Rory Menage - Back to Nature - Curated by Artvisor's Nico Epstein in Hong Kong in 2018

A Sculptor’s Studio – In Conversation With Rory Menage

A body of new works by the British sculptor, Rory Menage, will be the subject of an exciting solo exhibition held at McNamara Art Projects, Hong Kong, from 6 September to 11 October, 2018. It will be the artist’s first exhibition in Asia.

McNamara Art Projects has made a name for itself as a premiere consultancy and curatorial body specialised in showcasing dynamic and cutting edge Asian and Western art. The show is curated by Artvisor’s director, Nico Epstein, who recently sat down with the artist to discuss the show.

Rory Menage: Back to Nature, reveals a number of works that rejoice in the physicality of raw materials. Menage manipulates iron, bronze and stone to create abstracted versions of the human form that explore the convergence of humanity and nature. In the interview below the artist discusses the works in the exhibition, his multifaceted use of stones and metals and the impact that technology has had on his practice.

Interview with Rory Menage, 3 minutes 17 seconds. Artist’s studio, London, 2018.

Nico Epstein  Nature has always been an important component and inspiration to your practice, whether it comes to your upbringing or your subject matter. When we were thinking about the concept of the exhibition my interpretation was that not only were you turning to nature yourself but that you wanted to bring the audience back into it. Could you tell us a bit more about the exhibition, Back to Nature, its themes, and the artworks included?

Rory Menage  Back To Nature is my first time exhibiting in Asia. I am showing nine heads, one small figure and one torso made of bronze, cast iron, alabaster, and limestone. They are all carved, they are all made here [in England], and they are essentially abstract in form. They are not of any particular sex but they are inevitably human. Whether you have got the gouges of the eyes, the facets of the neck, the undercuts underneath the chin, they are all simple expressions of a human head. There is also one torso in the show but again that is quite a simple torso. It is as if a child has drawn an outline on a piece of paper of what a torso looks like and I have essentially recreated that using an angle grinder and then mounted it onto a simple wooden base.

NE  Before we began working on this exhibition I hadn’t realized the impact that your family background and where you grew up had on your work. Being raised on a farm in Yorkshire you were exposed to the elemental environment of Britain; a very particular climate. How has this part of your life affected the materials that you’ve chosen to work with?

RM  The materials I use, I would like to think, are native materials to the British Isles. The limestone is called Ancaster Limestone and it is from Lincolnshire. It is the same stone Lincoln Cathedral was built with. It is a very tough oolitic limestone that is 350 million years old. Then there is cast iron, which is a dark material. It is elemental, it rusts, it is heavy, it is dense, it inevitably has historical connotations with the Industrial Revolution. And then bronze is almost the historically Mediterranean counterpart, the synthetic alloy of copper and tin used since antiquity. Compared to iron it is a much softer material and you can paint bronze in a different way than you cannot paint iron.

NE  And how do you choose to handle these materials? It seems that the process of carving plays a fundamental role in your practice. What has continued to bring you back to this form of artistic expression?

RM The earliest surviving sculptures are carvings. The concept of carving is such a basic human instinct of wanting to whittle down some form of material. It is also something that is very hard to replicate in terms of the idiosyncrasies of one person’s human hand, or two hands, on one piece of matter. So carving is quite a personal technique of making sculpture compared to say construction, which could involve many different hands and is potentially a much more complicated process.

I have been carving things since I was about fourteen and then it was just experimenting with wood, mainly. Wood is a wonderful material; it is cheap, it is light, anyone can do anything with it, really. The problem with wood is that it doesn’t last outdoors as well. It works great for interior work but if you are trying to make pieces that will withstand the elements then it can be limiting. That is why stone and metal really appeal to me because they are tough materials and that is a good challenge. I want to be challenged.

Here, I carve the forms and then get them cast professionally. So, for the iron pieces, I will carve a block of polystyrene and then get that cast in an iron foundry where it is made using the lost foam process, invented during the 1960s. Or, a bronze foundry for the bronzes – each different material requires completely different tools, skill-sets, and chemical expertise. Then, of course, there is stone, such as limestone, which I carve using stone chisels, hammers and angle grinders.

NE  Going back to the theme of the show: what drives you to focus on nature and naturalism in your work?

