Sculptor aims to write with stone
by Sue Curnow, NZ Herald, 10 July 1996.

Cross Country, stone sculpture by John Edgar, at Lopdell House, until 21 July.

Through an impressive body of work produced over 20 years, John Edgar's central concern has been to engage with the organic energies of the physical world. Like many other contemporary stone sculptors, he is concerned with place, with specific sites, with rehabilitation of or compensation for the damage done by humans to this planet.

His belief in individual and collective responsibility is expressed through his art and his life. His means of articulation is the making of beautiful, evocative objects. Often taking the form of undulating landscapes seen in cross section (like a three-dimensional chunk of land or a slice through a volcano), they can be powerful reminders of the depths and strata of the earth we live on and are part of.

His aim is to 'write with stone' - to render the material so eloquent that it conveys his ideas and feelings directly to the viewer. There is an interplay between material and subject: in nature, some substances must yield to others and be moulded by stronger forces - softer rock being pushed and squeezed by harder, denser types. Yet the elements which have been forced to conform can be seen as 'pulses' - of knowledge or of life - moving beneath the surface. It is a metaphor which can be applied to human experience as well.

When, in 1994, Edgar made and exhibited a collection of badges (Light Relief, at Fingers) he was beginning a journey which led to the development of work for Cross Country. Although he is fundamentally a stone carver and sculptor, these works were small, flat, and made of metal. They explored themes of landscapes and journeys, featuring horizons and vistas, and, notably, tensions between geometric elements. They could be read as minimal landscapes or as cross sections.

In the latest work, while returning to stone and to a large scale, he extends the trend toward visual ambiguity and the two-dimensional. More like paintings than sculptures, they are not free-standing but require a supportive base. Essentially pictorial, they are intended to be displayed at table height, preferably in front of a light source. Small quantities of red granite, blue home-cast glass, and red jasper from the Coromandel appear in these works, which are otherwise composed entirely in black and white - granite, marble.

Marble, famously translucent and flesh-like, is difficult to preselect in terms of grain or markings, so an element of chance must prevail when employing it: chance can override choice, and the nature of the material influence the outcome. The presence of light aids an impression of liveliness and changeability, and in some instances smoky markings in the marble fortuitously encourage us to see a work as a landscape in silhouette, with cloudy skies or plumes of smoke.

However, there are other ways of looking. The long, narrow format suggests huge specimen slides ready for the microscope, sandwiched slices of thin tissue, to be examined and categorised for scientific study. They are also reminiscent, to some degree, of pictorial stones created by natural means (such as the so-called Bristol stones, occurring in Gloucestershire, which often depict rows of trees or similar objects). This impression, whether directly intended by Edgar or not, is strengthened by the broken or irregular edges of some works.

From a technical point of view, these are undoubtedly masterly pieces. The various elements fit into one another faultlessly, like marquetry. The surfaces are well polished, smooth and coolly inviting to the touch. They seem to signify the resolution of one set of ideas and the beginning of another, as the final work made for this series indicates. Two tall, free-standing columns oppose one another with alternating patterns of black and white lines. Called Datum, they suggest the opening of a new chapter in a new age.

The outline of hills darkly meeting the pale sky on a winter afternoon, and images of Ruapehu, will always make me think of John Edgar's work in this exhibition.