Richard Wilson

November 2002

Publication: The Sunday Herald

Richard Wilson

Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh 


If we accept that art is both a process and a finished product then this show of maquettes, models and working drawings provides an insight into the functioning of the artist’s mind.  The artist in question is Richard Wilson who first came to public attention in 1987 for his sculptural installation ‘20:50’ at Matt’s Gallery in London (the work was subsequently acquired by Charles Saatchi).  The work consisted of used sump oil which filled and entire gallery floor to waist height presumably taking its name from the type of engine oil  (a maquette of the work, fashioned from a shoebox, is shown here).  Later, in 1988 and 1989, Wilson was nominated for the Turner Prize, thus virtually guaranteeing future success and marketability.


The blacksmithing metaphor of the show’s title, ‘Irons in the Fire,’ is a useful one – it points to Wilson’s diversity and eclecticism as well as describing a favourite working material.  Thus, a work which plays with the idea of substituting man-hole covers with other materials in the Pimlico district of London truly novel. Wilson seems to be saying: expect the unexpected, question the entire visual and built environment, accept that nothing has to be the way it actually is.


There is also a series of working drawing and models for ‘Slice of Reality,’ a highly impressive experiment in site specific and site relevant sculpture.  Wilson literally sliced through a steel hulled ship and had it installed on the Thames near the Millennium Dome.  This working drawing was used to direct the work of the cutting crew and the list of 58 instructions reads like a meticulous litany: “Refit Mast & Weld Ladder”; “Wash off Window blanking plates”….  Although it’s not exactly found poetry, the drawing reveals Wilson’s ‘hands-on’ approach and his dedication to process as well as outcome.


Rather than showing his work using conventional and hence ‘invisible’ display cases and plinths, Wilson’s method involves using adapted filing cabinet and metal shelving.  He does this for a number of reasons.  Everyday objects, including filing cabinets, can have sculptural qualities and by providing a different visual take on our familiar environment, by implication, Wilson invites a much more widespread questioning of function and form.


He’s done this frequently in his bigger non-gallery work (which is often linked to the architecture).  In one piece, Set North for Japan (74° 33’ 22” he took a life-sized metal frame based on his own home, and installed it in Japan illustrating the fairly mundane idea, it has to be said, that we live on a sphere and the spatial arrangement of everything on the planet is dictated by this geometric absolute.


Not all of Wilson’s ideas work or come to fruition, although that’s hardly the point. While his proposals for a light-based work ‘Joint’s Jumping’ at the Baltic centre in Gateshead, for example, appear gimmicky and mundane. What is clear, however, is the questioning and inventive nature of Wilson’s mind and the boldness of his vision.