Alchemy in Sculpture
by Sue Curnow, NZ Herald, 6 October 1994.

John Edgar, Light Relief, at Fingers, Kitchener Street, until 21 October.

The title of the exhibition refers to the fact that Edgar, a sculptor, usually works mainly with granite, marble and glass. His works, while not large, are weighty and substantial, in contrast to the relative lightness of silver, copper and brass. Methods of working differ too, from laborious cutting, grinding and polishing to relatively quick soldering, patinating and lacquering.

Nevertheless, these 'badges' have much in common with the sculpture despite their obvious two-dimensionality. For one thing, there's a sombreness of tone; for another, a common theme of landscape and of journeys. Landscape is inferred in the sculpture by cross-sections and undulations (among other things) and in these works by certain lines and curves. Journeys are signified by stars and flag-like forms.

All Edgar's work reflects his interest in alchemy, physics, chemistry and geology. He explores themes of necessary destruction and propitiatory reconstruction (a recent exhibition was entitled Making Amends). He is excited by the reactive processes between various chemicals, by the ways they interact with different metals to create certain colours and textures.

In this exhibition the works take the form of plain shiny stars, or of irregularly outlined, pieced and patinated rectangles. All are completely flat with no incision or other surface manipulation (bar one with a tiny incised cross, another with a stamped-out star). The image or decoration comes entirely from the shapes and colours of the metals themselves or from the results of chemical reactions.

In some the surface is organised geometrically into triangles large or small, defined by contrasts of light and dark - silver and black, grey and iridescent copper. Others are like mini-landscapes with pieces of different metals soldered together forming the shapes (curved hill, straight sea/sky horizon). Forging and grinding preceded chemical treatments and lacquering to produce each final form.

One characteristic of Edgar's sculpture is tension between elements and shapes: the penetration or separation of one by an apparently unlikely other - of granite by glass or a solid dense black slab by a slim red wedge of the same substance. In some of these badges a similar tension occurs in a visual rather than a material sense; for example, an apparent prising apart of a silver sheet by a sharp copper wedge, the proportions of each creating the difference between a passive insert and a dynamic invasion.

Patination of metals is a device employed increasingly by artists as part of a repertoire for creating the illusion of preciousness, along with the use of truly precious metals, and of enamelling and other surface treatments which until recently were mostly associated with the decorative arts. In this process the applied chemicals interact with and alter the host surface, creating depth and richness. For painters such as Stephen Bambury and Max Gimblett the technique is one of several which give their work beauty and mystery.

Indeed, there is a fine line between definition of Edgar's badges as 'jewellery' or 'paintings'. They look well in the showcase, working successfully as images and compositions, and the question comes to mind: apart from the plain stars, how well do they perform as jewellery? Was this purpose his primary intention or was it a desire to express his artistic concerns in another medium?

Specifically naming these pieces 'badges' rather than 'brooches' (or, in the American way, 'pins') is a matter for curiosity, too. A badge must be earned; it signifies attainment of a goal or acceptance by a group. It indicates status; it differs in every way from the entirely ornamental brooch. Perhaps these are his personal badges in recognition of his efforts, journeys and achievements. And perhaps Fingers, where the idea and parameters of jewellery are often examined, is the very place to show them.