Director, Rona Gallery, 1/2 Weighouse Street, Mayfair, London WI
A year or so ago. I first came across some sculptures by Ken Smith at a friend’s house. I immediately wanted to touch and handle these extraordinarily humane and original works, and also find out who made them. In our current cultural climate dominated by so much arid conceptual art, it is most refreshing to come across such sensuous, magical sculptures, which speak so directly and personally about elemental human nature.l am pleased to introduce you to a selection of Ken Smith’s sculptures that,from now on. will be spread throughout the gallery, perfectly complementing, I believe, our changing range of paintings by various artists. This is the first departure — especially since Ken Smith’s works are in such a beautiful variety of stones, including, notably, polyphant (a bluish -grey speckled stone he obtains from a West Country quarry), alabaster and Hopton Wood stone.Ken Smith was born in Manchester in 1944. His sculptures have been admired, over the years. by leading sculptors, such as Henry Moore, Reg Butler and Willy Soukop. He works from a studio in Bath, and is currently sculptor -in -residence for the Michelin -starred Reid’s Hotel in Majorca. His works are in numerous private collections in Britain and abroad. and public collections, including a notable work. ‘The Final Curtain’, made for the WestYorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. Ken Smith is also available for private commissions.
Description of sculptures by Philip Vann
Bruton Gallery, Leeds
Ken Smith is a sculptor who feels compelled to create. He really has something to say. Each of his sculptures explores primordial human relations, benign, warring and suffering — between friends. families, lovers and wider social groups. As he expresses it,’I sometimes think to myself when I’m carving.”this line in my sculpture is really a sentence — a sentence as in words”. I’m not writing down how I feel, rather it’s written in stone — by the shapes, forms, twisting, whatever’. The compulsion to speak in stone, as it were, first came in his early twenties. It has various roots. Born in Manchester in 1944. he was seventeen when he began an apprenticeship as a carpenter -joiner, in which he says he learnt ‘respect for tools, respect for materials’. He was 20 when, unsure and searching for a new sense of inner direction, he went to live in a Friary. He found it ‘very terrifying at first, the peace and quiet and tranquility’. but the experience, he says ‘taught me to be independent and it had a great effect on my personality. Some of the Friars were really good people and some of the older ones spent a lot of time talking to me about art’. (His much later sculpture,’Cowl’ is a monumental evocation of literally the fabric of the Friars’ all -embracing habits and the majesty of their enclosed, circumscribed way of life). Whilst at the Friary he studied at a local college in Yeovil.where he taught himself how to carve. He found his voice almost immediately. He believes now that this ‘was because I had no influences whatsoever. I had heard, I think, of Michelangelo; I’d probably heard of Henry Moore, though I didn’t know what his work was like.’ And when in his early twenties he went to Walthamstow College of Art in London, and now had access to art books (he remembers looking at pictures of sculptures by Moore and Archipenko) he made a conscious decision not to become too absorbed in other people’s art. ‘I didn’t want to be too influenced, I wanted to try out things for myself’. His first sculptures — three of which, with a daring innocence, he entered for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1968 (for which they were accepted. and where they sold) —’turned out’ he says ‘very different to what anybody had seen before — they were quite a fresh sort of art in stone because I was expressing my life up to date: Since those early days, he has felt more confident to look at other art — notably Italian primitive painting and Picasso as well as sculpture by the great twentieth century modernists, Archipenko. Gabo. Arp and Brancusi — but he finds himself unerringly returning to his own interior vision. (There was one short frustrating art student period when he attempted then fashionable, purely abstract metal sculpture but it proved a dead end). What is it that he always comes back to? A sense of inviolable personhood and the intimate binding of one person to another — and what happens when human relationships are fragmented or threatened. In ‘Bithia’ – a sculpture in polythant, a material he particularly enjoys for its blue -grey iron oxide speckles – a smooth featureless, sexless human head is at the centre of another figure’s massive -shouldered embrace. The piece resembles a powerful serpent wrapped around – and protecting – a fragile egg. Abstract notions of human trust and vulnerability are made most robustly and sensuously real here, those sweeping stone shoulders are literally a rock to lean on – forever it seems. Another polyphant carving – ‘Strength in Unity’ – has three rounded heads, seemingly representing father, mother and child. From one side the father’s vast, bulky, extended arm is seen to encircle the other two figures – but it is also noticeable that the somewhat floating figure of the paterfamilias is itself supported by and thus totally dependent on the other two figures. who are firmly rooted to the ground. This side of the sculpture is a representational if quite abstracted concatenation of smooth. sinuous. curvilinear forms – heads. limbs, shoulders.,hands, torsos, immediately identifiable (both literally and emotionally) as a human family group. However, the other side of the sculpture is much more abstract the father’s head, shoulders and arms are still discernible but the rest of the carving (from this perspective) has turned into a rich, dignified inter -locking pattern of diverse, inchoate shapes; suggestions perhaps of orbs, cylinders, buds, vertebrae, helmet forms etc., all melding into and out of each other. (It comes as no surprise to learn that what Smith especially admires in Italian Primitive painting – along with the mythological and symbolic content – is the quite sculptural portrayal of flesh and fabrics of the ‘nymphs and flesh and arms and legs in Bronzino and the sinuous lacy details in Botticelli’). In such a work. one senses the great exploratory and sensual pleasure the sculptor must have carving all kinds of curious interweaving shapes and lines, which appear from the unconscious and then disappear into the unknown. Smith’s favorite tool is a hacksaw blade. so versatile and accommodatingly intricate it can be. Often after hacksawing a sculpture’s elementary rounded forms, he enjoys, he says. using a ‘little chisel. I go round. break up the area a bit. I start putting more sharp things in, but not losing the roundness’. His works are never premeditated but emerge out of long. slow craftsmanlike contemplation. ‘The process of stone is very slow because it takes a long time to carve it! And that gives me time to think things through. I’m normally a very quick thinker but with the stone I’m quite meticulous.’ An early bronze by Smith -‘The Big Fight’ – has figures side by side. back to back, their contorted, sexless features vehement with anguish, grief and anger – as mysteriously expressive as an Oceanic mask, as an Inuit soapstone carving of a hunter intent on a kill. A recent work in Hopton Wood stone.’Freefall’ depicts a figure involved in devastating self -scrutiny, its head at once cradled and shielded by vast, upraised arms as it appears to fall through abysses of inner space. Though we might be able to relate this figure to some auto-biographical episode or process or to events of twentieth century ethnic, political and social oppression that deeply concern Smith as a man, the sculpture ultimately moves us as an archetypal study of human fragility and mortality. The basic body language depicted here is abstracted to enormously poignant effect. Such abstraction of the human form is close to that of much archaic sculpture, and in its mix of primitivism and sophistication, of organic form and playful semi-abstraction, may also remind us of magical modern sculptures by Inuit artists and by sculptors working today in Zimbabwe. It is a mix that is close in spirit too to that of the great pioneering modernist sculptors. such as Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Henri Laurens. Etching is important to Smith. In ‘Freefall’ the huge hand that tops the sculpture is quite realistically carved, right down to the minutely etched -in -fingernails. ‘I often do fingernails – a little hand’. says Smith. ‘I want to give people who don’t understand modern art a hand in really: Final lightly etched or deeply gouged lines — a few strokes making the spout of a water pitcher or delineating a foot in a fan -tail pattern — are a form of subtle lyrical relief against the consummate roundness of his sculptures.Though he occasionally makes sculptures in clay (he finds ‘building up’ in clay a much quicker process than ‘taking away’ the material in stone), Smith is utterly grounded in stone -carving. ‘I just like the coldness of them sometimes’, he says. pointing out an alabaster carving. ‘It’s a warm colour, that — but it’s a cold object.’ To nestle one of his tiny family groups (in stone) of mother, father and child in the palm of your hand is to hold Infinity there.
