N° 58 Back to the Bone

Adam Colton

4 January - 18 March 2001

Back to the Bone

In his studio Adam Colton and I looked at the tiny shard of bone which, scaled up 100 times, has provided the basis for one of the sculptures on show in the Stedelijk Bureau. Wearing my art- historian’s hat, I asked him to confirm that this was, then, the model for the finished work. But, no, Adam insisted, it only became the model after the work became the artwork. This degree of nicety in naming came back to me a week or so later as I read a piece about the English child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. This described Winnicott’s ‘total set-up’, the environment and processes by which the self comes into being. It is only through nurture, through ‘good-enough mothering’, that the baby actually becomes ‘the baby’. Though the baby always looked like a baby, it only becomes a baby, rather than a ‘shell’, by means of care. Only when Colton is confident that a work is more than just a work, but good enough to be called an artwork, would he allow its source to be called the model.

These bones have been with Adam Colton for a long time. Part of the studio furniture and more, they are literally in the baggage of an artist who has had them for as long as he can remember and drawn them many times. And the environment in which they, and these sculptures exist, is part of a wider terrain which goes back into childhood. As a child in the North of England Colton was taken climbing every weekend by his father. With his four brothers he scaled - in somewhat approximate fashion - the hills and peaks of Derbyshire. His memories of feeling the shape beneath his feet is deeply engrained in Colton’s experience of making and seeing these sculptures.

Making them, and at the same time being elsewhere in his head, is a way of understanding how these structures and surfaces at once represent the outside and the inside worlds. Their terrains are external and internal, bones which are hills or buildings, and sculptures which are a portrait of the way we think. That portraits of thought should be derived from bones is more than a superficial juxtaposition. Bones represent more than simple skulls; they are exemplary for Colton in other, more interesting, ways. They are at once ancient and modern, dead and alive, hard and soft. Their sedimentary make-up, layer on layer, is an analogy, it seems, not just for geology, but for the way we think, and for the world at large. They are also very clearly sculptural - or architectural - with a light but strong internal structure supporting their surface. Moreover, Colton has literally lived with them, as their forms inhabit his head, and he labours over and inside their surfaces.

Colton is hard to write about because his ostensibly systematic ways of making sculpture hide unexpected ellipses. (Another way of putting this is to say that writing about his work could easily make it sound more boring than it is.) He may enlarge, but not faithfully. Indeed, he deliberately takes a source object that is too small to enlarge accurately. In fact, we might go so far as to say that the bone is only an idea which sets up a framework within which Colton can find solutions. His activity centres on the areas between copying and inventing. His source propels him into a complicated form; his artistry consists largely in simplifying and redefining the form so as to give it (what he calls) ‘swing’.

One art-school aphorism which Colton remembers particularly clearly is that the best way of making a shape is to focus on the tip of the finger rather than on the hand which lies behind it. The notion carries through into the way Colton cut down his shards of bone so that only the ends remained. These he mounted - working them up in the most extraordinary way - onto platforms of plywood which, covered with a grid of pencil lines and numbers, allowed these tiny objects (1 or 2 cm long) to assume monumental proportions and the kind of presence of an object in a Giacometti painting, sitting within a web of articulated space. Colton’s articulated spaces vary: from the measured to the unmeasured, from the grid to the scribble, spanning his range from the obsessively controlled to the wildly uncontrolled.

This piece of bone - which has become model after the event - has itself been fairly intensively worked before being taken further. More than just a shard, it has been sawn and filed to reveal a portion of its interior structure. Having marked up the salient points of his source, Colton first enlarged it 50 times, transferring the points across to blocks of polystyrene foam over which he drew and carved. Drawing and carving are central to these early stages. He made three models at this scale before realising that x 100 was to be the scale at which these sculptors would best find their final realisation. As a first step the x 50 enlargement had been easier, and this first stage of getting to know the forms also allowed for greater freedom in the next.

As he has moved through this body of work Colton has shifted the emphasis from revealing to concealing, allowing his inherent oscillation between order and chaos to inform a process which is at once informed by the structure of bones, and by the logic of sculpture-making. Taken together, the work can be seen to combine an amalgam of covering and uncovering. Having revealed the bone, and stripped it back, Colton then begins to threaten its identity with glutinous blobs. Thin and fat. Colton thinks of his process as a combination of ‘bones and blobs’, filling the fissures with an infill which is reminiscent of the honeycomb ‘filling’ of bones but which also gradually succeeds in obscuring them.

Being inside Colton’s studio has itself a quality of life and death, of being in a museum of ancient casts or a cold storage depot, a cross between an abbatoir and the quarries of Carrara. The surfaces are at once shiny and floury, smooth but hairy. Though animal references are clear, so are artistic ones, especially in the concentration on plinths, which vary from overt concrete supports, to discrete platforms, to submerged central cores.

It is in the wall works that the ‘supports’ (the original moulds) are submerged. And whereas in the floor pieces the ‘blobbing’ is internal (or ‘supportive’), in the wall works it moves out to the surface. This makes a nonsense of traditional hierarchies. Here we have a complex conversation across the language of sculpture (support and surface; plinth and cast) and the language of its subject-matter. The internal structure of the bone seems to escape its proper confines and invade its subject, which is itself seemingly traumatised by a kind of internal implosion. These almost cartoon- like expletives take Colton’s more subtle sculptural infidelities to their more extreme conclusion.

In these wall-works Colton took parts of the earlier half-scale model to support the new work, in a circular process reminiscent of the traditional play of sculptors, and perhaps, most recently, of Didier Vermeiren or Kirsten Ortwed’s dialogues with moulds and casts. Here we are inside the studio, inside the process, inside the work. This is the ‘art-work’. We are inside a loop which is both physical and a mental. Casts speak both of the past - of earlier creation - and of future life. Continuous generation - in the mind of this artist and in the site of this subject - is surely Adam Colton’s theme, but this is a generation which is curiously, and unexpectedly, volatile.

Penelope Curtis