New Sculpture by Charles Hewlings: The Angel's Ear and She Is Love.

'Space has bewildered me', confesses the angel in Rilke's poem 'Annunciation: Words of the Angel'. The Annunciation is the ground motif for this pair of sculptures by Charles Hewlings, as the respective titles imply, although aside from a few subtle figural indications, what we encounter first and last is a pair of abstract sculptures comprising open spatial arrays of (mostly) wood and metal elements. In the poem's original German, what bewilders the angel is Raum. This is a more apt expression for what sculptors deal with than our 'space', in as much as Raum (in its affinity with our 'room') evokes the sphere of human action and involvement, the common world, something quite foreign to an angel. A sculpture, however, is no ordinary part of this world, for as a physical, spatial thing meant only for our attention, it is unlike anything else in our surroundings. Rilke himself wrote of the peculiarly homeless and incongruous status of the modern sculptural object, reflecting on Rodin, whose works intended for public sites remained stranded in his studio: these objects 'stand in space: what have they to do with us?'. Unlike ordinary, useful things – or, indeed, traditional monuments - their presence was not self-explanatory.

Many sculptors have addressed this predicament, but Hewlings has in recent years found a new and distinctive means of doing so, by conceiving sculptures that interact with and incorporate ordinary objects, and sometimes – as here – respond to the constraints of particular environments. They do more than merely 'stand in space'; it is rather that space – Raum – forms in them, so that we may become visitors, like the angel - but to our own habitation.

The Angel's Ear and She Is Love may be seen to respond to each other as well as to their physical setting. At their uppermost extremes, both sculptures touch the ceiling of this long, low room, and both are assembled around the columns and girders that pass down the centre. They thus incorporate, and communicate through, the structure in which they stand. I saw them in the artist's studio, where he had built them around wooden replicas of N-shaped column/ girder formations which will remain parts of them after their in situ showing. Yet in what sense can we indeed speak of a communication between the separated sculptures? In the exhibition at The Cut, the viewer will experience a double division, since the sculptures stand at either end of a room whose internal armature runs through both of them. Given that the sculptures themselves comprise chiefly wooden components, none alike, held up and apart by thin steel bars, with clamps, undisguised, holding one sculpture's heavy planar component to a girder, then how are such divisions and disparities to come together? What is the principle of integration?

We ourselves constitute the integrating means, I claim; not because we have recourse to a sense of wholeness, but on grounds that are almost the contrary. Hewlings – like all sculptors necessarily, but in distinctive and particularly strategic ways – brings into play the dividedness that is inherent in our constitution as bodily beings, and in our experience of physical reality. We feel the resistant ground beneath our feet supporting our weight; we look up and watch the light change as clouds stream chaotically overhead. In our muscular awareness, we are tied to gravity, in vision freed from it. We are bound to reality yet open to the imaginary. So – to return to these sculptures – we may notice how they address both poles of our bodily awareness, and bind them to each other, by tying the physically real structure of the built environment to the formations that engage our vision and imagination. The Angel's Ear affords an illusion of weightless descent, touching ground only along the bottom edge of the sloping plane that supports the rest, and through which some elements appear to pass, as if breaking through – not without a certain violence. Yet we never lose sight of the material evidence of support and attachment, including the metal clamps that hold the plane to the girder. On the one hand, we sense weightlessness only through and against our feeling of bodily weight, feet on the ground; on the other, our illusory and imaginary entry into the play of lightness and gravity passes from the sculpture to elements of the structure of the room we stand in and even to the floor beneath our feet: this being, after all, the literal ground to which, in imaginary terms, the 'angel' descends, on which the 'She' of the title sits.

Yet there is no angel, no corresponding figure either, nor any invitation to imagine them. Were the opposite the case, all would be consumed by the imaginary. The figural indications, accordingly, are negative, not remotely illusionistic, and minimal. We may find, gouged out of separate blocks, impressions of the following: for the 'angel', extended fingers of the left hand, a left ear and the foremost edge of a wing; and for the angel's counterpart, the outside of the right arm raised in prayer, and the tip of the right shoulder. The sculptor used his own body as the template (save for the wing, of course), as he showed me, sitting on the block whose blue-red traces (serendipitously but appropriately) evoke the traditional colours of the Virgin, and correspond to similarly fortuitous marks on the block moulding the angelic hand.

There is an invitation to imagine, nonetheless, and it is twofold. Firstly, the negative moulding of the respective body parts invites us to apprehend those wooden elements as holding, and to find by extension in the sculptures more generally the function of holding and the sense of something held. The second invitation became apparent to me when the sculptor enacted his mime: the sculptures, in effect, offer us a score for performing our own bodily engagement with them. They invite us, that is, to apprehend, through our own sense of embodiment, two typical and reciprocal actions or modes of spatial orientation. In The Angel's Ear, we may recognize the movement of greeting and approaching, an advance and a descent. In She Is Love, we find the situation of receiving, which combines stillness with a sense of rising and facing. Against the large, front-leaning plane of The Angel's Ear, She Is Love presents forward-facing vertical surfaces, in the front sides of blocks and boxes rising on the diagonally opposite side of the column row.