Art: Philip Vann
Embracing the primordial in sculpture.In his taut, curvilinear, muscular stone sculptures, Ken Smith explores how people relate with one another — and so with wider nature – in a spirit of naked and poignant intimacy. These works are invariably grounded in the human form (though he has been known to make the occasional animal or bird figure). They portray the solitary individual deep in ecstatic or desolate self-absorption; lovers melding into each other in a state of sensuous grace; groups of people upholding each other in tender familial embraces. Above all, his at once rough-hewn yet delicately intricate carvings move us because they evoke how primordial human qualities of dignity and vulnerability, gentleness and powerful resilience. are inseparably linked.Ken Smith was born in Manchester in 1944. Immediately after the war his father took the family to live in Japan and Singapore. Though Ken was brought back to live in England, aged about four, he retains early Asiatic memories of images of paths and being scared of coming across a snake, gutters after the monsoons, poking holes through rice -paper windows in the bedroom. and lying in bed with a gun near you to protect you against burglars and “bandits”. It is fair to say that his sculptures, made as an adult, convey curious unconscious echoes of some of these early childhood impressions. His carvings are full of meandering lines and channels, unmistakably snake -like forms and fluid, coiling shapes evoking dynamic outpourings of water. Some of his huddled human groups seem to be intuitively guarding against. yet also embracing, unseen terrors and danger.He was seventeen when he started an apprenticeship as a carpenter -joiner, when he learnt what he called “respect for tools, respect for materials”. Three years later, searching for inner meaning and direction in his life, he retreated to live in a friary.He says that he found it “terrifying at first; the peace and quiet and tranquility” but that he learned there how “to be independent and it had a great effect on my personality. Some of the friars were really good people and some of the older ones spent a lot of time talking to me about art:’ A later bronze sculpture ‘Cowl’. which he describes as “a beautiful pure form evoking a very peaceful time in my life”, is a majestically serene description of both the literal and spiritual fabric that clothes the monks’ lives.While at the friary, he studied part-time at a nearby college, where he learnt to carve. This proved a fresh, liberating experience. especially since. as he now believes,”I had no influences whatsoever.” He says he had then heard of Michelangelo and Henry Moore but had no idea or preconceptions of what their works were like. It was only when he went on to attend Walthamstow Art School in London in his early twenties that he became aware of other people’s art. Though he soon found himself admiring classic modern avant-garde sculptures by Gaudier-Brzeksa, Archipenko and (early) Moore, he consciously decided not to be over -influenced by them.Whilst studying at Walthamstow. Smith wrote to Henry Moore, sounding him out to see if he could become his apprentice. Moore wrote back. saying that Smith’s sculptures had real quality and showed promise but advising him to study further at art college. So he went on to spend three years at Bristol School of Art — in retrospect, a largely forlorn, frustrating period when he tried to make abstract, welded metal sculptures, which proved simply a faddish dead-end. For several years, Smith worked in various manual jobs. before becoming a full-time social worker.Nevertheless. for over thirty years he has continued to sculpt and exhibit quite widely. He retired from social work in 1999 to devote himself entirely to making sculptures. He is currently making a six-foot high marble sculpture — by far his largest work so far — which will be set among the paradisiacal vine -strewn gardens of Read’s country hotel in Majorca.In 1993 and 1997, Smith made two carvings — one in brownish ham stone which is satisfyingly raw in its carved effects, the other in polyphant (which he buys from a West Country quarry), whose lovely blue -grey, iron -oxide-speckled surfaces are sculpted to become melodiously curvaceous and smooth — both devoted to the sufferings of the people in the war -ravaged Balkans. They show a tragic trinity of integrated figures — a mother and clearly howling father with a dead child in their arms. In the polyphant version, it appears as though a single parental arm encompasses two orbs. representing the child’s head and body — appearing like a serpent wrapped around two infinitely precious eggs.A late 1990s’ polyphant carving,’Strength in Unity’, also depicting a mother, father and child in sinuous, interlocking forms reminiscent of buds, eggs, cylinders and vertebrae, shows a family in postures of loving mutual care. What is noticeable here is how the bulky paternal figure, whose right arm protectively envelops his slighter wife and child, is in fact literally dependent on the rooted support of his family; without them. his study figure would lose balance, simply fall away and. no doubt. be shattered.When Smith originally made a maquette for what turned out to be the polyphant sculpture,’The Water Carrier’, the piece depicted a mother holding a child tightly in her arms. The finished sculpture actually depicts a person, indeterminate in gendet holding some kind of lidded vessel or bottle in a characteristical serpentine embrace. In fact the water