RM  Nature is ultimately what inspires all art. Whether that is nature in its worldly sense – ecological, biological – or more abstractly, psychological nature, human nature and the human condition. When I think of nature I don’t just think of the sort of biology of it and the leaves, and the foliage, and the vegetation, and the roots but also how that conceptually links to say the neurons of the human brain or the web-like structure of the internet and the unpredictability of the vagaries of human nature. And it is ultimately what visually inspires most artists, whether they want to admit it or not. It is everything that surrounds us and so, whether it is using organic raw materials such as limestone, or using metals such as iron that overtly change over time due to natural oxidation or exposure to atmosphere, as a sculptor, I am able to almost replicate nature more effectively because it is in its element, it is in three dimensions.

I am not making an illusion of nature, I am not projecting onto a screen. I am actually using what is there. I am using raw matter. So in some ways, in my opinion, sculpture is talking more about truth, and what it is to be alive, and what it is to be a human being today and to make a work of art. And it is all more relevant now when we are living in an age where most of us are obsessed with whatever software it is on the screen. So the screen is this strange window where we are entering this perceived area of reality; it is this theatre set. And it is quite difficult to remind ourselves that we have to go back. That we are in a human body. We are in a state of decay. We have agency. And as a sculptor, we can reinterpret that material in front of us.

 Rory Menage, Girl, 2018. Bronze.

NE  By focusing so intently on naturalism, you are in some ways pushing against the digitally biased era that we live in. However, the way that you have employed the carving process to artworks, such as Girl, seems to have an almost digital inflection to them, even though they are pointedly classical in their format. Does the digital domain have an influence on your sculptural work?

RM  The digital domain undoubtedly has an influence on my work and I do work with a lot of digital technology, especially with my larger pieces. I do construct models in three-dimensions using software. I scan the human form using a 3D scanner on my laptop. We didn’t have the space or time to do that for this show but you can not avoid the digital nowadays. That sounds like such a cliche but it is true, especially for sculpture.

In terms of three-dimensional technology, 3D printing is incredible for things like dentistry and jewellery, but I would say for sculptors at the moment the software is not quite powerful enough to really to start making things by adding form. In terms of carving and reducing form, that technology has been there for nearly two decades now. You can remove stone using diamond tooling and robots and CNC technology quite easily. So it is a very exciting time to be a sculptor.

The challenge is to then use that technology in a way so that you are making a body of work that is not just showing it has been made on software but to actually show that you have your own agency upon that material. So the danger with technology is you become obsessed with it as a means to an end rather than using it to make something new or something interesting. It is how you use the tool to make new work. In terms of the questions that I am asking, I am specifically interested in using technology to find new ways of portraying naturalism.

NE  Having known your work for a long time now, I was really struck by Head of Leaves III. Not only is it made through a technique that you just started refining but it seems to clearly illustrate the idea of employing current technologies to find new ways of portraying naturalism…

RM  Head of Leaves III is a cast iron head, whereby the metal is about half a centimetre thick but the texture is essentially ivy leaves that have managed to keep their surface texture on top of the head. In some ways sand casting is a relatively old technology but by manipulating organic material and using the benefits of various synthetic materials we have for the moulding process today, we are able to almost keep nature alive by freezing it in time using different material. It is almost like alchemy. I am transforming these organic ivy leaves into this piece of iron but en masse it has this effect of looking like a human head. And this has been attempted in the middle ages with medieval armour but those leaves were always engraved into the sheet metal rather than actually cast because it is a difficult effect to achieve.

NE  I find it remarkable that you’re able to chart a chronology from the middle ages to your present day work. The rapid development of technology when it comes to casting, carving and moulding techniques make it a unique time in history to work as a sculptor. What I’ve also always been taken by is your capacity to master techniques more often affiliated with classical forms of sculpture and then use them in order to create distinctly contemporary or even futuristic portraits and busts. Where do you position yourself and your practice in relation sculptors and carvers of the past?

