Saturday, September 25, 2010
The Sculpture of Nicole Page-Smith
by David Eggleton
(Art New Zealand: Number 126)
Nicole Page-Smith's sculpture takes as its archetype the body- in all its
organic variety- and then proceeds to body forth the world. Hers is an
articulation of mammal limbs and insect wings, of spider's silk and birds'
nests, crenellations of bone and petals of ears. Her serried groups- the sets
and sub-sets- issue from her head like thought bubbles that have been trapped
and given expression as solid matter in her hands.
Explorations of mass and form, they mutate constantly, always on the move in
a search for pattern, sequence, equilibrium. A piece at rest is a piece completed;
yet it is also inevitably gestating another piece, one that will assume a new shape.
Pushing the envelope of shape for two decades now, Page-Smith's sculptural
dexterity has created successive generations of bodies with an astonishing
fecundity. They represent a life-journey: this is a sculptor groping her way
forward via her surrogates, which are themselves about the sensations of
growth, budding and transformation. They aim to suggest that consciousness
itself is an organic, flowing and altering force.
Sculpture, then, can still stake out ground as a vital philosophical and formalist
art, one able to give contour to strange attractors- the deep patterns- of chaos
theory, and thus impose the idea of underlying order.
Nicole Page-Smith's work is steeped in sculptural tradition as in a precious elixir,
one which makes her work sparkle and reverberate to echoes of art history at every
twist and turn. After graduating from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology
in 1988, she began exhibiting pieces made out of scrap wood salvaged from under
bridges, from waste ground, and from industrial and agricultural lots. This
weathered timber was shaped and nailed up into assemblages- open-ended
chutes and sluices- that encourage you to look through them and around them
as they playfully trap space and set it free. Set on spindly legs and often featuring
a headboard, the pieces resemble doggy creatures; they are witty arrangements
that have a kind of tail-wagging exuberance, a bounding energy in a way they bind
volume, in their terrier-like tenacity of purpose.
They are exercises in sharply delineated construction- each cleaned-up scrap
of timber pulls its weight- but they don't come off as art class projects, rather their
pared-down minimalism implies a frugal inventive approach, an innate purist
These freestanding and untitled works of 1989 were succeeded by the wall
reliefs of 1990, also untitled: square, oblong or rectangular plaques using simple
materials- such as charcoal, wood and cloth. By 1991 this series also included
sheets of glass. On one level they are clever homages to Postminimalism,
to Arte Povera, and to the sculptors Eva Hesse and Joseph Beuys, while on
another they are votive objects, doctrinal altars to 'Art' and fetish-like art-
worship, but on a third and- more significant- level they are about the struggle
of an artist in search of self-recognition. They are like a series of symbolic
mirrors, mirrors which absorb light and deny reflection; instead they are mirrors
which conjure up rejection and Lacanian paradoxes of the self.
Where others might have been content to stop and fiddle around with such
paradoxes, Nicole Page-Smith kept pushing forward. In 1992 she produced a
series of free-standing, tall glass boxes. These shafts of glass evoke skyscrapers
and termite mounds, but they are also chic totem poles, and one of the semi-
deities they invoke is the American painter Barnett Newman. Celebrated for
his minimalist canvases divided by a vertical stripe or 'zip', Newman has
proved an astonishing landmark for Page-Smith. Her next step was to take
the stripe out of its glass box, turn it into a ribbon and set it dancing; the
hard-edged stripe was transformed into a sinuous line.
These ribbon 'figures', constructed from black pigment and wax on cloth
over wire, were fixed to wall and floor plaques and stood vertically. Thus
affixed, the ribbon described an arabesque, spiral or similar shape; they
were a series of movements isolated and pinned up for further study: they
Drawing in air, they were complemented by drawings on paper, made as
rough gestural strokes of black ink. These ink drawings look like a whirl
of lines overcoming physical resistance: whirligigs, maelstroms, hatchings
born out of vigorous scratching and scoring- the aggressive mark-making
serving to embody an elemental burst of energy.
By now- 1995- Page-Smith's sculptural forms had become unpinned from
their plaques and plinths and began to slither down onto the floor; had
begun to hug corners or to flatten themselves directly onto the wall.
Incorporating plaster-saturated cloth over wire-mesh these bulked-up,
fibrous objects resembled scarves and blankets, girdles and wrappings.
They developed vents and vanes and even tentative wings: flaps tentatively
extended. They seemed about to stir into life.
Another shuffle, and- hey presto!- these floor sculptures had evolved into
shrouded hunched foetal postures. Moulded from chain-mesh hidden inside
raw jute sacking wraparounds, in turn caked with cement, these mournful
tatterdemalions, looking more than slightly repellent, began to multiply
into a theatre of untouchables, a bazaar of beggars emerged from some
outer penumbra, some underground catacomb.
