‘Instead of seeking to assert power over materials, I prefer to “listen” to them and be responsive to their prompts’, wrote British sculptor Rosie Edwards in a short text published to accompany her MA show at the Royal College of Art. A little over a decade later, the avoidance of control as a method of approach to sculpture remains at the heart of Edwards’ latest body of work, presented in the show Genetic Material at Cross Lane Projects in Kendal.
Edwards is the nineteenth recipient of a prestigious award for emerging artists working in the field of sculpture in the UK. The Mark Tanner Sculpture Award (MTSA) offers up to £10,000 in financial support towards the making of new work as well as a three-gallery touring show starting at Standpoint Gallery in London, which maintains a mentoring role over the twelve-month programme.
The site of Cross Lane Projects was home to Wilson’s Kendal Mint Cake Factory from 1966 to 2013. Since 2018, artists Rebecca Scott and Mark Woods have been presenting a curated programme of contemporary exhibitions in the vast warehouse.
Edwards’ nineteen sculptural works are spread across the one-room space at Cross Lane Projects. The gridded cobalt blue beams supporting the roof of the building offers the only point of comparison in scale, in an otherwise vast white chamber. Over a sea of polished concrete floors hang, rest and stand a punctuated array of contorted geometric sculptures. There is little room to move between them, every route you take invading their resting space.
Lining the left-hand side of the space are three sculptures, ‘Nebula’, ‘Genetic Material’ and ‘Drawing Hands’ (all 2022), each including a cage-like plinth upon which amorphous objects rest. A loosely tangled knot of plaster-bandaged tendrils painted white with a pink undertone makes up the eponymous protagonist of the show. ‘Genetic Material’ does what it says on the tin, like spiralled intestines, the one long continuous tightly bound thread looks triumphant upon its overturned washing basket-looking plinth. The two sculptures on either side echo a similar form.
‘Nebula’ is a blue, bulbous, impregnated lump, made from expanding foam, which sits upon a three-by-eight gridded cube. ‘Drawing Hands’ also appears as one continuous line bent into shape, slightly larger than the width of a human arm, its form contorted into an irregular shape. The way the material bends is eerily reminiscent of elbow and knee joints, and like the limits of our own bodies in its double-jointed form, the contortion is strained.
In the accompanying essay ‘Ossuary’ by Ilsa Colsell, printed in the exhibition catalogue, these plinths are described as ‘open frameworks’, a term which allows room for the tension between freedom and structure, movement and limitation, grid and knot to reside. There is tension between the gaps in these sculptures. The spaces suggest that there is room for further expansion, whilst their contorted shapes are fixed forever. Any further change is just beyond reach. The transformation of what visually echoes a holding cell into a plinth, on which the sculptures now triumphantly sit, further suggests that it is the material itself and its own processes doing the work here.
In its guiding principles, MTSA seeks to reward work that ‘demonstrates a commitment to process, or sensitivity to material’. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Edwards won over the judging panel. An interest in textiles becomes apparent in another set of pieces in the show. In ‘Orrery’ (2022), instead of leaving the irregular surface textures painted a single colour, as elsewhere in the show, the sculptures are tightly wound in rayon thread. From afar the tricolour red, blue, and white thread which wraps around the four sculptures that make up ‘Orrery’ appears purple in tone. Up close you see how the toothpaste-coloured skin of these sculptures deceives. They appear mechanical, with emphasis on the relationship between their components. This is especially true for the mobile hanging shapes, set at the back of the space. Suspended from one line, a Calderesque mobile takes up the full height of the space, with three horizontal steel tubes tilted according to the weight of the objects below. A deflated sphere, the dents and crevices formed from the suction of air within, is a beautiful example of how the addition of the rayon distorts the surface of the sculpture. The thread’s three dashings of colour never quite line up – bound around the shape it creates irregular dashes which cause an optical illusion of movement.
The combination of sculpture and textiles reaches a playful crescendo in ‘The Absorbent Mind’ (2021), where sprung steel is wrapped in plaster bandage and covered in Marabou feather trim. As in ‘Genetic Material’, Edwards plays with the gaps, which here look like holes left from burrowed passageways. Fluffy and playful in its texture, the same tensions that run through the other works are also in operation here, as ‘The Absorbent Mind’ tries to support its own weight. It appears as if paused in the movement of rising, still partly resting on the cold concrete floor but beginning to heave itself up off the ground, emerging from slumber, slowed only by its own mass.
Playing with materials and following their lead is at the heart of Edwards’ practice. On the accompanying exhibition handout the list of materials which make up each work is like the list of a DIY drawer’s contents: plaster bandage, filler, gesso, pigment, steel fixing, band, fiberglass, tape, paper rope, plaster bandage, filler… Such a list reads as a gentle ode to the work of the late Phyllida Barlow, the British sculptor and a previous juror of The Mark Tanner Sculpture Award, who passed away earlier this year.
Barlow also used everyday materials, what she termed in a 2010 interview as ‘crap materials’ like plaster, cardboard and wood to ‘mess around with them, tilting them or balancing them: forcing them to do non-monumental things’. The term ‘non-monumetal’ is interesting in relation to Edwards’ work. While scale certainly plays a part in the show, the sculptures take up almost too much space and may have been better presented in a smaller selection. But what comes through is Edwards’ focus on process. There isn’t a sense that materials are being stretched to their physical limits but, rather like the deflated ball hanging from the mobile, are left to rest mid-motion where their physical make-up and response to their environment has as much jurisdiction over the final outcomes as Edwards herself. This stems from working methods. In the artist’s studio, pieces are often stacked on top of each other due to space constraints. This is how ‘Genetic Material’ and its fellow plinth works came about: needing more space for materials to expand and be tested. With artists continually battling for space, Edwards work serves as a reminder of the constraints placed on processes external to the sculptor-material relationship, but nonetheless just as impactful.
In her artist’s statement, Edwards distinguishes two categories in her work: ‘Shape-Shifters’ and ‘Apparitions’. The first category concerns sculptures which capture a ‘moment of transformation’, such as a ‘substance changing state or a building in its first moment of collapse’. The second process is described with the same discomfort as the forms themselves seem to inhabit, which ‘come into being from the inside out’. The ‘listening’ to materials Edwards first discovered as a student has also, in some ways, undergone a transformation, maturing into a show celebrating the vulnerability and submissive role of the sculptor to the inherent character of the materials with which they work. As Edwards asked back in 2012, ‘whose desires are they? Mine, or my materials? Who is working for whom?’. To visit the show at Cross Lane Projects is to be faced with these same questions.
Rosie Edwards: Genetic Material is on at Cross Lane Projects, Kendal, 11 March – 22 April 2023.
Nia Thomas is a writer and researcher based in Manchester currently working as assistant curator at FACT Liverpool and Events coordinator for independent publisher Comma Press.