Catalogue size is 240 x 285mm (portrait); 64 pages plus cover 36 works illustrated ?The sculpture of Dominic Welch? by Jenny Pery
FORMS OF CONTEMPLATION
The taut, sleek shapes of Dominic Welch’s sculpture, poised on the point of a curve, seem to defy gravity. The stone that he uses – Kilkenny limestone, Ancaster Weatherbed or Carrara marble – is dense and massively heavy, but his sculpture is all about impetus, uplift, resurgence...
FORMS OF CONTEMPLATION
The taut, sleek shapes of Dominic Welch’s sculpture, poised on the point of a curve, seem to defy gravity. The stone that he uses – Kilkenny limestone, Ancaster Weatherbed or Carrara marble – is dense and massively heavy, but his sculpture is all about impetus, uplift, resurgence. Fishy shapes have a thrust suggesting the dramatic propulsion of octopuses. Embryonic shapes seem to contain an internal pressure to uncurl, like beansprouts or the young tips of ferns. Spire shapes, like candle flames, appear to seek upward draughts of air. Even his moon-shaped discs have internal circular rhythms that make them float in the imagination. Welch’s sculpture embodies feelings that are unnameable but as recognisable as feelings experienced when looking at a full moon or the delicate new growth of plants, the darting fluidity of fish, or the grace of a bird in flight. These forms are both sensuous and spiritual, inviting contemplation.
Three years have elapsed since Dominic Welch’s inaugural exhibition with Messum’s. In the life and mind of a sculptor three years is a very short time, and Welch is still developing the same themes in his work, although these have become subtly altered and refined. He is introducing more surface texture, offsetting linear grooving and speckling against smooth curves. On some of his pieces a Celtic-inspired patterning divides the main shape into sub-shapes, hinting at an internal armature. Delicate ridges and troughs rippling over a form give a suggestion of gauzy lightness, belying the weight and solidity of the stone. Such pieces were partly influenced by a tiny Cambodian sculpture that he saw in Australia – a female form with the suggestion of a veil, the simple lines on the surface bringing out the form. Introducing texture to the surface of the stone allows him to describe the form more fully, making it less static. The textures invite the touch, activating a fingertip appreciation.
In his workshop, an open iron-roofed barn in a deep Devon valley, Dominic Welch is working on about twenty pieces of sculpture at various stages of development. Despite the physically demanding and sometimes noisy nature of his work, it is a meditative process from beginning to end. As he contemplates the raw blocks of stone, shapes begin to resonate in his mind. He shuffles them around as he works, considering them in different contexts and different lights, one piece influencing another. All his pieces are made freehand, working directly with his tools on the stone, feeling the form as it emerges from the parent block. Great pillars of stone, delivered in lorry loads from quarries in England and Italy, stand in wait. Welch does no preliminary drawings, although when the basic shape of a piece is established he draws with charcoal on its surface to delineate finer points of patterning. Smaller offcuts of stone heap the floor around his workshop, and skirting them is a positive graveyard of shards, stone particles and dust.
The barn, with its high roof, has cathedral-like qualities, and the light that comes in at different times of the day may suddenly illuminate a piece of stone, giving him new ideas and even a completely new direction. Welch prefers the low winter or spring light, because the overhead sun in summer can make the barn seem very dark. Seeing each piece in different lights at different times of day is important, helping him in the search for the archetypal essence. As he says, ‘every now and then the light catches on a piece and seems to give it a new dimension. Sometimes it feels quite religious. I was carving a piece the other day and a shaft of sunlight landed on it and I had this moment when I suddenly made a strong connection with something beyond the slab of stone in front of me and the tools in my hand.’
Despite the noise of his air tools –pneumatic hammers, chisels, angle-grinders and rotary sanders – and the clouds of dust that fly when a piece of stone is roughed out, Welch’s workshop is a peaceful place. Pheasants patrol the pathways, and small birds hop in and out, occasionally pecking at his sandwiches. Deer and hares roam the fields around. Welch often walks to his workshop, a beautiful walk that gives him time to ponder. This reflective time is important to him. ‘I’m very at ease with what I am making at the moment. Every now and then there’s a chance happening – something breaking perhaps – and I realise my forms are changing very subtly. I do distribute things slightly differently. And I’m thinking of making groups of three related sculptures, either on the same plinth, or showing them very close together. It activates the space between, the external as well as the internal space.’ A relatively new departure, instigated by Messum’s, is having stone carvings cast in bronze. The bronzes, with their warmer colour and shiny patination, throw up different aspects to the work, making it more tactile, less remote.
In the fifteen years that Dominic Welch has been working on his own he has developed many of his original themes with increasing subtlety. As he says ‘I am refining what I am doing, working at a deeper level with the same ideas. It is still as difficult as ever to articulate but I am more sure of what I am doing. A lot of things are incredibly still and some have an internal movement - there’s that balance between movement and stillness.’ Welch’s long apprenticeship with the sculptor Peter Randall-Page, who lives nearby in Devon, taught him everything he needed, from the logistics of acquiring raw stone and transporting finished pieces, to the methods of triangulation used for shaping and enlarging the blocks. Peter Randall-Page was a crucial mentor, assiduous in attempting to educate the younger sculptor. A trip with him to Japan introduced Welch to sculptors of different nationalities and also to the wonderful simplicity of Japanese art. Other working trips abroad – to France, Australia and Greece – have further broadened his outlook as well as serving to intensify his own particular vision.
Nowadays Welch regards travelling as a refreshing, non-working break from the intensity of the workshop. He no longer needs the months of meditative walking that he undertook when younger. At that time he was interested in Zen Buddhism, and was looking for a particular way of life, a practice like Zen. Regarding Zen, he maintains, ‘I like the simple mindfulness of what you are doing and the appreciation of the mundane. I suppose it helps me to b e able to spend six hours with a bit of dry sandpaper rubbing stone.’ Welch now gets the uncluttered, meditative time he needs in his workshop.
Since setting up on his own Dominic Welch has been hard at work, with little time to pause. A stream of private commissions has kept him busy, and a major public sculpture placement for the University of Exeter is in the offing. He also helps the sculptor Bridget McCrum to transport and rough out some of her pieces. He finds working with her constructive as both sculptors think along similar lines, working in a ‘hands-on’ way, allowing pieces to develop, using accident. As Bridget McCrum testifies, Welch has become an excellent, careful craftsman.
Working for a major solo show puts enormous pressure on him, because the process of carving stone is so slow. Although Welch likes to rough out each piece himself in order to develop a relationship with the stone, he now gets help for some of the intermediate processes between starting and finishing. David Brampton-Green, whom he met when apprenticed to Peter Randall-Page, has been a regular assistant, and recently Leah Edwards, a newly qualified arts graduate and family friend, has started to help in the studio. Giving others specific tasks to do forces him to focus clearly on each piece and be very well organised. The atmosphere changes. When two or three sculptors are working together his workshop begins to resemble a scene from outer space. Clad in thick jackets, heavy boots, gloves, face masks and ear defenders, wielding arcane tools attached to lengths of piping, their ghostly figures move through clouds of white dust illumined by filtered shafts of sunlight. Out of this strange drama emerge talismanic sculptures to find new life in interiors or gardens.
This second exhibition at Messum’s marks a new assurance In Dominic Welch’s work. His repertoire of simplified shapes – circles and spires, cones and pods – have become refined and purified, their essence distilled, but with an active stillness. They are poised on sculpted bases of contrasting stone or wood, carefully designed to emphasise their mandala-like qualities. The long contemplative process of their creation has turned them into forms perfected for the contemplation of others.