January / February - Vol.19 No. 1
A Conversation with Jon Isherwood
by Sarah Tanguy
Jon Isherwood has been working with stone since the early 1990s, pushing the conventions associated with this traditional material and developing a personalized expression with contemporary relevance. His sculpture reflects a passion for carving out spaces in which interior and exterior dialogue with each other. Viewers, in turn, become active partners in the creative experience. In 1983, he left England for the United States to pursue his study of sculpture and assisted Anthony Caro periodically for 11 years. Prior to using stone, Isherwood worked with welded steel, and later, made steel and concrete sculptures. In 1999, a 10-year survey at Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park in Hamilton, Ohio, culminated in Age of Stone. This installation, along with Passages, Origins and Circumstances at Goodwood Sculpture Park, West Sussex, England, represents a number of significant departures for the artist.
1998. Granite, 130 x 133 x 43 in.
Sarah Tanguy: In the last several years, youíve dedicated yourself to a pursuit of the center, to creating sculpture whose interior space doesnít fully reveal itself. How is this expressed in your current work?
Jon Isherwood: While this theme continues to be central to my sculpture, there have been several developments in the last two years. A key revelation came from Passages, Origins and Circumstances in 1998. Itís in eight parts with three main elements. This is a sculpture that you can step on and into. You physically pass through to the center of the rock. A considerable transition also occurs in how the sculpture engages the viewer. The exciting thing is the interior, the experience of being within it, of being affected and controlled by the sculpture. Age of Stone and Remembering, which preceded Passages, Origins and Circumstances, really allowed me to extend my sense of place and scale.
ST: How did this interest get started? Typically, sculpting in stone is associated with a subtractive process that ends up with a solid center, and not with creating interior spaces.
JI: There are many experiences, conscious and unconscious, that mold us, directing us to certain interests and obsessions. Some give us an image or reason, and I think others give feeling and emotion to our expression. I was five years old when my father died unexpectedly. I remember for a long time a feeling of emptiness; it was a physical emptiness as well as an emotional one. One day when I was in college, I was making a life-size torso. Instead of building clay over an armature, I found myself building it in the coil pot technique. This meant that I could effect the outside form from the inside. I had a strange experience of feeling from the inside out. Several years later, I visited the ancient royal tomb in Paphos, Cyprus, where you pass below ground level into carved-out spaces and passages. The physical and emotional power of this place was remarkable. These three instances, in particular, suggested a search for me. It has taken me some time to come to terms with what they meant, and I donít think I became clearly conscious of their impact until I started working in stone.
Age of Stone
1997Ė98. Fox Hill granite, 18 x 75 x 85 ft.
ST: What led you to stone?
JI: Another unusual chain of events. Around mid-August of 1992, the collector Philip Berman came to the studio, and one of those wonderful things happened that we all wish for; then it freaks you out when it does. He wanted to buy five of my recently completed large-scale concrete and steel sculptures. I was still sweating from standing the last one up. It was a wonderful opportunity, but I hadnít had a chance to show them, let alone live with them. I couldnít do it. So, we courted each other for six or eight months. He was still interested in the work. I was interested in what he was doing. He eventually invited me down to Allentown, Pennsylvania, to visit the Wenz Co. Stone Yard run by the sculptor Dan Kainz. After an afternoon of staring at large, freshly quarried rock, I had a very strong feeling that I had found what I was looking for. Phil must have read my mind because he said, "Iíll pay for you to make three or four sculptures and weíll see what happens. If it works, it works, and if it doesnít, itís just an experience and nothing lost." That was the start of something completely new to me. I think I identified with the stone because it was loaded with so much power and presence. I had been trying to give emotion to my concrete and steel sculptures, but I was always disappointed with the look of the concreteóthe reference to construction. It never seemed to transcend itself as a material.
Originally, I thought I would do these marvelous Baroque carvings in stone that reflected the surfaces of the concrete. But it wasnít going to be the case. I realized there had to be a new way, a change in mindset and approach. This is a material that you have to sit and stare at and respond toófind out what it is saying to you and what it wants. The first pieces were about tuning in. It was odd because I had been so active with the concrete and steel works, and with this, I had to slow down and listen.
Passages, Origins and Circumstances
1999. Granite, 118 x 120 x 140 in.
ST: Letís go back and talk about this new sense of space in Passages, Origins and Circumstances. It has a much tighter interior space than Age of Stone, which has 12 separate stones spread out over a hilltop. Youíre talking about going inside, of being able to penetrate it, and then looking out, but the actual space that the overall piece occupies is much denser.