In fabricating such peek-a-boo puppets with their whispering rags, their
rough bandages, Page-Smith triumphs conclusively over her artistic crisis
of identity, her anxieties of influence. This is an extraordinary parade of
psychic wreckage. The sculptor went on refining its assembly for more than
five years, making metaphor out of material- wrangles of wire, clods of
concrete, bales of sacking- by wrapping and unwrapping, by knotting and
and reknotting, by bundling and unbundling; her entrapping process
intrinsically emblematic of the pathos, the beauty and horror of the human
These trapped and sacked bodies endure as sunken husks, and, having
eviscerated and mummified them, Page-Smith proves that they are also
cocoons for a surprising metamorphosis: her white plaster series, stage
one of which was begun in 2000 and completed in 2003. This series
starts with the shapes of snares, pelvic girdles and embryos, before
continuing for a while as a morphing, as a shape-shifting, whose sources
are as ancient as the Nile yet as relevant as tomorrow's rainclouds. The
creamy whiteness of the plaster, meanwhile, evokes everything from
candlewax to marble, by way of soapsuds and bone tissue and whipped
cream and mashed potato and aerosol foam and ultimately, cumulus cloud-
that final, vaporous, airborne form-finder.
As always, the human body is the ghost at the Page-Smith's feast of nebulous
imagery: her plaster-coated offering are embryonic malformations with no
discernible centre, or at least not at first. Amphibian, mammalian, reptilian, avian:
this is totem ancestry, at once atavistic and amorphous, veering ambiguously
between the melancholic and the ecstatic. Page-Smith is still making that
ribboning line dance, but it has bloated up, distended and given birth to other
lines which twist, buckle, probe the air.
The year Page-Smith began this series- 2000- she also shifted countries,
moving with the artist Jeffrey Harris from Melbourne to live in Dunedin.
The results of this move are not apparent until the following year when in a
separate set of works she started in on blocks of Oamaru limestone. Whereas
previously she had been an assembler and a modeller rather than a carver, now
she chiselled at the stone's surface as if to test the material's integrity, before
hacking out- as if from a megalith- a lingam: a two-piece phallic shape held
together by a concealed steel rod. Staying elemental, she then hacked a void
right through a stone block: a hollowing out that referred back to her earlier
spatial enclosures made of wood. The title of Passage After the Fall (2002),
helps suggest that it is a time tunnel, an archaic means of egress from a mythical
or Biblical realm.
To chip stone and leave the gouge marks as evidence is to present time as
texture. In Untitled (Hommage to Painting) (2002) Page-Smith does just this,
then cuts out a narrow defile in the stone with a power saw, as if carving a linear
niche which might stand in and do duty for Barnett Newman's stripe: here absence
confirmed as presence; dug out of stone, the line lives.
Nicole Page-Smith had been reading John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost
around this time, and this literary experience served to inspire the creation of
a series of devils or goblins: dark saturnine grotesques in wax and wire who
recline in armchairs 'contemplating evil' or else, on giant feet, are fleeing
from 'paradise lost'. The sardonic humour of these pieces resurfaced in a
continuation of the white plaster forms: a collection of 'animal gods' (2003).
Using imagery derived from a variety of sources- temple effigies produced
by archaic pantheistic cults, adventure comic books, children's toys, a pet
cat, a French movie- Page-Smith elicits a polymorphous menagerie
featuring a jackal-headed Anubis- who is one foxy beast- as well as a very
thin donkey with wings, a long eared centaur, and so on. These gangling
creatures seem almost cuddly, certainly no longer monstrous; rather, they
tease at the origins of sculpture as objects of veneration.
Awe has vanished, these are former gods translated into clowns and dolls
and registering the numb, media-saturated 'whatever' of the present-day.
They have been coaxed forth- fragmentary beings- by a teasing creator,
able whirl them, so to speak, around her little finger in a virtuous display of
Choreographing the visceral, building on what has gone before, Nicole
Page-Smith, in 2004, moved on to smoother versions of effigy-type sculptures.
Whereas before bases had been feet and hooves as ill-defined plinths, now
they became delicate tips and oval paddles: pod-like stabilizers offering a
satisfying sense of balance. The cartoon shapes, too, had become more
resonant, less didactic: biomorphic entities suggesting a child lost, gazing
off awkwardly, or else a senior citizen with too much melting flesh.
Other shapes, poised like precious relics, suggest spoons, broaches,
spectacles: the shape of the matter, arousing questions, speculations.
More and more, the white plaster forms, expertly balanced and uniquely
shaped, seem to evoke the psychological pressure of personalities: the
sculpture turning to story-telling.
In the forcing house of Nicole Page-Smith's imagination there seem to be
endless forms. In late 2004, the forcing house became a hothouse for the
orchidaceous: dangling epiphytes, ripe gourds, scribbly growths, arachnoid
forms. Hung on wires or nylon, these doodle-bugs are suspended, twisty,
tortuous, seeking to trace out a path for themselves. Thus, constructed
from painted canvas, polyester wadding and steel rods, they articulate and
The steel rod is the sinuous line: the spine, the prong, the barb, the mandible,
the flailing tentacle. Around it cluster blobby bits: a thorax, an abdomen,
a uterus-name your body part. This is the organic as primal imagery, sourced
to a matrix. While some steel rod armatures descend as aerial roots; others
rise up as vestigial fingers.
More recently the sculptor has added beeswax as a material, and increased
the use of bright colours as mood enhancers. In the end, Nicole Page-Smith,
facing off against the great pantheon of the past, has chosen to go inwards,
as into a lair, and emerged with her own singular pantheon of marvellous
monstrosities: sylphs and caryatids, angels and devils, chandeliers of antlers,
candelabras of questing tendrils.