Alison Wilding: Arena Redux, Art House Foundation

1 July 2016 By

I had meant to write about this show last week, until events stunned me into silence, but there is still just time to get to the Art House Foundation in East London to see this small group of sculptures by Alison Wilding.   Arena, 2000, is the centrepiece of the exhibition and comes with quite a story:  after sixteen years packed away in wooden crates, this radiantly wonderful sculpture is for a short time on view to the public again.

Arena was commissioned by law firm Simmons & Simmons in 2000 for their new building in the City of London.  Intended as the big statement piece for the grand entrance hall of the new London HQ, the commission was stymied by a dispute with the architect, Santiago Calatrava, which meant the space was not completed as originally planned.  Visitors struggled to negotiate their way around the sculpture that measures more than 4 metres long, so only weeks after the building opened the sculpture was dismantled and packed up.  I had thought of developing a Sleeping Beauty analogy here, but that would require an evil fairy and a handsome prince, and they are not readily to hand.  But you catch my drift.

Alison Wilding has been making sculpture since the late 1970s.  She rose to prominence in the 80s, showing widely in this country and internationally and was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1992.  In 2014 she showed a group of new and older works in the Duveen galleries at Tate Britain, surely one of the great honours that this country offers its sculptors.  While the work is always powerfully allusive, conjuring visual metaphors in a way comparable to work by Richard Deacon, for example, Wilding’s sculpture is entirely abstract.  It operates on its own terms without the need to be ‘about’ anything other than itself, and the conditions of its making.

Dualities – of materials and forms – are characteristics of Wilding’s work that have been constant throughout her career.  She has often worked on this monumental scale, using steel and brass as well as alabaster.  But Arena is different in that it presents us with mass without weight, scale and form with lightness and transparency.  Made from concentric bands of transparent grey acrylic, the sculpture rises, billowing out from a narrower base, each new layer slotting in to the one below on lateral struts. Light from the windows passes through the work and creates a crisp shadow on the floor, like an aura around the work.  In bright light the sculpture seems only barely more solid that its shadow.    In spite of the insubstantiality, the form might put you in mind of centuries-old traditional forms of making such as clinker-built wooden boats.  Balanced on the rim of the sculpture is a wedge shaped resin lozenge, like golden amber. Another, larger lozenge is nestled inside, just above ground level.  Up close you can see that the resin has been cast, appreciate its density and the way it holds light.  This quality of holding light sets up a tension between the two cast elements of the sculpture, two static points in contrast to the restless dynamism of the layered, circling acrylic elements.  It is a brilliantly involving work that draws the eye to scan across it again and again, interrogating its complexities.

The show is completed by Baby Shimmy, 2014 a stainless steel maquette for a full scale sculpture commissioned for 10 New Burlington Street in Mayfair. Once again it uses using slatted forms to create volume without density, and in this instance with mirrored surfaces nestling spheres of semi-precious stones in its matrix.  Up on the roof, and best viewed from the adjacent canal path, is Untitled (Ilex Hedge), 2012-13.

Emphatically worth a detour in your art travels over the next few days, and guaranteed to bring some joy into your life as we struggle through this stormy summer.  Pathetic fallacy intended.

Caroline Douglas


Art House Foundation55 Laburnum St, London E2 8BD. Open Thursday – Saturday 12.00–17.00. Exhibition continues until 9 July 2016.