JI: I think Passages, Origins and Circumstances denies itself. What I mean by that is that it turns inward on itself. So, itís not traditionally about a view. The forms are huddled together, brooding. They invite you into their center to find out what theyíre about. I think Iím trying to invert the viewing process somehow. Forcing the viewer to discover it rather than looking at it from the primary view. Here there really isnít a view. People spend time in it and almost feel their way through it. These are the responses I intended. Itís meant to be a private discovery, not so public, not so overt, more inward. I think this is somewhat of a reaction to Age of Stone, which announces itself immediately. Itís very theatrical. It calls you from afar to inhabit it and experience the interrelationships of individual stones and their various stories. It was specifically made for its location.
ST: Yes, thatís something that I want to raiseóthat your work responds increasingly to the land, to its setting. The idea of creating a sense of place, and not just plunking a piece on the ground.
JI: This has become very important to me. It is terrific when you have a situation where the sculpture can be conceived for a permanent location, but this isnít always the case. I have increasingly become interested in controlling the ground plane. Setting the perimeter and considering this as an integral part of the sculpture. In Age of Stone, I graded the earth and added a mound to give a sense of unity. Now Iím interlocking, shifting and tilting the bases.
Labour of Love
1989Ė92. Concrete and steel, 98 x 58 x 36 in.
ST: Are the bases composed from the same rock? Is that part of what youíre getting at?
JI: The stones that create the steps are from the same rock but differ from the rocks used for the sculpture. With Rites of Passage at Pier Walk in Chicago, the sculpture interlocks with the stepped base; they get very close, and the relationship gets more defined because of that. The Chicago piece represents another interesting development in that it starts with the interior thatís developed when I cut into the stone. The two vertical elements are the actual positive shapes of the insides.
ST: So youíre really starting with the inside and working out.
JI: And then going in again. Itís sort of a reflection on itself, you could say. I see them suddenly as shafts of light, shafts of form.
ST: They remind me of the striatic rock formations you see in caverns. How do they get this texture?
JI: Thatís from the cutting. I use a wire saw, and through the control and manipulation while cutting, I get that surface; then I grind, carve, and polish the stone to bring it to the form you see.
ST: Letís talk some more about your imagery. How do you get the ideas that give rise to your images?
JI: You know my piece, Balzac. Itís not a figurative representation of a standing man or a torso; it suggests a cloak or a shell. Itís hiding something. The sculpture doesnít reveal itself fully. It holds some things back. Thatís how the imagery comes into play.
ST: And yet, you never hide process. In fact, the marks left from making the sculpture generate motifs and meaning.
JI: Another way to describe the origin of this imagery is by the act of grasping. I love when David Attenborough talks about the development of the opposable thumb, and how we were able to grasp, to pull, to form, to build. Itís always struck me that when you bring your hands together in a grasp, a sort of containment occurs. In some ways, itís the descriptive nature of your hands. The way you can cup, you can hold. Much of my sculpture is like a cloak, just holding itself as you would define a space by closing your thumb and finger together.
1987. Collaborative project involving Isherwood, Frank Gehry, Anthony Caro,
Sheila Girling, Paul Lubowicki, and Susan Nardulli.
ST: Iíve noticed that this gesture often gets translated by an extended piercing into the skinlike exterior of the stone, which activates the void left by the hollowed-out interior.
JI: Right. Also, thereís the image that I just mentioned. You know when you stare at a sunset or if youíre in an old barn, thereís that phenomenal shaft of light. Itís such a potent formóor rather non-form.
ST: Itís energy. Itís making the invisible visible, concentrating into a shape.
JI: Thatís what happened when I started cutting the centers out. Itís a way of solidifying or giving form to that light or energy.
ST: This reminds me of your continuing interest in articulating the surface, which relates to your larger vision of beauty, of creating pleasure from material definition and of arousing a desire to possess the work or be possessed by it. Thereís always been a dynamic balance between working the stone dimensionally and activating it in a more pictorial fashion. Some of the marks you make donít go all the way into the interior, for example. Of course, youíre doing it quite differently now, because youíre working with stone.
JI: Youíre right. I think with the concrete I was trying to use my hand. By choosing concrete, I could manipulate it and therefore I had my hand in it. I had control of the image and so forth. I find now that particularly with these circular motifs, itís the same thing. Itís getting personal with the surface. Some penetrate; some donít. Some have stronger character; some have lighter character. Their presence challenges the imagination. Are they fossils? Are they markers? Am I meant to look through them? These sorts of manipulation and introduction are what Iím trying to get from them. And obviously, they have a lot of connotations. The circles, the holes, the orificesÖitís all there. They seem more personal than other marks that are in my control.
ST: And theyíre personal in that they come from your imagination. Theyíre not preconceived.
JI: Right. I draw intuitively into the stone and find them from the surface. I think thereís an interesting thing about keeping the hand engaged.
