Portraying something as ephemeral and shifting as the landscape of the subconscious has captivated artists throughout history. It is an arena without boundaries or limitations, fertile with possibilities. Manifestations of the subconscious have varied indeterminately since the Surrealists first visually explored this aspect of human experience at the turn of the century. It is a subject less commonly undertaken by sculptors, and one that has certainly never been previously attempted using coloured pencils as a starting point. The Monsters are unique in that they offer no conclusions as to their ultimate form; oscillating between landscape, the figure and still-life, depending on the vantage point from which one observes them.
Lionel Bawden was trained at Canberra School of Art and the China National Academy of Fine Art in Hangzhou Province. Throughout his arts education, there has been an emphasis on contemplation, patience and the meticulous exploration of one’s craft. His earlier work involved painting, performance and installations, often relating to themes of personal and sexual identity. Bawden would regularly assemble items for their personal and collective associations. This tendency took a significant turn during the late 1990s, when he began experimenting with the sculptural virtues of the coloured pencil.
Since the early stages of this revelation which began life as a series of river stones at the Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Manuka, and then a trio of phalluses in the 1997 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Art Prize, Bawden has refined a unique and engaging technique, whereby he glues together hundreds of hexagonal coloured pencils in varying pattern and colour graduation. Using this block of coloured pencils as his foundation, he carves, shapes and sands the structure into a diverse range of forms. These structures have become an extension of his imagination, depicting a vivid personal expression of concerns and fixations.
One of Bawden’s first series referenced the cellular nature of the pencil. He created colourful organisms and delicate molecular forms which seemed to grow from the gallery interior. Last year, as a result of an artist’s residency in Dunedin Public Art Gallery, his sculptures became almost topographical, emulating the dramatic New Zealand landscape he was surrounded by.
What is striking about Bawden’s sculptures is the tactile affinity we feel for his chosen medium. Their construction from coloured pencils appears simple and accessible – a material imbued with early memories and the sensory awakening of one’s first creative expression. And yet the evocative forms which emerge are so achingly beautiful and seemingly malleable in their craftsmanship, they bear little resemblance to their prosaic origins.
Bawden’s recent body of work, The Monsters, is perhaps the most ambitious in theme and certainly the most expressive in form. Having taken his inspiration in part, from a cult Polish Sci-fi novel, ‘Solaris’, written in 1961 by Stanislaw Lem, from which the exhibition takes its title, Bawden was mesmerised by the concept of a ‘thinking ocean’ upon planet ‘Solaris’ which, through the complex motion of its surface, gives rise to monstrous ‘independent creations’ called Extensors. ‘Stretching for miles between membranous walls swollen with ‘ossified growths’ the ocean’s ability to ‘think’ creates canyon sized formations, triggering subconscious memories in those who examine its behaviour.
The Monsters mark a departure from the individual amulet-like pieces of previous series. After chromatically layering ‘blankets’ of pencils, Bawden systematically disfigured the topographical forms by bending and twisting the horizontal stratas as the glue hardens. This results in amorphous structures, apparently in a permanent state of flux, planned occasionally through sketches and often realised during the process. Having freed himself from all recognisable features and representation on a scale not previously attempted by the artist, Bawden began to explore the multitude of eventualities presented by Lem’s marriage of the emotional and the elements alongside the free-wheeling process of exploring the curvatures and nuances of this psychological block.
Bawden is aptly fond of an observation by British sculptor, Tony Cragg, who refers to materials as an ‘extension of the body’ assuming ‘metaphysical qualities.’ Indeed, it is during the creative process, that The Monsters take on a life of their own, influenced by the train of thoughts and happenings during their dexterous conception. From their humble beginnings, these sculptures emerge from the coloured dust of his studio as tactile evocations of the virtual landscape of the imagination.
It may however, be implausible that these undulating forms can imply so much. It is also unlikely that many of us will find these enchanting specimens ‘monstrous’. Whilst these sculptures are somewhat unassuming in size, Bawden’s creations grow to be macroscopic in theme – incarnations of science; planetary surfaces; the fluctuations of the subconscious. For all these grand narratives, Bawden’s sculptures are most importantly to be enjoyed – extraordinary, experiential thoughts brought forth by his fingers.
Clare Lewis, 2004