Thoughts on looking and making
VISUAL ART: Part journal, part memoir, a posthumously discovered manuscript gathers the sculptor Conor Fallon’s reflections
Conor Fallon: Thoughts on Sculpture By Conor Fallon, edited by Brian Fallon Gandon Editions, 112pp. £17.50
IN OCTOBER 2007 the Irish art world was shocked by the sudden death of the sculptor Conor Fallon, just a few months after he had been diagnosed with cancer. A strong, vigorous man with a gentle manner, widely liked, he was still in his 60s and seemed in the middle of a thriving and productive artistic career. Less than a year previously, his wife, the painter Nancy Wynne-Jones, had died at the home they shared near Ballinaclash, in Co Wicklow.
His death was particularly tragic because he was at the height of his powers as an artist and was extremely happy with his work: not just with the end products but also with the working process. Thoughts on Sculpture consists of a typescript discovered after his death. It was, says his brother Brian Fallon, who edited the manuscript, written near the end of his life, mainly in the early months of 2006. Part journal, part memoir, part notebook, it is, as the title suggests, an attempt to gather together his thoughts, reflections and insights on many years of looking and making.
While it is informal and fragmentary in nature, Brian Fallon (my predecessor as visual-arts critic) believes that it “encapsulates his whole credo and outlook as an artist, along with personal reminiscences . . . very detailed descriptions of his working methods”. It is generously illustrated with images of his work and from his life. Ballard House, his home, was especially important to both he and Wynne-Jones – he shaped the landscape of the garden as though it were a sculpture – and the book includes a portfolio of photographs by Gillian Buckley of the house, garden and Fallon’s spiritual home, his cavernous, barn-like studio workshop with its plethora of equipment and works in progress.
A son of the poet Padraic Fallon, Conor initially became an accountant and a farmer, though he also painted. It was only when he moved to St Ives in Cornwall in the mid-1960s that his interest gradually shifted from painting to sculpture. He met and married Wynne-Jones in Cornwall. They settled in Kinsale from 1972 before moving on to Co Wicklow in 1987.
Although he made some nudes and some striking portrait heads, Fallon’s “most typical subjects were birds (both wild and domestic), horses and fish”, as his brother points out. It’s no surprise that he was particularly drawn to birds of prey for their sleekness and energy – “that absolutely concentrated intensity, with every atom of the body pointed in the same direction”, he writes of a starving young sparrowhawk that he nursed back to health.
Close observation of the natural world is a feature of the work of several of the leading St Ives artists, Fallon among them. The poised, elegant lines of his sculptures derive from patient, attentive looking on the one hand and endless refinement through dozens of preparatory drawings and three-dimensional studies on the other. “I don’t believe in invention,” he writes. “I believe in seeing.”
He is notably wary of static, massive sculptural forms. Writing about seeing Picasso’s Boisgeloup head sculptures in Antibes (they were made in the early 1930s), he discusses the artist’s approach to form: “As you move around the sculpture, the next volume appears to you as you are leaving the last one.” That’s exactly the kind of dynamism he strives to generate in his own work. “The point of this for me is that the actual identity is in outline, or outlines,” caught on the hoof as you move around the sculpture.
“For me a sculpture usually arises from just a glimpse of something” or, again, “something seen, often half-seen, and not understood by anything except my eye”. A sculpture, once made, is a series of glimpses, and the space between these glimpsed views is “very mysterious”. It is, Fallon says, “a space that penetrates and illuminates the object”. Spaces, lines and planes are the essence of what he made. “I think in terms of metal. I search for as clear a line as that, always in a profile.”
There are earthier, more matter-of-fact concerns. “Sculptors speak together of very practical things,” Fallon notes. That might include “the horse’s arse test”. He’d made a horse sculpture in Kinsale in the 1970s. A plainspoken friend, “a very direct North Countryman”, visited, saw the sculpture and asked: “How did you handle the problem of the horse’s arse?”
It transpired that Fallon hadn’t handled the problem at all. “He pointed out that I had made the horse as if it were a table, with legs at the four corners,” which is anatomically incorrect. The swell of a horse’s belly vanishes into nothing between the back legs, his visitor pointed out. “ ‘He’s made like you and I are.’ And I saw that he was right.”
The horse’s arse test, Fallon relates, became a standard test, applied by him and others, including his gallerist Pat Taylor, to all equestrian sculptures.
A hands-on perfectionist, Fallon had mixed feelings about dispatching work to the bronze foundry. He didn’t just make something and send it off. In fact, if a piece was to be cast, he essentially made it again, from scratch, with casting in mind. “Nowadays,” he wrote in February 2006, “the big pieces I make are made in my studio, by myself, in my own time, meditated upon in the making and after completion.”
His sculptures are his testament, but it’s good that he felt impelled to put his thoughts into words as well. This concise, eloquent book wastes no words but is generous in what it imparts, and it gives a real insight into the creative mind at work.