The Stones of Oligarchy
1996. Granite, 120 x 400 x 400 in. This page: untitled drawing, 1998. Wax and acrylic, 32 x 44 in.
ST: Your titles offer another way of accessing the workís imagery.
JI: I hope they do, even though they often come at the end.
ST: Iíve always enjoyed the way you play with scaleóhow something large can be small and intimate, and how something small and intimate can function as a monumental piece.
JI: Thanks. The sense of scale change is very important. When you look into one of my sculptures, you take a breath and you experience this openness. Yet, the interior remains impenetrable, slightly unfathomable. Youíre not able to grasp its physicality somehow. It presents a strange visual dilemma.
In the earlier concrete and steel work, I was always interested in a physical, visceral involvement, in the exchange between materials, in collaging them together. Now, Iím after this sort of emotional experience. When you are inside, it obviously affects you physically because you climb in and youíre moving around, but I think the emotional sensation of what an open or a confined space can feel like is extremely powerful.
ST: Both bodies of work elicit emotional responses. Itís just that the type of emotional response has changed. I think that your concept of space has become more elastic. Youíre interested in exploring real space and its effect on a person, and then by extension, emotional, even spiritual, states that are generated by that exploration. The earlier concrete and steel pieces didnít allow for that kind of sustained exploration on the part of the viewer. Instead you got a much more immediate reaction based on what you saw on the exterior and often on some kind of narrative.
JI: Something else that excites me is that Iíve finally developed a technique for drawing that lets me get closer to the sensation and impression of my sculptures.
ST: What technique is this?
JI: Iíve always been frustrated with the illustrative nature of the drawings I did of completed sculptures. What Iíve developed is taking wax rubbings from parts of different sculptures and overlaying them with acrylic washes. The wax is then scraped off to reveal the impression. So, Iíve figured out a way to build a composite image that still has a direct relation to particular sculptures, but itís entirely new at the same time. The drawings are large in scale to capture the power of the sculptures.
1998. Wax and acrylic, 32 x 44 in.
ST: Another evolution I see in your work is the growing sense of it being architectural.
JI: Iím not sure that I would say architectural in the traditional sense of the word. Remembering suggests this because you go in it. Itís this place. Itís an actual confined rectangle that you step down into. The wall is a real architectural device to place you in this thing.
Itís hard to say when this interest started. When I collaborated with Frank Gehry, Tony Caro, Sheila Girling, Paul Lubowicki, and Susan Nardulli in 1987, we built an abstract work, Architectural Village. Gehry had the idea that we all should bring elements from our own sculptural/architectural vocabulary and build something freeform. We made six elements, and constructed a village called "sculptitecture."
ST: So this experience had a profound effect?
JI: It did. It said anything is possible. It also said there are no rules. You have to realize that you can blur categories and distinctions. What I learned from Gehry is that heís not really interested in making architecture, heís interested in shaping space somehow and creating a sort of bold otherness. I realize now that I am pushing my work into a sense of otherness too. I would be interested in making a building, a place, but not building rooms. And thatís been in the back of my mind since the Gehry experience. Iíd like to make Remembering again, and it would be more of a "place" and less of a "wall," allowing it to locate itself and also to find its own sense of self.
ST: What do you mean by otherness?
JI: I mean other than whatís normal. What doesnít belong to preconceived norms of belonging or functioning. That sense of transition, of leaving the normal domain and being taken to somewhere different with its own conditions.
1994Ė95. Fox Hill granite, 110 x 40 x 38 ft.
ST: How else did the collaboration affect you? Did it change your approach to materials?
JI: I think it did. It made me ask, "What do I want? Why am I holding on to this tradition?" I started out as a textile designer, then did more drawing, and ended up making sculpture. In England, itís quite formal. I worked from the figure and moved on to welding and working with plaster. I identified with welding and fell right into that tradition of Caro, Smith, and Gonzales. I found that I had to go through them; I had to consume them. I was in this wanting mode when the collaboration occurred in 1987. Suddenly, this experience said, "Donít be so precious." I believe this strongly, but how to achieve this? Thatís when I brought in all the concrete. I felt charged, very physical, emotional. I wanted to be expressive and to celebrate, to inject high drama, to bring all this surging romanticism to the surfaces.
Also, I was very influenced by the Greek and Roman fragments at the British Museum, Londonótheir drama, their power, their presence. I think the experience of looking at them deeply affected the body of work from 1988 to 1993.
ST: Letís switch gears. Youíve had a lot of success with having work commissioned and shown in exhibitions. How have you created opportunities to have your work seen outdoors?
