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Three new sculptures by Joni Brenner

Mary Jane Darroll and Benji Liebmann curated the 2014 Nirox Winter Sculpture Fair.  They invited me to participate, and they encouraged me to work on a larger scale than I was used to, and to make sculptures in a more durable medium than the air-dried clay sculptures I had previously been making.


Once I had produced a new set of small clay skulls, which in themselves present a small but significant shift in my sculptural work (they are lifted off the horizontal, and turned on their heads in an attempt to retain a sense of their verticality), the task was to upscale the small versions to a large, public, outdoor scale.


I worked with Pretoria based artist Angus Taylor at his studio to scale up these new skull sculptures. The process involved making 3D scans of the small clay skulls, laser cut steel armatures scaled up five times, and half a ton of clay!


The translation from small to large-scale work is complicated, and in many ways requires a complete re-make, or at least a re-interpretation of the smaller originals. Three of the four small originals were upscaled under enormous pressure – time was short, and I was out of my comfort zone.  It was a profoundly difficult period of work, but one that made me understand how sometimes creative breakthroughs are dependent on this kind of pressure.


The scale of the sculptures meant that I worked with giant tools, planks of wood and my elbows and arms to shape and form the sculptures into being. They have an urgency and energy that results from this very physical making process, and a strange quality that results perhaps from the fact that two of these skulls are upside down, as if tossed, discarded, or unearthed.  


The expert foundry workers and metallurgists at Taylor’s foundry DSW made the moulds and cast the finished clay sculptures in bronze.  With their beautiful complex dark patina the first of the edition were installed at Nirox for the Winter Sculpture Fair. There they were installed on a 5 metre diameter circular gravel base sensitively set into the landscape by Iwan Roux at Rekopane Landscapes.


Working on this large scale was, in the end, liberating and must have played a part in unleashing the energy and confidence required to make watercolours on a large scale too. These were eventually made for the 2015 solo exhibition in London entitled At the still point.  


The titles given to the three new sculptures reflect the difficulty of the making process, one takes its title from a statement made by the Swiss sculptor Giacometti, ‘I sculpt because I am curious to know why I fail’; another, ‘Elbowed’, references the physical process, and also the sense of being affected by/impacted by an experience, and the third, the title for the largest one, Heart Head, references not so much the difficulty of the making, but its particular shape from certain angles evokes both its skull-like qualities as well as the muscly heart organ bringing home the sometimes unsettling fragility of the threshold between life and death. 


Helen Pheby, a senior curator of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the UK saw these works and has included me in the 2016 Sculpture exhibition that she is curating for Nirox, entitled, ‘A Place in Time’. The curatorial focus of this exhibition responds to humanity’s fleeting presence and the compulsion to make objects that mark and define our existence. For this, the 4th of the small skulls will be translated to a large scale. 

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