In the window of the Flowers Gallery in Cork Street stands a black sentry crow, a dark, human-like figure clad in armour with a crow's head and wings. It's constructed from plaster and straw and any other material scooped from her studio floor that has become British sculptor Nicola Hicks's signature process.
Have Storm Need Port (Crow Dance), above, is a forbidding sight and a portent of what's to become, not only in a troubled world perhaps but also of a set of new, unsettling sculptures within the gallery space in an exhibition she has called Pause, a kind of taking stock.
In the centre, stands a towering structure in which a Minotaur (part man, part bull) is destroying a classical statue while murdering cats by striking them with the jawbone of an ass before throwing them into trees where they hang in macabre fashion. It's an apocalyptic scene that has obvious current political and cultural references but was born from unhappy personal experience.
This year, following a joyous holiday in Wyoming, Hicks learnt that her father had become seriously ill, her son had taken up Australian citizenship and her favourite pony had had to be put down. The sculpture thus became also an outpouring of grief and is appropriately entitled It's All Totally Fucking Fucked, Mate (above).
"It's really a nonsensical, classical reference to sculpture about the fact that nothing made sense in my life anymore, I couldn't even justify making sculpture," she tells me as we view the work. "Sometimes I'm a tree, sometimes I'm a cat, sometimes I'm a minotaur, sometimes I'm a broken sculpture. It switches. It was a moving story and I tried to pour everything that I was feeling into it. I felt I was in a very bleak landscape in my life."
References to classical fables and figures have been a hallmark of Hick's works which have earned her a worldwide reputation and now fetch up to six-figure sums. In 1995, she was awarded an MBE for her contribution to visual arts.
The Minotaur, a monster invoked from the ancient Greeks through to contemporary artists and writers, is a favourite of Hicks.
"I make Minotaurs because I love them. Sometimes it's an excuse to make a beautiful chest, sometimes I make them because I want to make a pair of arms, sometimes I make them for fun, sometimes I make them for fury, sometimes I make them to get rid of some rage. Nothing is linear in the world of art."
The straw and plaster technique she uses gives a loose structure and a rawness that evokes the complexity of the body beneath the skin. It's the essence and emotional resonance of the animals that interests the sculptor rather than strict anatomical accuracy. Vigorous crosshatching lends the pieces density and vitality balanced by the lightness and fragility of their delicate outline.
The sculptures will eventually be cast in bronze.
There are similarly stark sculptures surrounding the centrepiece. A seemingly exhausted cat sits in a bare tree. A crow, perhaps having been pursued in vain by the cat, sits bleakly in another tree nearby. There's nothing sentimental about Nicola Hicks's creatures.
"If you've ever been up close to a crow you'll know they have a horrible, dark, oily smell, and the feathers are not just waterproof, you feel they'd survive anything that fell from the sky."
There's some relief to the starkness, at least for the viewer, by the inclusion of two bear heads, one of which, Mama Bear (above) was inspired by the mood of the poem, The Bear, by Ted Hughes which includes the lines
He is the ferryman,
To dead land.
His price is everything.
Though Nicola Hicks always sketches her subject as a prelude to sculpting, she has eschewed life drawings per se, finding the process too intense. However, more recently, she has begun organising regular group life drawing sessions with other professional artists she's met or with whom she's interested, and finds the experience highly rewarding and less intimidating.
She has selected a few portraits for Pause from these sessions including Untitled Nude (above). They're drawn in charcoal on paper, and unlike her sculptures, emphasise the physical features of her subjects while at the same time revealing her versatility.
Despite her current personal setbacks, Nicola Hicks, now 55, puts on a brave face. She is vivacious, good-humoured and the passion and drive, not to mention the prodigious talent, that has served her so well down the years, seems undiminished.
"It always feels like the beginning. You never feel you've got anywhere, it always feels like the interesting thing is just around the corner (laughs)."
Pause, by Nicola Hicks, runs at Flowers Gallery, 21 Cork Street London W1S 3LZ until 5 December.
All images are the copyright of Nicola Hicks and used with the permission of the gallery and artist.