Preview: Elemental, Antony Gormley

The Yorkshire-born prize-winning artist is best known for his public sculptures. Steve Lee meets the artist at the opening of a small exhibition of personal work

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Antony Gormley is among the most widely recognised artists in the UK and our most recognised sculptor. Famed for large-scale public works such as the Angel of the North, which towers, gracefully rusting, over the A1 near Gateshead, and Another Place, featuring 100 life-size casts of Gormley himself staring seaward from Crosby beach, the West Yorkshire-born artist’s smaller scale work is seldom exhibited.

With this in mind, the Turner Prize-winner’s Elemental exhibition, showing at Southport’s The Atkinson, is something of a rare treat. In two collections – Body and Light, drawn in the Lake District during the early 1990s, and more recent work collectively titled North Light – the small, black-on-white drawings allow an illuminating insight into the artist’s personal world.

“With the minimalist nature of drawings it’s not what you show, it’s what you invite people to imagine,” Gormley explains with intensity on the exhibition’s opening day. “The work is suggestive enough for the viewer to be able to occupy the space created in their own way. I don’t want to tell people what they’re looking at – I want them to find it.”

Gormley’s passion is evident as he goes on to explain: “The viewer can dream in the same space that you were dreaming in.

“You make a few moves, drop a few bombs, then you look at the fallout.”

“These drawings release you from the determinisms of appearance, appearance that is an accident, and we get beyond that to feel how it is to be, rather than just to see…” Laughing a little self reverentially and with a hint of exasperation Gormley admits: “Sometimes words are not very useful in these circumstances.”

The drawings which make up Elemental are indeed difficult to describe. Both bold and contemplative, the 51 works are each distinct yet remain of a similar theme. Some feature landscapes, others human figures; all are fast flowing with an air of spontaneity. In fact, the fluid nature of the drawings is an aspect Gormley enjoys and one almost entirely at odds with the monumental work he’s more widely known for.

“Sculpture is long term, deliberate, progressive and with long preparation. These drawings are done on wet paper with a brush filled with pigment and you’re not in full control so you make a few moves, drop a few bombs, then you look at the fallout.

“In a way it’s chaos and sometimes something looks like an accident but it can turn out to be the best thing.”

Although Gormley says revisiting these drawings has proved fascinating, for the immediate future it’s back to large-scale sculpture. An 11-ton graphite work for the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen is in progress, alongside a 40-foot high helix destined for a stairwell at MIT-Harvard in Massachusetts. So with all these truly colossal projects planned well into the future, plus tens of staff at studios in Hexham and London to support him, does the 65 year old ever consider himself on something of a treadmill, maybe missing the unbridled simplicity of drawing?

“No, because what’s extraordinary about all this is I used to think I made my work and I now know that’s an illusion – the work is in charge and it’s just the most incredible privilege and thrill to go to the studio every day and see how these things evolve.”

Elemental is at The Atkinson, Southport until 15 November

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