RM  I think one big aspect of my work is this idea of imperfection. A lot of artists of my generation have been brought up surrounded by Hirst and Koons, where the production cost is obviously astronomical but also the finished piece is this shiny, beautifully executed piece of metal that is absolutely flawless in terms of optics. But in terms of the soul, state, and agency, sometimes it lacks. With carving you have that imperfection of the of human hand. Whether I carve through foam with a hot wire or whether it is using my angle grinder and chisels, there will always be that trace of human action and, just for me personally, I find that really exciting. That I can leave these marks in a material and it will be personal to that moment in time and space. Each of these heads has its own identity and they essentially hark back to the history of art and all archeological traces of human expression really. Whether it is the Cycladic heads, the African masks, the Oceanic pieces, or looking back at the Aztec stone carvers, they each had their own visual style, and I think that is essentially what I am trying to do myself.

NE  You mention African masks and of course the first thing that comes to mind is Brancusi’s integration of what was known as Primitive Art into his vernacular. Indeed, many canonical Western modernists took inspiration from the archaeology found in the places and epochs you mention. Are there any in particular that you reference?

RM  I think a lot about the primal carvings of figures like Gaudier-Brzeska, Brancusi, Giacometti. Those simple expressions of wanting to portray naturalism in the human form are so powerful. I look at their work in relation to the techniques they used to carve. I look to early modernists like the Cubists, the Proto-Cubists, and also figures such as Julio González. He was a Spaniard and jeweller based in Catalonia who basically taught Picasso how to weld. He was a wizard in making facets using quite simple sheets of metal, for example, forged iron. And his friend, Naum Gabo…the Constructivists, the Cubists – they were looking back to the African masks and thinking about how they could reinterpret naturalism in new ways, which was such an incredible departure from, say, the art of the late nineteenth century.

I am just trying to ask the same questions really, but from a standpoint of 2018. And the thing is, with artists nowadays, is that the temptation is to almost get focused on image and the screen and two-dimensions. It is quite a challenge to stay within the world of making something three-dimensional that can last. So, I would say those early figures are the figures who I really look up to.

NE  Are there British sculptors that have influenced your practice?

RM  So, in terms of the carvers, I look to Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, and Jacob Epstein. They were, in their time, making these radical works that were essentially primal carvings, which had only recently been experienced by the ‘Western’ mind set. They were making forms that were not seen before, showing that there was no need to represent naturalism or, say, the human form as faithfully as before. The gesture can be enough. Also, there can be room for enigma and lack of narrative. They were doing this with quite difficult materials, such as direct carving into limestone. Henry Moore, specifically, when he was younger was a big proponent of using English limestone and not getting carried away with this romantic notion of getting fascinated with Italian Carrara marble. Carrara marble is beautiful, it polishes like nothing else, but it is from the southern Mediterranean. It is from a place that is very separate to the rest of Northern Europe. Across the Alps. And we northerners have these wonderful limestones. Although there is only one limestone piece in this show, I do enjoy using it, I enjoy carving it.

NE  These artists all work figuratively and, beyond the conception of naturalism, they in essence question what it means to be human. What draws you to the human form and what is compelling you to continue this exploration?

RM  The human body was always sculpture’s first subject, and always will be. The earliest carvings that survive are either anthropomorphic – at least involving the human body, combined with say lion heads or other features, or they are literally of ladies or men or children…Venus of Willendorf, The Lion-Man, the ancient ivory carvings found in northern France. The human eye is always looking for an outline, pre-programmed for it, and in sculptural terms, even something as basic as carving two corners off a block of stone to reveal a head on top of a wide shoulder base, the human eye is intelligent enough to realise that that is not an accident, that that person has tried to portray humanity because humanity is interested in itself and always will be.

Rory Menage (b. York, UK, 1988) received his BA at University of Oxford and his MA from Leeds College of Art, UK. He currently lives and works in London. His work was recently the subject of a one person exhibition at The Averard Hotel, London, organized by Slate Projects (2016). Recent group exhibitions and projects include In the Manner of Smoke at Alice Black, London (2018); Dentons Art Prize, Niamh White Projects, London (2017); The Life and Work of John Bunting, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, UK (2017); Figures in a Landscape, The Aesthetica Short Film Festival, York, UK (2016); Tic Tac, Gallerica Civica, Trento, Italy (2016).

Press release: McNamara Art Projects

Cover image: Rory Menage, Studio Shot, 2018

Author: Sara Lavelle

Film Production: George Greenhill