bottle itself could be observed as a fiercely loved child in a maternal embrace. There is a mystical and symbolic equivalence made here between child and water; both are the well -spring of life.SMITH’S FAVOURITE TOOL is the hacksaw blade, with which he can flesh out his orbit figures. But after extensive hacksawing, he often returns with a “little chisel”. “I go round, break up the area a bit. I start putting more sharp things in, but not losing the roundness.” Thus in the ‘Water Carrier’, simple parallel lines have been incised to describe the rim of the water vessel and the abstracted form of the subject’s feet.In another sculpture. depicting a figure deep in meditation, the form of his fingers held over the top of his head has been sharply chiselled out; the resulting shape uncannily also resembles a bird’s plumage. Long craftsmanlike contemplation distinguishes all Smith’s work. “The process of stone is very slow”, he says.”because it takes a long time to carve it! And that gives me time to think. I’m normally a very quick thinker but with stone I am quite meticulous. I think sculpture is what I was made for really”.Ken Smith’s sculptures can be seen at Read’s Hotel, Santa Maria, Majorca
KEN SMITH SCULPTOR
Review in Galleries Magazine
by Philip Vann September 2007
Anyone planning a trip to Majorca is recommended to view Ken Smith’s monumentally intimate sculpture, Unity at Read’s Hotel. near Palma. Sited in grounds at the foot of the Tramuntana mountains, Unity — hewn over many months from a huge marble block — is the first epic -scaled sculpture Smith has made. Born in 1944. now based in Bath and Majorca. Smith is renowned for his intricate smallish -scale works in a variety of stones, including polyphant, alabaster and Hopton Wood. The same qualities of taut curvilinearity and sinuous gracefulness are evident in Unity’s highly varied aspects.The sculpture is an abstracted composition of two embracing human figures, with something of both the fierce intensity of Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel and the orbit coolness of an Arp sculpture. Early on, Smith was encouraged by Moore and Reg Butler. and Willi Soukop perceptively remarked that Smith “had formed his own style and ideas” and would not benefit from academic training. Smith did study at art school but it was working as a carpenter -joiner that he learnt what he called “respect for tools and materials” and a brief period living in a friary helped awaken his spirit of personal and artistic independence.Smith works without preliminary drawings or maquettes and in Unity we intuit the exploratory sonority of the work being carved, moment by moment. Fluid abstracted shapes interweave; boldly angular forms powerfully interlock. The sculpture moves us as a sensuous statement about possibilities of human wholeness and reconciliation. “The process of stone is very slow”. says Smith “That gives me time to think. I’m normally a very quick thinker but with stone I’m quite meticulous. I think sculpture is what I was made for really”.Born in 1958 in Leeds, Philip Vann read English at Magdalene College, Cambridge. He is author of the critically acclaimed Face to Face: British Self -Portraits in the Twentieth Century and books on the artists Dora Holzhandler, Cyril Power, Joash Woodrow, William Crozier, Greg Tricker, Tessa Newcomb and Keith Vaughan. Since 1984 he has written on the visual arts for, among others, RA Magazine, The Economist, Galleries, Resurgence and The World of Interiors. He lives in Cambridge.
by Dr Tom Flynn
I was first alerted to Ken Smith’s work about five years ago, and quite out of the blue. I was immediately struck by the robust honesty of his technique and by the fact that much of his work was made in West Country stone, particularly that lovely, dark, mottled material called polyphant. But it was the self-taught aspect of his practice that was most striking. Here was a guy who simply had to carve, who was driven by some inner engine to make things. Sculpture as his language and he’d been doing it for decades, indeed ever since receiving encouragement from Henry Moore, who also clearly recognised his innate ability to speak through the stone. This kind of sculpture is markedly different from what the upper echelons of the art market have (misguidedly, in my opinion) come to privilege in recent years. Artists who continue to make work despite the lack of recognition often turn out to be the most interesting people to encounter. Smith is most certainly one of these.Over the last two decades we’ve witnessed the steady ‘financialisation’ of the international art market, which has brought a significant growth in demand for a certain kind of object that shares a commercial kinship with high value luxury goods. These objects (they’re invariably big and shiny) are often classed as ‘sculpture’, despite having no ostensible connection with the diverse practices traditionally associated with that term. Instead they invariably emerge from industrial fabrication processes more commonly associated with the manufacture of branded, high-ticket products, processes that are often many times removed from the hand of the artist who conceived the work. Indeed increasingly, in many cases the artist’s hand has never entered into the process, for the mark or trace of the hand was long ago downgraded in significance and cultural value. In its place now stands the idea, or ‘concept’, which is then outsourced to anonymous fabricators tasked with bringing the thing to material form.However, while