RA Magazine Winter 2011
Issue Number: 113
Artists' Laboratory 04: John Maine RA
From Westminster Abbey to Green Park tube station, John Maine RA has been exploring the expressive quality of stone. Richard Cork follows him on a trail that culminates in his exhibition at the RA and gives fresh insights into the artist’s working methods
John Maine RA
is busy supervising the arrival of immense stone blocks for his ‘Artists’ Laboratory’ exhibition at the Royal Academy. Most of them have come in a truck, but Maine tells me excitedly: ‘I drove up from Wiltshire this morning with a slab of granite from South Africa in the back of my car!’
John Maine RA, Central granite carving for the installation 'After Cosmati' in process 2011. Image courtesy of the Artist. Taking me into Gallery II, where his elemental pieces of sculpture are being stored before installation in the Weston Rooms, Maine cannot contain his delight. He walks over to the block of South African granite: ‘It doesn’t look heavy, but put your hand underneath,’ he says. Its weight is formidable, and I tell him I can’t imagine how he got it in and out of his car. He roars with laughter, and then guides me over to another powerful block. ‘Wow!’ he exclaims, stroking its seductive surface. ‘The last time I touched this stone was in China, where I worked on it.’ I share Maine’s urge to feel this irresistible chunk. Will visitors be able to run their fingers over the exhibits in his show? ‘Oh, they should be allowed to,’ he enthuses. ‘I can tell how far people have engaged with my work by seeing how they touched it.’
Maine, however, usually makes his sculpture for outdoor locations – most recently, on the coast at Weston Super-Mare and, by contrast, in central London, along the new façade of Green Park tube station. His RA show may pose a challenge for a sculptor so committed to working beyond the gallery space. But the grand scale of the Weston Room stimulates him enormously. Apart from one large blue standing stone from Brazil, most of the 20 pieces will be horizontally placed on the floor of the gallery. ‘I’m trying to create an atmosphere which you can explore as you move through it,’ he explains.
Looking at the primordial pieces assembled here, I realise that they seem related to the ancient origins of sculptural form. ‘I have always been interested in very early cultures,’ he says, ‘and since I come from the West Country, the prehistoric stones at Avebury were important for me.’ The works in the show come from stone quarried in places as far flung as the Baltic, Scotland and India as well as South Africa. Although he has worked on some of them very intensely, Maine holds a profound respect for the innate character of each block. ‘Stone has an inner life, and in this exhibition I want to incorporate the unworked, living character of the stone. I don’t see a fundamental hierarchy between the physical reduction of stone by human action and how it has been affected over the centuries by the action of wind and sea.’
The show’s mysterious title, ‘After Cosmati’, acknowledges another source of inspiration: the great medieval pavement in Westminster Abbey. Maine served for several years as the artist on the Advisory Committee for the restoration of the Cosmati Pavement, and the installation of the works for the RA show echoes elements in the design of the pavement. ‘The diagonals of the parquet floor are being used as a basic grid for a square design, with sandstone slabs set on edge like walls to form an open frame.’ Within this are four stone blocks – the ‘principal characters at the centre of the installation’.
‘My exhibition at the RA explores the way that a new work can grow from my involvement with a work of art from another age. My stones in the Weston Rooms have certain basic links with the geometry and nature of the Cosmati Pavement, yet they become a completely new composition. By seeing this transition, people may be able to understand how an idea originates, and how an artist can develop a pattern of thought. The whole project is unknown territory for me, as I explore the scale changes of a contained space.’
Maine clearly admires the skilful use of coloured marble and glass in the Cosmati Pavement but tells me: ‘It used to be hidden by a carpet, which was inflicting tremendous damage’. He offers to show me the Pavement and, after a sunlit walk down to Westminster, we reach the Abbey just before Evensong.
John Maine RA, 'Cosmati Drawing' (detail) inscribed drawing on granite, 2011
It is an ideal moment: as the choir practises nearby, we are permitted to explore the glories of the Pavement on our own. Consisting of nine main roundels set within two squares, this glowing masterpiece is intricately organised and yet filled with sensuous appeal. It reaches a cosmic climax at the centre. ‘The four roundels in the middle represent planets, and at the very centre is a molten onyx stone,’ says Maine. ‘The whole thing is a medieval vision of the universe, and its survival is a miracle.’ The restoration work, which took over three years, was finished in time for the Royal Wedding. At the RA he also plans to show several granite slabs incised with geometry inspired by the Pavement.
Walking back from the Abbey through Green Park, Maine emphasises that his show ‘isn’t intended to be religious, but artists have more in common with theologians than you might think. We deal with the numinous, non-functional aspects of life’. As Piccadilly approaches, he gestures towards his recently completed work for Green Park tube station. It is a fascinating spectacle. The cladding walls of three new buildings, interlinked by a canopy, are enlivened with the spiralling cones and circles of fossil forms carved into the stone. These images take us far away from the traffic-ridden turbulence of Piccadilly to another world, a world more closely aligned with the fecundity of Green Park itself.
When Art on the Underground invited Maine to propose a work for the new buildings in 2009, he said ‘I didn’t want to put a brooch on them. I took the Green Park station upgrade team down to Portland Quarry in Dorset to explain the nature of the material I wanted. They had planned to use granite slabs, but I persuaded them to opt for Portland Stone instead.’ The outcome is very impressive and repays close examination, as the stone itself is teeming with tiny spiralling fossils. Why is Maine so fascinated by them? ‘Well’, he grins, ‘they’re 150 million years old, so it’s about time someone gave them a birthday party.’
‘They are an important part of the story of how the stone is made. These small cone shapes were once living creatures which became part of the fabric of the stone millions of years ago. The basic idea of this work was to reveal the inner life of the stone.’ Suddenly, he darts across Piccadilly and points from over the road to a patch of his wall that has caught the late afternoon sun. Even from this distance, I can marvel at how the light makes these fossil forms seem reborn, filled with unpredictable and magical vitality.
© RA Magazine
Editorial enquiries: 020 7300 5820
Advertising rates and enquiries: 0207 300 5661
Magazine subscriptions: 0800 634 6341 (9.30am-5.00pm Mon-Fri)
Press office (for syndication of articles only): 0207 300 5615