and ultimately resilience of the human condition. The title is play on words, and thus works on many levels.

I think this experience moved you deeply. Although these drawings don’t relate to a sculpture like the others do, I think they play a pivotal role in uniting so many threads in your body of recent work which are thematically linked. You work very instinctively, learning through doing and creating through making – experimenting is your way of sketching in three dimensions. It is fascinating that you often do not begin with a finished work in mind. Indeed your studio is cluttered and full of forms that all have the potential for transformation, as they gestate and evolve slowly in your mind over time, until the right trigger activates them.

3rd D
Your work is also a narrative of your experiences. To sum up, how does the show demonstrate the current mood in your practice?

I feel that there is an honesty about my work. I like the sense that I am on an unknown journey of discovery and cannot exactly predict what will emerge. Underpinning my work, however is still this strong grounding in the physical processes of creation. Make-Shift encapsulates this ethos and also engages with my new public art work, Origin, and its key role within my recent practice.

Main image: Julian Wild, Origin, Li Ka Shing Centre for Health and Discovery, Oxford University, unveiled 22 March 2017 (photo: © Julian Wild).

Julian Wild: Make-shift 22 September – 22 October 2016, William Benington Gallery,
20, Arlington Way, London EC1.

Julian Wild is Vice-President of the Royal Society of British Sculptors.