Readers of NNJ will enjoy the recent work of Canadian sculptor John Macnab. Macnab's approach to mathematics and form is rooted in the traditions of morphology and of mystical geometry, yet his pieces are profoundly original. This sculptural work connects to architectural theory and practice on three levels. Immediately apparent are the thematic parallels with the twisted columns and helical spires of architectural history. Then, it seems, these pieces are specifically architectural sculpture. That is to say, the way in which they engage space and work with the viewers attention can enrich the beholder's experience of the room, the garden, or the building complex in which they are placed. Finally, it should not be ruled out that in their motivation and expression, the most commanding of these pieces might take their place among obelisks, fountains, and towers as works of architecture proper.
The site itself is graphically clean and elegant, although some users have mentioned minor browser glitches. Visitors should use the largest possible browser window, and, in navigating the site, utilize the "back" or "home" button within the page. (Using the browser's button will remove you from Macnab's studio and deposit you at your previous site.) For most visitors the site will be trouble-free and the NNJ reader in particular should look forward to the excursion. Many themes are wound into this work.
ORDER AND ECCENTRICITY
The main page shows Macnab in his studio surrounded by several of the recent works. Preliminary studies include fabric-covered lattices, but most of the pieces have been turned on a remarkable lathe of his own contrivance, which is just visible at the left of the photo. Some of the columns are standing vertical; some appear to be dancing or even teetering; others are suspended or lying prone. There is a strange balance of rectitude and drunkenness. One is reminded of the Dionysian columns brought to the shrine of St.Peter by Constantine: it seems the question of spirals and of spirits is somehow intertwined.
MACHINE AND ORGANISM
The "info" page includes a birds-eye view of the lathe that clearly shows how the flutes are cut, the place of the vertical leadscrew, and the active participation of the operator. What remains obscure is the planetary gearing of the chuck. Essentially, the workpiece is fixed to a planet gear that revolves around a central sun. The "annual" motion of the chuck describes the form of the principal cone; the "daily" motion of the chuck describes the fluting, while the apex of the cone is defined by a fixed headstock. A handful of change gears together with a few other simple mechanical devices control the relative motions of sun, planet and leadscrew, and it is by reconfiguring these mechanical linkages that Macnab obtains such extraordinary variations of geometry. (John has put three film clips on his site which demonstrate these dynamics, which may be reached via the "movies" button.) The manner in which these pieces are generated imparts both certainty and mystery to the emergent form. Each cone records the unfolding of simple processes programmed into the machine, much as seashells and animal horns emerge from the growth surface of the parent animal. Paul Valèry observed how the seashell hovers between the animate and inanimate worlds: it seems Macnab's pieces inhabit this same realm.
MATHEMATICS AND MATERIAL
CORKSCREW AND FLUTE
RAMP, SLOPE, AND PITCH
In some of Macnab's later pieces the principal helix shows a varying rotational pitch. In some, the rotational pitch increases as the spiral rises. This seems to lend a flame-like quality to the work, especially where the fluting reinforces this ascension. (HOK's RLDS Church in Independence, Missouri seems to embody an increasing vertical pitch of this sort.) In other columns the rotational pitch decreases, so that the windings of the flutes stack ever more densely upon themselves as they climb. Many of the better-known helical spirals in architecture exhibit this reduction of pitch. This is because they are conceived as spiral ramps. If the climbing angle of the ramp is to remain constant, it will climb less vertical distance with every decreasing orbit of the cone. The spire of the Stock Exchange in Copenhagen, the great Minaret at Samarra, and most of Tatlin's towers all follow this geometry.
KNOWLEDGE AND MYSTERY
Ignorance is a treasure of infinite price that most men squander, when they should treasure its least fragments
Paul Valery, introducing Man and the Seashell
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Copyright ©2004 Kim Williams Books