“His sculptures are matrices, in which a mysterious emptiness is embedded”
While returning home to Manhattan via Amtrak after my interview with Jon Isherwood I realized that the experience of living with his sculptures for a few hours had transformed my way of seeing natural rock formations. The rocks that occasionally appeared to the sides of the train path fuzzed with energy and the shadowy crevices in the rock face pulsated. His sculptures modify our seeing habits.
In the eighties Isherwood struggled to escape the influence of his long time mentor Anthony Caro, but he had to stop making steel and cast concrete sculptures in order to do this.. The tall stone monoliths he made throughout the nineties and beyond were a radical departure from his earlier work and embodied his unique vision. Using wire saws, drills, and carving tools, Isherwood draws a few simple marks or shapes (circles within circles and straight lines) in the partially finished pieces of stone. The carved or cut shapes are unevenly distributed and do not detract from the natural beauty of the stone. These monoliths, all-seeing presences in the landscape, are imposing because of their combination of jagged and straight edges and their height. Because these upright stones connote graves or memorials, they inspire somber moods, but since they have no utilitarian purpose, we can revel in their abstract symbolism. The slots or slits cut into these monoliths create hidden spaces within the external sheath of stone. They are suggestive and act as lures, inviting us to investigate them with our hands and eyes, to go beyond surfaces. Isherwood wants us to physically interact with the art object and these inner spaces inspire us to do more than simply look at them. They convince us that there is something to discover through an investigation of the various parts.
Isherwood’s newest sculptures, which are smaller in scale than the monoliths and made with the help of computer numerically controlled technology (CNC), are bulging, bulbous forms reminiscent of the Venus of Willendorf. They are Falstaffian in comparison to the tall monoliths and represent another radical departure. The forms appear to be compressed, distorted or squeezed by gravity. Even though stone is the medium, Isherwood creates the illusion of expansiveness. He does not emulate flesh, but the bulbous shapes are vulnerable and comforting. One wants to encompass them with outstretched arms or run hands across them. Instead of making minimal marks on the surface of the stone in order to create an abstract persona, the CNC pieces have rows of lines covering almost their entire surface. The lines the machine carves into the stone follow the stone’s form and accentuate the roundness and bulginess. These bloated forms undermine our expectations of the medium. Isherwood carefully chooses the rocks he uses and makes sure the veins in the stone appear in places that will increase the drama and beauty of the whole. Most of these mysterious receptacles have openings on top and hollowed-out centers. Again viewers are tempted to look into the darkness, to investigate unknown spaces, rather than simply admire something that takes up space.
Isherwood’s sculptures do not resemble bones, microscopic life-forms or plantlife, and they are not retro abstractions of the human form. Isherwood avoids any vitalist mannerisms, unlike many of Henry Moore’s followers, by contemplating the psychological impact indoor and outdoor spaces have on us. He is interested in the locus of human emotions within the landscape and the inner processes of the human body, rather than external form. His sculptures are matrices, in which a mysterious emptiness is embedded, and we are invited to invest our psyches in the spaces they contain.
Why did you become a sculptor instead of a painter or architect?
In the early days, any extension of the hand, a pencil, a paintbrush or some other device, seemed inappropriate. It was grasping and grabbing and holding that seemed to be the important things for me. I think that was the first clue. I think it was the influence of people too. I remember seeing the Henry Moore show in Bradford, England at Cartwright Hall in ’78, and I remember walking through that show. I was seventeen or eighteen at the time. I had no sense of sculpture whatsoever. There was this incredible physical presence that was full of body, full of a dynamic that I hadn’t seen or understood before. There was an abstractness to it I didn’t understand. I think it was that, seeing those early Henry Moores, that made me see the potential of human imagination through interaction with the hand.
Can you describe your earliest experiences of what Herbert Read has called “sculptural sensations”?
I think that those first sculptural sensations had to do with landscape. In the North of England, because of the hills and dales, you feel as though you live in the landscape rather than on it! I think places that one would go to as a kid, like caves, quarries, derelict factory buildings, were incredibly intriguing, were primal three-dimensional sensations. My father died when I was very young. It was an incredibly emotional thing, and it was also a very physical thing; sort of like an emptiness. Something had been taken from me. And that sort of void or emptiness was a primary physical sensation. Some of my early sculptures at college were bodies that didn’t have any insides. The inside was empty, gouged out. I think there was some sort of correspondence between all of these feelings.
