Nicola Ellis

Molten lines and metallic dreams

The recent sculpture of Nicola Ellis

Essay by Derek Horton 2015


Nicola Ellis makes sculpture that seduces and engages. It stops you in your tracks. It gets in your way, traps you, occupies your space and demands your attention. It is easy to give in to that demand – there is something irresistibly sensuous in the sculpture’s surface textures and appealingly ambiguous in its form. This ambiguity lies in the often anthropomorphic qualities of objects that seem simultaneously familiar and alien and in the use of materials that can be as repellent as they are attractive, sometimes obvious and sometimes deceptive in their natural or manufactured origins. There is something here that resonates with Claes Oldenburg’s statement of what he wanted sculpture to do – “I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top. I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips and is heavy and coarse and blunt”.1


Not in any academic or systematic way but in a much more organic one as part of a personal and evolving journey, Ellis is making an ongoing study of the fundamental aspects of sculptural form – line, plane, mass and scale. Works such as Indentare major, Indentare minor and Cauda are bulky forms with complex surfaces built up from the accumulation of shards and fragments, taking on an animal-like form in Peregro. Less bulky but much bigger, skeletal forms creating linear sculptures from bulbous elements, works such as Porites and Osseous, begin to test the architectural dimensions of the spaces they occupy. Explorations of architectural scale in constructed linear form are taken, literally, to new heights in the work You won’t see that bit anyway, filling the nave of the former church that is now 20:21 Visual Art Centre in Scunthorpe. Planar form in turn is investigated through recent stitched vinyl works and other wall based works using painted metal. Ellis’s recent enthusiasm for testing the possibilities of working in welded steel are now enabling her to combine linear elements with solid forms and flat planes in new and more rapidly improvised ways. In this work steel from stock and welding rods as sculptural components in themselves contrast with the traces of previous usage in steel from scrap. Sometimes the intrusion of other materials – slag, concrete, polyurethane, plaster, paint – add to an industrial vernacular in which sculpture is assembled and welded from materials utilised for their intrinsic properties rather than their metaphorical associations or implied meanings.


Welding is fundamentally an industrial process and compared to most techniques with which sculpture might be made, one with a short history that is rooted in the twentieth century. The history of welded steel sculpture itself is even shorter, really going back no further than Picasso’s contemporary and friend Julio Gonzalez (1876–1942), who came to it as a creative process from his industrial background, learning oxyacetylene welding whilst working at a Renault factory after previously working with his blacksmith father. David Smith (1906–1965), the other giant of welded steel sculpture in the twentieth century, similarly worked as a welder at the Studebaker car plant in South Bend, Indiana in 1925.


The flame of the torch or the arc of the spark allows the welder to shape work with an immediacy absent from more traditional sculptural techniques but it still occupies a limited place in modern and contemporary sculpture. It is interesting that in the library of the Henry Moore Institute for the Study of Sculpture; one of the world’s foremost such institutions; traditional techniques of modelling, carving and casting dominate the shelves. Of around two-hundred books in the section on sculptural techniques, there are a mere five on welded and direct metal sculpture. The heavy industrial origins of the process and the machismo of metalworking also contribute to a male domination of the art form. Judy Collischan’s “Welded Sculpture of the Twentieth Century” (2000) includes only thirteen women amongst eighty-six artists.


Welding allows fabrication by causing separate metal components to coalesce by heating them and using a rod to form a weld pool of molten metal between them which, when it solidifies, forms a strong joint. This involves forming a bead of drops of molten metal left behind as the welding rod and the flame move ahead. A proficient industrial welder has to learn quickly to lay down a bead as perfectly, evenly and invisibly as possible. No such dexterity is essential to the artist welder and arguably it is the creative use of clumsy imperfections that allows a kind of molten calligraphy to be built up in Ellis’s process. As Alexander Calder, yet another sculptor with a background in industrial engineering, observed, “to an engineer, good enough means perfect. With an artist, there’s no such thing as perfect”.


