Matt Rugg, Hatton Gallery — abstract sculpture finds the beauty in shrapnel

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In April 1942, German bombs fell next to the childhood home of artist Matt Rugg, blowing the windows in. Over the coming days, the young boy collected shrapnel and raided abandoned, bombed-out houses for treasures. It seems as if Rugg went on to spend his 60-year career within a postwar aura of renewal and reconstruction, demonstrating all the beautiful forms shrapnel might take.

Matt Rugg: Connecting Form at Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery is the first major retrospective of the artist (1935-2020). Abstract sculpture can often seem serious and austere, perhaps even confrontational — but in the pieces gathered here, composed of a range of media, there’s a familiar, even lived-in quality. Rugg’s favoured materials are part of what surrounds us: plastic-coated wire mesh, which the artist collected when passing workmen constructing a tennis court; sheet metal which, in a 1984 untitled work, can be made to look soft and furled. Gentle, even.

The Hatton show coincides with the centenary of the first fine-art degree to be given in the UK: it was awarded at what is now Newcastle University, which houses the gallery. And it was here that, starting in 1956, Rugg took the revolutionary Basic Course offered by luminaries Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton. Seeking to align art-teaching with what was actually being produced by living artists, it focused on the rudiments of line and abstract form, design and industrial materials. This proved so influential that, with the agitation of Pasmore, a version of it became compulsory across all British art schools a few years later. 

Detail of a sculpture of rope made of tightly coiled steel wire
‘Anatomy VIII’ (2015) is one of eight steel-wire sculptures suspended from the gallery’s ceiling
A square relief made of wood with protruding abstract shapes hangs alongside abstract paintings in a gallery
Hatton Gallery displays some of Rugg’s early wall-mounted reliefs © Colin Davison (2)

While a student, then a teacher, of the Basic Course, Rugg was in his element, making sculpture from industrial refuse and driftwood along the banks of the River Tyne. The work was an immediate success and, judging by the quality of the show, immediately complete. Gallery spaces have been arranged in such a way that works from different periods, whether freestanding objects, drawings or paintings, speak to each other like long-lost companion pieces. A vocabulary of motifs and themes preoccupied Rugg — a facet that curator Harriet Sutcliffe demonstrates with real subtlety.

From as early as the 1960s, critics described Rugg’s style as half-painterly, half-sculptural. It’s not much of a leap from the inches-thick impastos Frank Auerbach was painting in the 1960s to Rugg’s early wall-mounted reliefs. Take “Boomerang” (1962), a sequence of wood pieces — some geometric, some softly curved and unctuous — arranged on a square ground, but which seem to protrude from the wall organically, like the antlers of a stag in his velvet, or bracket fungi on a log.

Small pieces of painted wood stuck together form a square shape that protrudes from a larger square slab of wood painted in green white and black
‘Painted Unit Relief’ (1963) © Colin Davison

Nor does there appear to be much difference, in terms of texture and material, between “Painted Unit Relief” (1963), bought by the Tate two years after Rugg graduated, and the stratified canvases of Howard Hodgkin. The same can be said for “Grey Notation” (1978-79), a 3D rectangular grid of steel mesh the height and thickness of a respectable canvas, through which the white gallery wall and the shadows cast upon it become part of the effect.

Rugg was resistant even to the label of sculptor, preferring to be seen as something between sculptor, painter and draughtsman. Despite selling well since his twenties and being included in the big surveys, Rugg decided to adopt a low profile as he continued to make and teach, by this point at Chelsea School of Art. He didn’t give a solo exhibition of his work between 1970 and 2011. This has perhaps unfairly skewed received opinion about his place in the shaping of British art. 

An abstract image in oil pastel showing blue and yellow squiggles over a yellow, pink and blue background
Untitled (2010-11)
An large abstract metal sculpture on a white plinth with long green, black and red protrusions rising from a metal base
Untitled (2016) © Colin Davison (2)

The show-stopping Anatomy series is presented here as the artist’s final word about form and medium. Eight galvanised steel-wire sculptures, suspended from the ceiling, appear like large, mid-air pencil drawings. Over four decades, Rugg worked with this wire, which he painstakingly manipulated by hand, twisting and binding into lengths of metal rope. That the metres-long hanging tendrils, creepers, metal nooses and lassos of the Anatomy series were a product of his later phase is a testament to his vigour and commitment. Even after his death, we can see in his work how the sharp edges of a spent material might be refashioned into something bracing, positive, and forward-looking.

To January 13,


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