in some sectors of the market the ‘artist as maker’ is steadily being replaced by the artist as brand manager, elsewhere we are witnessing a revival of interest in ‘real’ sculpture, so to speak, sculpture that is hand-made, created by the artist him or herself, often using timeless craft techniques and materials. Such approaches tend to invite the epithet of ‘traditional’, a term now suddenly freighted with negative connotations. The revival of interest in the act of making sculpture, be it additive or extractive in technique, may bespeak a human need to connect with the imaginative life of the artist through the medium of the made thing.The human propensity to recognise patterns in the natural world is the very same human propensity to detect and appreciate the trace of the artist’s hand in a work of art, the artist’s ‘voice’, as it were, speaking through the object’s formal characteristics. Thus no matter how much the more rarefied echelons of the global art market may marginalise so-called traditional sculpture, its appeal endures for it speaks with an eloquence that industrial processes do not even approximate.Ken Smith’s sculptural voice is not a learnt voice, it is an authentic expression of his instinct for three-dimensional form. There is little doubt that this is a product of his earlier work as a carpenter and joiner. Like many artists who came of age in the post-war period, Smith was driven by a deep inner need to make things, to hunker down in the material world and for there to be some material outcome from that process. This is the true sculptor’s instinct, pure and simple.It’s instructive that in his late twenties Smith was offered a place at the Slade School of Art (on a recommendation from Henry Moore, who recognised his nascent talent). In the event he chose not to take up the offer, sensing that having already missed out on the often obligatory foundation course would place him at a disadvantage from his fellow students. That may have been the best decision he ever made. As a result, his work emerges into the world unmediated and unencumbered, untouched by formal pedagogical guidance. That is not to say that he has not been touched by external influences. Surveying his sculpture one sees evidence of a mind and eye alert to the broader historical development of sculpture. He is clearly a product of his era and yet his work is highly individual and idiosyncratic, the robust forms entirely in tune with the materials in which they’ve been worked.Smith is an adept at carving. From the local Devon stone known as polyphant he has created a number of works that have a strangely magical, haptic quality, their crisply carved convex ridges and creases folding seamlessly into softly contoured concavities.These are objects that beg to be touched and stroked. He often polishes the work to coax out the stone’s naturally mottled colour and visual warmth. Some of the finer examples in this material, such as the Soldier of Mercy and The Square Head, have an internal energy that recalls the work of the Russian modernist sculptor Alexander Archipenko and of the great Jacob Epstein.Above all, these works suggest Smith’s susceptibility to the power of the primitive, a leaning that connects him to an earlier generation of European artists including, of course, Epstein, and indeed Henry Moore. His feeling for the primitive is nowhere more apparent than in the totemic work in slate entitled The Mechanic. Viewed in silhouette it is vaguely suggestive of a cloaked human form, a watchful, minatory presence. However, viewing it from another angle reveals a contrastingly complex arrangement of chunky, interlocking elements, softly serrated edges and deep indentations.Epstein is also distantly echoed in the monumental carved marble work called Unity,located in the grounds of Read’s Hotel near Palma, Majorca. It has the bulky dynamism of Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel (Tate Britain), the formal components of which have been rephrased into an elegant abstraction. This confirms, as well as any of his works, how Smith understands the difference between size and scale and how capable he is at responding sensitively and creatively to specific environments. The piece took him several months to carve, testament to his capacity to meet the stone on equal terms, tenaciously coaxing from an obdurate mass of marble a touching symbol of human connectedness.It’s rare indeed to come across an almost entirely self-taught artist whose sculpture ranks alongside some of the finest works by more celebrated practitioners. Smith does not pursue fame or fortune, although wider recognition of his natural talents is surely nothing more than his modest due. Meanwhile he is at one with his creative project. It is that integrity, that truth to his own nature, that enables him to continue adding to — often on relatively limited resources — a body of work of very significant range and quality.Tom Flynn is an art historian, journalist and critic with an interest in sculpture history, art crime and the art market. A former Henry Moore Foundation Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sussex, he is the author of The Body in Sculpture(Routledge 1997) and monographs on a number of contemporary sculptors, including Sean Henry, Charlotte Mayer and Terence Coventry. He is a member of the International Association of Art Critics and a visiting senior lecturer on the International Art Market at Kingston University and at Richmond, the American International University in London.