Stones That Dream of Being Fruit

THE titles given to some of Peter Randall-Page's sculptures are much more revealing than mere identification tags: "Stone Can Dream of Fruit," for example, or "Down Among the Gastropods." Such names succinctly draw attention to the roots of his vision. These roots are both natural and surreal. However, he doesn't name his sculptures before making them: It's not a question of some word-concept being envisioned in stone.

Stone is this British sculptor's preferred material. In this, he unavoidably links his work with the most ancient and durable of sculptural artifacts - be they Egyptian, paleolithic, or Aztec - and also with the primal activity and character of carving.

Using this traditional material instead of some of the specifically contemporary choices exploited by many 20th- century sculptors, such as steel, fiberglass, or other man-made materials does not mean that he rejects all the aspects of modern sculpture that have become acceptable or even taken for granted. For instance, the direct placing of sculpture on the ground, rather than separating and monumentalizing it by elevation on a plinth, is apparently a normal part of Randall-Page's thinking.

But, in our period of increasing ecological concern, the choice of the "ground" on which a sculpture may be placed can feed its meaning and atmosphere in ways that are even more significant than simply siting a work effectively. A number of artists feel that art should be more modest in its relations with nature; that it should acknowledge that man's aesthetic endeavors are part of the whole system of the earth and not in egocentric confrontation with it.

Randall-Page is such an artist. He brings together the traditional concept of the discrete sculptural object or form with the notions of such conceptual landscape sculptors as Richard Long or Andy Goldsworthy who, with often minimal intervention, leave a trace of their passage in some temporarily visited place, a circle of stones or a snow structure. Randall-Page's stone sculptures, even when placed under trees near a stream with an air of inevitable naturalness, still make a statement of intended perman ence. Moss and lichen may form on them, but their very weight and substance, as well as their scale and carved surfaces, suggest they may stay where he has put them for an age. They also, however much they derive from observation of natural forms, are without doubt "art": What else could they be?

They are "art" in the sense that certain garden sculpture of the past has been "art" - not dominating its surroundings, but a calculated part of the entire scheme of things. They are also "art" in a much older tradition, as we count Stone-Age fertility sculpture as "ancient art." Probably such objects were not "art" in our modern sense at all - unless we are to radically revise that concept. They were cult objects, to do with magical veneration and pagan beliefs. Marina Warner, novelist and art writer, o bserves in an essay on Randall-Page that his most recent work, heavily symbolic in its exploration of knotted and compressed serpentine forms, "illustrates how a new brand of secular mysticism has come to play a strong role in the making of contemporary art."

Randall-Page's sculptures come "out of his head," are virtually abstract, but they are also directly inspired by botanical and biological forms. His work has variously enlarged and reinvented in stone such things as pine cones, snail shells, fossils, butterfly pupae, acorn cups, the crozier of a fern before it uncurls in the spring, the reproductive parts of a flower.

My first encounter with his work was last summer in the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. This garden is an undulating setting for living and growing botanical specimens. It is one of the most appealing gardens of its kind anywhere. It also has a brief history connected with modern art. For some years, the building at its center housed Scotland's Gallery of Modern Art. Since this collection has been moved to other premises, and the sculpture it included has been taken away from the garden, a tiny collec tion of other sculptures has been formed, and temporary exhibitions are staged here. The Randall-Page sculptures were part of that program, and no work could possibly have been more suited to this setting.

The exhibition was outside, with works often placed in secretive corners where they had to be looked for before being enjoyed. There were also sculptures in the central building, as well as his obsessive charcoal drawings and some of the collected objects - shells and strange fruiting bodies - which the artist uses as promptings for his own developing morphology. His drawings are more disturbing, or disturbed, than his sculptures. Their dark, knotty forms belong to a deep dream world, which seems far fro m equable or benign. They are not even merely "scientific" descriptions of biological forms (though they are distinctly intestinal) as Leonardo's anatomical drawings of bodily organs, the heart and lungs, the fetus and embryo, were meant to be.

The organic forms Randall-Page draws have become a kind of preoccupation, jammed with little breathing space into the paper's rectangle, lined up like weirdly worm-like Chinese puzzles, all impossible to untangle and really rather disgusting. This slippery, writhing interest has also certainly surfaced in much of his recent sculpture, taking it away from the botanical and into the biological, the visceral; but the usual symmetry of these sizeable carved rocks, their somewhat geometrical reduction to a ki nd of pattern, and the fact that they are standing out in the open air give them a meditative and more settled air than the claustrophobic drawings have. Fleshiness is still part of the work - pulpiness, even. Yet the hardness of the stone, even the marks of the chisel in its surface, counteracts this, and a balance is achieved.

Comparing himself with Constantin Brancusi, the 20th-century Romanian sculptor, whom he greatly admires, Randall-Page has said: "My sculpture is more troubled than Brancusi's, perhaps reflecting the world we live in." This is true, and it is no surprise that he is conscious of this difference. But Brancusi lived through two world wars and other notable cataclisms, as well as extreme personal hardship. The difference is not simply "the times" but the artist's attitude to his times. Brancusi's art has an e thereal idealism, an aesthetic that makes the work of art self-contained and independent, embodying a tranquil transcendence, which is, quite literally, not earthbound. Art in Brancusi's hands attained a kind of escape from the ordinary into something timeless.

Perhaps an artist like Randall-Page feels he cannot, or should not, escape the ecological imperatives that overhelmingly concern both artists and non-artists without discrimination. But he has aspirations, like Brancusi, toward something ideal. He has even said, "I aim to make ultimate objects that are utterly irreducible." But, like the surrealists, he also wants to play with the emotive, reaction-producing instincts of the subconscious, letting his work "embrace" (in his words) "the more unacceptable a spects of existence.... One can't say that certain parts of creation are good and certain parts are bad...."

Suspending value judgment in such a way is hardly new to art. Yet there is no doubt that an amoral stance becomes a trickier matter when an artist is making art that may have the presence of a pagan icon. And Randall-Page's sculpture, like Brancusi's, does aim to have something of that potency and conviction.

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