On a raised table in Joel Tomlin’s subterranean studio there’s a bowl of small, dried figs, a plate of shortbread, a few almonds. Snacks for the visitor, or an offering to the gods... they could be either. On a work bench in the corner there’s another pile of figs, these ones in bronze, gessoed and painted, a reminder of the artist’s long years working in a foundry, cast from the fruit of a tree at William Blake’s grave down the road at Bunhill Fields. They have a quiet, talismanic energy that sets the tone.
Tomlin’s studio is a place of files and chisels, axes, hand saws and pliers, there are no power tools. Every mark and shaving, every cut and carve is made by hand. Slowly, and with love. Wooden sculptures jostle for space on crowded surfaces, lumps of timber gathered from the streets line the floors, and everywhere there are tiny objects made from discarded off-cuts of wood and tin.
Some of Tomlin’s sculptures have what he describes as ‘conversational attributes’, a sense of one work communicating with another, or relationships building between things. It encourages an anthropomorphic reading, especially when multiple objects are arranged, Morandi-like, on a shelf, instilling inanimate jugs and jars with personality. A wooden plate becomes a kind of platform: one minute a stage for performing fruit; the next a landscape, its surface the horizon. The inhabitants of Tomlin’s studio gather and sift, finding their place over time in groups. Some stand apart, others band together: a pair of vase-like forms seem to question each other like an old married couple.
There’s humour too, ‘an undertone of levity’ as he describes it, but also a gravity born of the honest and careful crafting of his materials. Every scrap of material, and many of his tools, have been found. Nothing bought, and nothing wasted. Each piece of wood has a history, every sculpture a pre- existing starting point which is teased and worried into being over many months. Tiny additions and subtractions change everything – each move informing the next as objects are picked up, put down, filed, shaved, adjusted and assembled ... ‘nibbled away at’, to use his expression. The surface is a surprise, smooth to the touch, lovingly sanded into softness and gently coloured in muffled shades.
The connection to Morandi has been mentioned, but there’s also a link to the collaging of Kurt Schwitters, and at times to Picasso -‘I realise I’m still haunted by his Absinthe Glass. It’s still there’ - says Tomlin, tapping the side of his head. Such references help to locate Tomlin’s work in an arc of twentieth century art making, but there is also a sense that this is Geppetto’s workshop, a place at the edge of magic. It seems almost inconceivable that some sort of life doesn’t continue when the studio door is locked at night.
Certain forms might carry a symbolic suggestion, but for all the story-telling potential that these sculptures carry, any actual narrative is dodged: ‘I wouldn’t want to implant anything onto it’ he says ‘I’m seeking as little external stimulus as possible’. And yet inevitably, external stimulus is there, but it’s more likely to come from antiquity as anything in the here and now. Tomlin’s work is not immediately easy to place – these sculptures look like they could be from five thousand years ago, or from the moon. I suggest this to him. ‘There is maybe something lunar about them’, he concedes, ‘at least, they don’t readily belong to the sun’.
Whatever they are, wherever they come from, they have that rare thing that the medieval philosophers called haecceity - A thisness that is uniquely their own.