Talk about the genesis of your work, your journey from steel and concrete to stone? Your enigmatic stone monoliths are not expressionistic like your earlier steel and concrete pieces, and currently the computer plays an essential, although intermediary role in the shaping of the final form.
I think that during the transition from student work to what I would call more personal or mature work I was influenced greatly by Tony Caro. . . his formal dialogue about sculpture making. I attempted to establish my own language through working with steel, but found it incredibly difficult to really transform the material. Steel always, no matter how much I connected it, welded it, bashed it around, forged it, or manipulated and changed it, held its original identity and the historic legacy of steel sculpture. I really felt that it wasn’t plastic enough for me. I introduced the concrete into the process as an attempt to make the image more fluid, perhaps more personal, gestural, emotionally driven. I was getting closer to what I wanted, which was to move away from a tradition I was stifled by.
This was an incredible breakthrough for me, but I became less and less satisfied with the gesture. I realized that it was little more than a frozen moment marking the release of energy. I decided that I needed to make sculptures that were more defined and resolute, that the work also had to become intrinsically three-dimensional. So I started to think about considering the whole, to think completely in the round, which meant becoming more simplistic, to make sure each façade or each side interrelated.
I think I was also in search of the self, the body. I was in search of an emotional presence. I then began to think about what goes on internally in a form and the way emotion wells up inside of us. I now had to establish a place of entry into the sculpture. Simultaneously, I was invited by Phil Berman to work in stone. I had no intention to go to stone. He had a quarry and said why not come and try the material out.
This was a really significant moment for me. At first it was quite stifling. It wasn’t fluid at all. One had to deal with a lump, but it was undeniably three-dimensional, a true mass. And I was given the opportunity to look for a way into the rock. I thought about what Michelangelo said about removing everything that wasn’t David to get to David. I was thinking about that yet noticed that the outside of the rock was wonderful as it was. Why remove the outside, why not remove the inside? I started to cut and make these defined internal shapes. . . .as if to accentuate the external mantle or skin.
They reference ancient monoliths as you say. Coming from England I grew up around all of these freestanding stones. It’s ingrained in my subconscious, the sense of presence from those places. This is what sculpture quintessentially is, a pinnacle or reference point in the landscape, a connection between land and sky. It is the plane we exist on. Therefore it is our reference point. In terms of thinking with the computer, it is my ambition to have more control over the mantle and make sculpture that resonates internally and externally simultaneously.
After coming to the United States in 1983 to study sculpture at Syracuse University you assisted the sculptor Anthony Caro for approximately 11 years. How did your initial meeting with him come about?
During my undergraduate studies I was working with a fellow sculptor, actually he was my teacher, John Gibbons, and he asked me if I wanted some weekend work renovating an old building. There we were banging walls out, and this guy comes in, and I said I recognize that guy, its Tony Caro, Turns out it was his place. .
He asked me if I wanted some work on the weekends. So I would go up on the weekends and weld pieces together for him. I would do all the fabrication work. Then for two years after finishing at Canterbury College of Art I worked full-time for him in London.
He built a studio in upstate New York and asked me if I wanted to run the place for him, which I did. I started to learn about all of the things you didn’t learn about in college. How does a studio work? How do you work in the studio? How do you maintain a professional life? How do you go about keeping yourself engaged with your own work? How does work develop? He introduced me to a lot of people, some incredible thinkers. That exposure was invaluable. It allowed me to learn about art through the experience of it.
You work with rather traditional materials but at the same time you have brought the computer into your working process. You still make art objects. You have not attempted to dematerialize the art object in the way a process or conceptual artist would, nor have you created anonymous objects, like the Minimalists, in an attempt to erase the individual maker. Although, based on statements you made during an interview for Sculpture Magazine in 2001, it appears that you are just as concerned about the environment or setting the sculpture appears in as the Minimalists were. Can you talk about how you see yourself within the context of the contemporary art scene?