The tensile qualities of steel ‘as it comes’, in rods, bars and rolled sheets, combined with the capacity of welding to make stable joints at points and edges, allows for defying gravity in ways impossible with other materials. Stretching lines, stressing junctions and taking balance to its limits have opened up new possibilities for Ellis’s work, “suspended action and suspended mass, challenging and teasing gravity, structure appearing to generate itself in mid-air”.2 Perhaps most interesting of all is her discovery that the weld itself can become a significant element in the sculpture, an additive process building up beads from the welding rod that solidify into bulbous metal lines. This is an artful subversion of conventional welding skills, not so much using as reinventing the function of the industrial process – making something with the weld itself rather than merely joining two things to make a new thing. So in Ellis’s hands the weld is not merely a means of fabrication, rather the connection or join becomes the focus, as the process of joining itself involves the creation of new formal elements in addition to the new form made by the connection. The visible materiality of the weld becomes a component of the sculpture in its own right as the tendrils of liqueous metal solidify, like making solid the water streaming from a tap or jetting from a hose or, perhaps more pertinently, like the stream of ink flowing from a pen drawing a line solidified in three dimensions.


The more extended the line of weld becomes the harder it is to control, becoming more irregular and uncertain. Intention often has to surrender to chance, but Ellis relishes the awkwardness, rawness, imprecision, even ugliness, that results. She would probably relate to David Smith’s assertion that, “the term ‘vulgar’ is a quality, the extreme to which I want to project form, and it may be society’s vulgarity, but it is my beauty”.3 Her precariously articulated structures made primarily from rods, bars, strips and other extended, linear forms, are ‘stitched’ together by the accumulated threads of molten beads from the welding rod and they define through their negative spaces spatial volumes of “iron-bound air” in a process of drawing not as contouring but as bending, folding, rolling and fixing.4 The undisguised industrial origins of the materials are overlaid with an evident improvised and hand-made quality and Ellis tests the limits of welding not by feats of load bearing strength or precise fabrication, but rather by emphasising frailty and clumsy elegance. Works like Double whammy, where two steel plates are simultaneously joined and held apart by two fragile yet solid strings of weld that look more as if they have been painfully extruded rather than patiently accreted, or Raising the bar, in which a mild steel rod is held only just aloft from the floor by some shiny globs of stainless steel that celebrate their abjectness with a superficial sheen. Both suggest the potential for a radically gendered reading of Ellis’s refusal of both industrial-quality manufacture and macho sculptural bravura.


Scale and delicacy collide in this work and the act of joining becomes one in which drawing, stitching, stretching and bridging somehow coalesce. Linear elegance collides with lumpen awkwardness in a most productive way. Improvisation surpasses preconception in the making of the work and its insistent presence invites a response that appeals to “the wisdom of the body, a bodily knowledge that stresses spontaneity, valuing rather than discarding the human imperfections of human creation”.5


In 1963, Eduardo Paolozzi published The Metallization of a Dream, an extraordinary textual collage of sparsely punctuated random notes of ideas that is somewhere between poetry and verbal sculpture. Parts of it uncannily connect for me with Ellis’s recent work, none more so than this: “Mystic horns, thorns, antennae technical mandibles five-jointed non articulated pinnacles of aware.” 6 Amongst her flowering spikes of steel there is above all a surreal poetry in Nicola Ellis’s imagery and increasingly it is inherent in the very process of making the work too, in her idiosyncratic use of welding techniques.


1 Claes Oldenburg, Store Days. 1967, Something Else Press, New York.
2 William Tucker, comparing Degas and David Smith, in his book The Language of Sculpture. 1974, Thames & Hudson, London. (p.154).
3 David Smith, The New Sculpture, 1952 in Garnett McCoy (ed.), David Smith. 1973, Allen Lane, London. (pp82-5).
4 “Iron-bound air” was Reg Butler’s description of the space notionally enclosed by the wiry lines of his sculpture, cited by Margaret Garlake in The Sculpture of Reg Butler, 2006, The Henry Moore Foundation. (p56).
5 A quote from Sally Barnes’ account of the contemporary use-value of the improvisatory dance and performance culture of Greenwich Village in 1963, in Sally Barnes, Greenwich Village 1963: Avant Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body. 1993, Duke University Press, Durham & London.
6 Eduardo Paolozzi, The Metallization of a Dream, 1963. Lion and Unicorn Press, Royal College of Art, London.










2015       Corridor 8 Contemporay art and writing journal online

More room for error: Nicola Ellis

2013        Corridor 8 Contemporary art and writing journal online

Nicola Ellis & Aura Satz, Castlefield Gallery