JI: Maybe a way to think about this is to talk about my experience working with Tony Caro. In all ways it was phenomenal. What I saw was a genius and a professional. He lives, tastes, breathes art. Itís a job for him. What I realized is you really have to commit to it. Even when itís going badly, you have to work through to the next inspiration. It was a wonderful gift that I was able to experience that. He was always so professional around visitors and presented himself in the best possible manner. He would spend whatever time was needed to get the project done. And that was very influential. All of this said to me, "This is my professional world and I have to exist in it." Within that mode, you generate work and youíve got to find a place to put it. Iíve been lucky to have been in so many exhibitions.
ST: I sense a really strong desire now to have sculpture outdoors and to build public monuments as rallying points for a community. I donít think the tradition in the United States has ever been as developed as elsewhere in the world. Itís starting to pick up.
JI: I think people feared that public money was being wasted. Thereís been a backlash against these í60s and í70s clunkers. A lot of new projects are going on in which the sculptures have been more integrated with the site. Thatís very exciting. Sculptors can make a phenomenal contribution to architecture and to public places. We can help define space.
ST: For me, what a sculptor can bring to a project is the personal, intimate link between the user and the building. The effect can be subliminal. At the same time, you donít want sculpture to be taken for granted. Thatís part of the excitement of temporary exhibitions. Thereís the thrill and curiosity of people experiencing sculpture where before it was just an empty plaza. Now thereís a focusing element.
JI: It is a balance in the public domain. I think a temporary show is good because itís for a defined moment. And then, people will be left a little hungry when it goes, and ask, "Whatís next?" That whole educating processó"Oh, I like that one better," or "Finally theyíve found a piece of sculpture." Obviously a private setting really gives a sculpture sanctuary. And in the last few years, Iíve started to get commissions. Itís marvelous. I must be doing something right!
Hall of the Mountain King
1996Ė98. Granite, 30 x 16 x 8.5.
ST: How are commissions different?
JI: Commissions are difficult things. The secret is not to compromise and keep it as much like regular studio activity as possible. Iíve been lucky. I worked with some wonderful people. There have been no restraints, no conditions. People want the work and have the confidence to purchase it and to give me free rein.
ST: Letís try to enlarge the context of your work. How do you rationalize working in stone? How do you make it contemporary, especially in light of more ephemeral work that is based on accumulation at one extreme or, at the other, on a singular, often conceptual statement, for example, a solo video camera in a large room. One could argue that working in stone is the most traditional thing you could do.
JI: Right, youíre using this five- to ten-million-year-old material. So itís pretty dated. I strongly identify with this anxiety we all feel about the world today. I think that a lot of people are anxious about money and politics, about poverty and war. But I donít feel that I can say anything about that in an art object. I donít think that I can be that literal. Thatís more the activistís or the politicianís role. What I do feel that I am equipped to do, though, is to tune into our personal emotions, maybe consolidate or focus them, and try to make us aware of what these concerns are.
I think that we have to be in tune with our emotions, and I hope that I can make a sculpture that will give you enough space or information to allow your mind to be clear about whatever it is thatís in there. The power of Maya Linís Vietnam Veterans Memorial, for example, is phenomenal. Itís a very pure, clean statement. It sets the mood and allows you to bring whatever emotion you have about that situationólove, hate, disgustóand be clear about it. I think that when people enter the sculpture at Goodwood and other pieces weíve talked about, noticeably they want to be alone. I think they want to allow their minds to be free somehow. The emotionally charged aspect of the space allows them to be free and indulge in a sensory, emotional experience.
I think also one of the things I want is to create a place that will reveal itself over time, where you can go back and it will be the same, and where you will be able to consider that emotion again and again. I want something to be timeless and not linked to a particular moment.
ST: Another way to think about being topical or not is in terms of fashionable aesthetic conventions that are bound by time. How you articulate your own language can be something thatís very personal or very borrowed.
JI: What do you want when you go to a work of art? Do you want to feel something very primal? Do you want it to bring you to tears? Do you want it to elevate your sense of being?
Rites of Passage
1998Ė99. Granite, view of outdoor installation.
ST: Well, I certainly donít want it to feel like reading the newspaper or an editorial column. I think one of the truisms and great treasures of sculpture is that itís a three-dimensional entity, and we naturally have a kinesthetic response. At the same time, itís able to suggest a wide range of emotional and spiritual experiences. If you lose sight of that by burying it with a lot of agenda-oriented didacticism, you run the risk of not having the freedom to bring your own ideas or emotions to the work, of not having that same exploration and discovery.
JI: I think itís that you donít want to be removed from your own primal experience of something. I get most excited when sculpture hits me in a forceful, physical, and emotional way.
Sarah Tanguy is a writer and curator based in Washington, DC.