That’s something that is really challenging for me…I think that the new work I have been doing with the computer is an attempt to think differently about volume, how we think about the skin or mantle, how we think about mass. I want them to be a place where the psychological and the physical connect visually, like the way nerve endings connect to the skin. When you experience great art or architecture you are left with what I call an after image that is neither body nor building. My sculpture is an attempt to explain and reveal the shape of the sensations we have. I want the sculpture to feel as though it is at its most defining moment, as with heightened experiences, to be a moment of full expression and full emotion. I do feel that I am within a lineage, within a tradition of making. I think that the modern tradition is still really new and underdeveloped. There are very few real definitive moments even in modern sculpture, the sculpture of the last one hundred years. I think the dialogue between figuration and abstraction in sculpture is still unresolved. My ambition is to investigate new ways of bringing the body and its multitude of sensations played out in a single lump as the body is, into the work.
Yes, absolutely, I feel like I’m finding a shape, finding something unique, something that is my own now through use of the computer. It has always been important to translate my feelings and thoughts into more specific shapes. It has always been an attempt to analyze cause and effect, to move to a place where I have more control. The computer facilitated the next move, this aspect of control, defining what I see.
What had happened while I worked in clay briefly in Canada was that I made impressions by throwing clay onto plaster casts of baskets and other wicker objects. They created these interesting textures and marks. When the clay was fired it further intensified these really incredible textures and surfaces. In the end, the shapes I was pushing the clay over were what I was really interested in. I had no idea how to make the types of shapes I wanted to work with at that point. Then I discovered the technology, that it would allow me to scan forms and provide me with an exact replication of the surface I was interested in; not an impression but a replication.
It was a revelation, a technological discovery that fitted my vision. It’s the controlling factor. The precision that the computer brings to the process is just incredible. Every aspect of the process is represented by a digit. That amount of control fascinates me.. It is interesting that you can take forms that are so intuitive and gestural to begin with and have something so definitive at the end of the process. You can have looseness and control. And the interactive element is without restraint. At any point you can stop the programs, you can change them, you can rewrite them. You can program it to do absolutely everything (laughs). It’s like the best assistant in the world.
Can you describe how you make a sculpture using the CNC technology?
I first produce a large group of plaster molded and carved forms. Successful forms are digitally scanned and transferred to the computer as three-dimensional files. The use and modification of tool path, scaling and morphing programs, allows for manipulation and intervention. This is an intervention that is monitored on the screen. I make printouts of the forms and paste up full size images to measure scale.
Simultaneously, I am selecting rock in consideration of the form. At this point it is very much a dialogue between the scale that the material projects out and my imposed requirements of color, veining composition and stone type. After this I go back to the computer and make the final decisions with regard to what the size and angle of the milling tool should be.
The selected block of stone is placed on the lathe or milling machine. First cuts are made with a diamond saw which is digitally fed information from the computer files as to where and where not to cut. The sculpture slowly starts to emerge. The process is interactive in that you can stop the machine, rewrite the program, and change the form.
When the milling is complete the blank or beginning of the sculpture is removed, and my hand work begins. Over a period of time I work the surfaces by cutting, carving, drilling and polishing them until the sculpture is complete. On some occasions the sculpture is placed back on the mill to carve openings using newly written programs. In essence the original plaster forms are from my hand, the stone blanks, which are produced by the CNC machine, act as new starting points for my hands and eyes to act on.
Your recent sculptures made using the CNC have a daunting amount of surface detail but are smaller in scale than the earlier work. They are less iconic than the large stone pieces. Are you working on a more intimate scale for a reason?
I think so. I think the scale of the new work has to do with the torso and with the head. I am thinking about how one creates the sensation of that ownership. One thinks about the head as a vessel, as this enclosure, something that contains all of our thoughts, questions, ideas, and so forth. I think of the torso in terms of its physical capacity as a breathing apparatus, as a digestive system, as the heart. I think about the compression that exists in these small internal spaces in the human body. I am trying to fit a lot into a compact and compressed space. I try to fill out the shape as much as I can, without making the overall form enormous.
You have stated that your experiences working with the visionary architect Frank Gehry made you interested in the concept of making a building or place without building rooms in it. Does this mean that you imagine yourself no longer making art objects, but creating environments? What are thinking of doing in the future?