These sculptures are the latest development in a practice which originated in the late 1990s, when Hewlings moved to his present studio, in a light industrial building he shares with his partner, the painter Gina Medcalf. He had for a number of years been making constructed sculpture in welded steel and, later, reinforced concrete. The new studio space, light and airy, did not readily accommodate the use of such materials and methods, and conversely invited recourse to sparer physical means. This was a moment of reassessment for which Hewlings was prepared, in that the concrete sculptures, despite their mass, originated in the experience of 'wind, water and light', as he recalled in a lecture he gave in 1998. He added that 'the desire grew for increased fluidity, which would inform the material, the image, the subject and…the physical environment.'

He took a first step in this new direction in 1997, with Air and Other Elements: Looking South, a sculpture in which a configuration of thin steel bars and pieces of wood stood at chest height, attached for support at either side to two trestle tables. Hewlings based the sculpture on a composition from Mondrian's Pier and Ocean series. In these Cubist-inspired works, Mondrian deployed disconnected linear segments in black over white to conjure a field-like space. The lines closed around no object, defining instead a kind of 'between'. In transposing this to three dimensions, Hewlings arrived at the forerunner of the holding-held formations we find in the recent works. He created a 'between' out of the wood and metal pieces, supported between the two tables that stood on the same firm ground as the viewer, thus contriving a bridge between the imaginary and the real.

Through the experience of making this and subsequent sculptures, Hewlings has come to conceive space itself, in our experience of it, as constituting that 'bridge'. If the steel and concrete sculptures that he had been making up to this point evidenced an intense engagement with movement and materiality, it now seemed to him, as he reflected in his 1998 lecture, that 'perhaps the activity could be said to have shifted from the material to the gaze of the observer.' In sculptures of various scales, from the capacious Going Home Against the Onshore Breeze (2000) to the more recent Never Nothing, whose structure rises from a stool to head height, Hewlings afforded viewers a fresh appreciation of our taken-for-granted experience of spatial depth. Since these works hold their elements in open array, we see all the way through them, our attention ranging through the changing articulations of height, depth and orientation.

Neighbours (2009), a large sculpture, seems to invite us in, for although more compact than Going Home, it is welcomingly room-like in scale, presence and configuration. Two drinking glasses, held at one side of the formation, just below eye level, record an originating moment of perception: Hewlings had been looking from the window of his flat, at the top of a large Victorian house, while drinking a glass of water, and gazing into the space contained between the buildings and open to the sky. All the sculptures have sources in particular spatial experience, and a pair of drawings, made from the front and rear windows of his flat, have played a mediating role here. In one, drawn at night, heavy clouds press down on the horizontal mass of the city; in the other, a block-like building rises from surrounding roofs beneath high, fragmented clouds in a light sky. Hewlings came to consider these drawings in a sculptural connection only later, when he was set the project of making a sculpture to stand on a barge, and so needed to deal with the barge's dark opening. He conceived a work that, anchored to its floating platform, would rise from the deck and descend into the hold. What has thereby come to be important in the drawings is the contrast they embody, as between different yet interdependent states: of rising into the light and open, and descending and darkening into enclosure and mass.

The sculptor has conceived the present work in comparable terms, as 'a holding-together of different states' - to use his own words - staged in the mutual encounter of the two sculptures, as well as within each separately. The notion of a communication or continuity between states is redolent of physics, and in fact Hewlings made reference, in another talk on his work, given in 1997, to David Bohm's book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, on subatomic physics. Here he found an account of, as he put it, 'a dynamic, fluid, interrelated world in which, for instance, the difference between space and solid is not a hard and fast distinction but is only a slight change of emphasis' – or of state. The dividedness of our bodily constitution that I referred to earlier, might itself be thought of in terms of differences of states. Given that we are physical beings, the differences in question may suggest parallels with physics: for example, in the statics and dynamics of bodily experience. We set our inertial mass in motion through muscular action.

Just as we may intuit movement in the sculptures, even though they are actually still, so also can we sense the forces that inhere in them, as structures. The thin bars that hold their components up and apart are all in reality springs, bent so as to become rectilinear when set in place and bearing weight. There is a tie here between the physical and the expressive, if we think of the image of life forming from within, like inner forces. David Bohm, quoted by Hewlings, wrote of 'an inner forming activity which is the cause of the growth of things', giving the example of an oak tree, and 'the whole inner movement of sap, cell growth, articulation of branches, leaves…' The box-like forms of She is Love rise in response to the descending fragments of The Angel's Ear, as if to a call; in the Rilke poem from which I quoted, the space-bewildered angel concludes each verse of annunciation with the words: 'you, Lady, are the Tree'.


Sources of the quotations:
Rainer Maria Rilke, 'Annunciation: words of the Angel', translated by J.B.Leishman, Rilke, Selected Works, Volume II, Poetry (London: The Hogarth Press, 1967), pp 119-20
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Rodin-Book, translated by C. Craig Houston, in Rilke, Rodin and Other Prose Pieces (London: Quartet Books, 1986); the sentence quoted is on p. 68
David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Routledge, 1980), p. 12

Brendan Prendeville

Back to Writing