Neil Dawson is an Arts Laureate, a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, a sculptor of international standing. In New Zealand and around the world, in lofty civic spaces, domestic interiors and outdoor spaces, his laser-cut, aluminium and steel sculptures hover like ephemeral figments of our imagination. Using the essential sculptural tools of structure, design and scale, his works – suspended or bolted high above our heads – skew expectations of perspective, volume and mass.
As seen in Chalice in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, Ferns in Wellington’s Civic Square, Horizons in Gibbs Farm on Kaipara Harbour and Globe, suspended above the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris, they are barely-there forms, drawn lines stretching across the landscape or urban air space, filtering light, insinuating depth, flickering between substance and absence.
Dawson’s is not a plinth-based practice. He graduated from the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts in 1970 and the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne in 1973. At art school and later when teaching 3D design he gravitated towards the idea of drawing in space. He taught toy-making, admiring their simplicity, their inventiveness, the fact that they don’t have a function “apart from play”.
He began making feathers in the early 1980s when a friend asked him to design a weather vane. The result was a small, copper feather pivoting on the tip of its quill in response to the wind. Since then new technologies and materials – polycarbonate, translucent acrylic, so-called flip-floor or chameleon paints mimicking the iridescence of duck’s wing – have made his feathers lighter, larger, more reflective, more beguiling in their unique detail of rachis, barb and interlocking barbules.