What interests me in the next stage is to pass inside a sculpture, to move physically inside a sculpture. To move inside this (points to a recent sculpture made using the CNC). I want the external sensation to be replicated on the inside. In essence, that is the reason for the void.
In many pieces I suggest the internal world of the sculpture. I am thinking about making a sculpture that has the external sensation on the inside, so that there is a continuum. I want to make an object that is big enough to walk inside and feels seamless.
I have the opportunity to make a couple of very large pieces, and two or three people will be able to fit into them. It’s a challenge, because I don’t really want to make architecture, or a habitable space. It’s primarily about space and atmospherics. I am not religious in any way but sacred places, cathedrals, the domes and interiors, have an incredible power, even though a lot of it is theater. The spaces are compressed and this sense of compression creates the drama. And again I see this, as all relating to the human body’s potential to interpret primary sensations, the relationship between the forms and the human body..
Do you want to achieve a complete sense of ‘otherness’ with your work, to reaffirm a real or imaginary boundary between art and everyday life?
My ambition is that a sculpture could exist on the corner of the street and have as much significance as a mailbox (Laughs), or the bank or a restaurant.
You mean you want sculpture to be as necessary to our everyday existence as the mailbox?
Yes…I truly believe that people have the capacity to feel this way about sculpture, to recognize the significance of it themselves. But it is a two way street. It is an interactive thing.
The concept of ‘all-roundness’ was crucial to modern sculpture. Many of your freestanding stone sculptures seem to be about something else. They have mysterious interiors; suggestive openings which make viewers ponder their allusive centers.
The idea of the center is this asking of the viewer to involve their unconscious, to become interpretive. The interior is the mystery, the place where one is asked to take responsibility for what associations you get from the work. It’s an attempt to not just deal with the body in terms of its external parameters, but to go beyond the descriptive nature of the form. My voids, the holes that I create are inlets. With Henry Moore you saw where you were going. I hope you don’t quite see where you are going with the holes and openings I make. I am trying to slow you down in terms of your attention to atmosphere. My work also has to do with the sensuality and sexuality of experience. It’s not a literal description. It’s not about that. It’s about how one goes beyond the visual. I want to create a seamless, pensive moment.
Is it important to you that your sculptures communicate certain numinous or transcendental values to the viewer?
The idea of shape and reference is hopefully continually turning, that one sees the vessel and then it starts to transform into a more architectonic form and then it moves back to the body. I hope that the work is in a constant state of transformation, that it goes through phases. I want the work to be continually morphing in the viewer’s mind. As one exists in this world you go through these mutations. We move through our experiences and assess them.. We all own a body, but never really sense it.. Making sculpture is an attempt to grasp complex feelings and emotions without interacting with other people. It’s not particularly complicated but it is not easy to do. I want people to feel a sense of reverence for the act of looking. Since the loss of power of religion, of the church, we have lost that everyday reverence for the artifact. The people who do collect my work are looking for that aspect of reverence. They talk to me about sitting with the work, holding it, touching it, remembering everyday to go to it, and so forth. And that’s very rewarding. That’s the most it can do. That is probably all it can do (Laughs).
Does the unconscious, if you believe in one, play an important role in your creative process? Do you feel like you are making archetypes or universal symbols?
I wonder about that. I think that there is something surprising that happens. Sometimes I’ll make a sculpture or drawing and after the event I’ll recognize it from somewhere else or finally a key word or sensation becomes a shape and it is suddenly so obvious that it could only be that. This would suggest some sort of unconscious awareness of forms. There is definitely some reference to the body in my work, but it is not the shapes we know the body to be, which suggests the unconscious..
You are currently building your own studio close to your home. Can you talk about this process?
I have always worked in old commercial spaces. The space we are in right now is an old paper mill that I purchased 12 years ago. I never thought that the space mattered that much as long as it was practical and could handle the workload. Tony Caro taught me that going to the studio was going to work and from that I assumed that I should not work at home. A studio has to have that edge to it for me. The new building is addressing ideas of what are the ideal working conditions. How do you create a space that fits the ambition and proportions of your working habits? One thing I do know is that I feel confident and located enough in my work that it is time to invest in a home for it. I just have to find the money!