RA Magazine Autumn 2011
Issue Number: 112
Artists' Laboratory 03: Nigel Hall RA
Sculptor Nigel Hall is the third Academician to exhibit in the Artists’ Laboratory series,
which focuses on artists’ working methods. He tells Richard Cork how drawing the rhythms of the landscape has informed his work
As I approach Nigel Hall’s studio in a quiet south London street, a masked figure appears and starts spraying a large drawing propped against the outside wall. Then, taking the mask off, Hall greets me and explains that he was applying a fixative to his latest charcoal-and-gouache drawing. ‘I have used charcoal for as long as I can remember,’ he says. ‘I like its light absorbency, and the scruffiness which charcoal generates. It works well with gouache, which has a slight sheen.’ Feeling the paper, I remark on its thickness. Hall smiles: ‘I like tough and durable stuff, now that I can afford it!’
Nigel Hall, 'Drawing No. 1533', 2010, Courtesy of the artist
Hall’s reputation has always rested securely on his abstract sculpture, where purged forms in wood or steel explore space and volume. But as his new ‘Artists’ Laboratory’ exhibition at the Royal Academy will reveal, figurative drawing plays a central role in his work.
Hall walks into his studio and places the freshly sprayed sheet on the floor, next to another sheet. Together they add up to a single, enormous drawing filled with the leaping energy of interlocked, undulating forms suspended on a white background. I tell Hall that their dynamism also seems erotic. ‘I wouldn’t quibble with what you say,’ he replies, ‘but nobody has been brave enough to say that to me before.’
Hall’s impressive new drawing relates to the minimal shapes in his sculptures, some of which are displayed on the walls and floor around us. Gazing at this monumental and lofty interior, with its timber roof spanned by dramatic steel arches, I realise that it is one of the most spectacular studios I have ever visited. ‘It was built as a church hall in 1905,’ says Hall, ‘and it looked like a wreck when I first saw it – pigeon-infested, with a leaking roof where Russian vine was growing. But it was love at first sight! The structure was quite good, so I put a huge window in the roof and flooded the place with light.’
Nigel Hall, 'Mirrored', 2009, Courtesy of the artist Hall shows me a polished wood sculpture called Mirrored (2009). He plans to show a bigger version, Large Mirrored (2011), in bronze in the Artists’ Laboratory exhibition. Charged with the dancing interplay of circular lines that seem to mirror each other, the sculpture also appears to be taking a bite out of itself. ‘Its precursor was called Bigger Bite,’ says Hall with a grin. ‘People call me an abstract artist, but I lead another life as well.’ He takes me over to a group of unframed drawings, all far smaller than the one he had been spraying. I am intrigued to discover that they are all based on first-hand observation of desert landscapes in California. This is the other, hitherto unknown side of Hall’s work, and the show will disclose for the first time a fascinating array of drawings he has made in remote locations across the world.
‘The desert ones were done in the late 1960s,’ he recalls, ‘when I left the Royal College of Art in London and went to Los Angeles on a Harkness Fellowship. I had a peculiar urge for the desert, and drove out to the Mojave, Panamint Valley and Death Valley.’ Sleeping in the car, and enthralled during the day by the silence and emptiness all around him, Hall drew incessantly. Although these images are more naturalistic than his sculpture, their desire to distil and simplify form comes from the same imagination. ‘I found a rusty pipe thrusting up from the flat dryness of Soda Lake,’ he says with enthusiasm. ‘So I took a pebble and dropped it into the pipe. It went “ding, ding, dong” a long way down, and eventually hit water far below. This had a big impact on me, and back in England I made some aluminium rods to hang in a room as a still presence.’
Since then, Hall has never stopped drawing inspiration from landscapes at their most primordial. He shows me a cluster of sketches made in 1983 at Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia. ‘I got a camper van and drove out there on my own.’ His drawings show just how fascinated he became as the Rock seemed to ‘change its weight’ from the solid to the ethereal at different times of day. He climbed to the top, marvelling at ‘the totally flat dream space, curving 360 degrees all around me’.
But the landscape that has proved to be the focus of his greatest obsession is in Switzerland. ‘I have been going to the same area since 1986 to spend my time walking and drawing. The starting point is a tiny place called Sils-Baselgia, a bus ride from St Moritz.’ He shows me some pale, pared-down watercolours, all produced in a place ‘so cold that the watercolour freezes on my brush. So I do them quite fast, and wear mittens’.
Nigel Hall RA, 'Sketch of Soglio, Switzerland', 1 January, 1994. Courtesy of the artist.
Hall insists these drawings ‘are not studies for sculpture. I put them in a box and don’t think about them.’ Yet in the studio we pass one sculpture called Soglio (1994), which is named after the village near Stampa where Giacometti was born. Hall loves drawing Soglio and the form for this sculpture derived from ‘the little church tower holding the stillness’. Finally, he takes me into a small room where all of his notebooks are stacked in neat rows on shelves. It is a rare privilege to see how these personal documents of the artist’s visual thinking processes eventually result in a work of art. Some of Hall’s notebooks will be displayed at the RA, giving fresh insights into his working methods, which is what the ‘Artist’s Laboratory’ series is all about. Leafing through a few of them, I find pages filled with sketches and ideas dating back to 1964. I am fascinated by the contrast between the restlessness and the focused consistency of his art. Then, putting the notebooks back with understandable care, he declares, ‘Drawing has always been as big a part of my work as sculpture.’
Artists’ Laboratory 03: Nigel Hall
RA Weston Rooms, 7 Sep–23 Oct
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