Caulfield at the Vine, Wexford

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The current exhibition, opened throughout the Bank Holiday weekend, by artist Serena Caulfield at the Vine Restaurant, Main Street, Wexford, is bifurcated into studies of the classical and a revisiting of the natural.

Irrespective of the medium, artists dice with the challenge of stabilising an impression or conveying their take on transience. In this Wexford Festival exhibition, Fragments,the smaller paintings are the outcome of a contemporary artist studying key apotheoses in sculpture and architecture in Western antiquity: the Elgin Marbles in London and the Pantheon in Rome.

As their etymology suggests, both are joined at the hip, the Pantheon – which still stands – was intended as a temple of all the Gods whereas the Parthenon, which is in ruins and from which the Elgin Marbles were stolen, was dedicated to just one, Athena.

Where they differ is in narrative: the Pantheon, whilst paying homage to the Gods, was intended primarily to be a symbol of the greatness of Rome. The Romans invented an ingenious special effect, which still works today, to display divine omniscience: the temple is illuminated by a circular shaft of sunlight, admitted through an opening in the hemispherical dome.

Caulfield’s depiction of the oculus in the Pantheon eschews the temptation to be overawed by the brilliance of the light, and instead the interior of the brightly lit dome becomes a study of something else: the relevance is perhaps less what is happening within, than the source from without.

In ancient Egyptian or Roman cultures, the sky was the destiny of the deceased emperor turned into a god, so Caulfield’s oculus is an orbit of blue.

In her series of oils emanating from her study of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, Caulfield is attracted to the energy of movement within the marble: one horse from the chariot of the Moon, with flaring nostrils, is exhausted.

Other studies here from the Elgin Marbles derive from the fractured pedimental groups of the Parthenon. Caulfield, like the original sculptors, uses the visual memory to mimic gait, and the postures are thus convincing.

The much larger canvases in Fragments are the verdant distillations of perceptions accumulated by the artist in her many visits to South East Asia: the palette is more effusive because the artist paints what she feels and the subject amplifies and fills the canvas, like O’Keefe. The narrative couldn’t be further from the Pantheon or Parthenon studies. Caulfield sees the work as transmissions of a way of seeing.

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Looking Back: Sinfonia on Fire

1993 was a seismic year for conductor Fergus Sheil: he was honing his craft with the annual Wexford Festival Opera, and Wexford Sinfonia held its first rehearsal.

The opera to which he was attached, Ferdinand Herold’s Zampa, left a lasting impression on the young conductor, so much so that he opened Sunday afternoon’s concert with its rousing overture.

1993, in retrospect, was a vintage year for artistic director Elaine Padmore and the Festival: she unearthed the Canadian conductor Yves Abel – who conducted Zampa – and resuscitated a little known opera, but a gem, Cherevichki, by a composer who was also on Sunday’s programme, Tchaikovsky, directed by the soon to be great Francesa Zambello, at her fourth and last outing at Wexford.

Revisiting the overture again, you can see the attraction for Sheil: it is infectious, lively, spontaneous, which explains its almost universal popularity – it has been recycled incidentally often in animation, Banquet BustThe Band Concert and Two Gun Mickey – and is best described as happiness in eight minutes and 54 seconds, or there about. And because it opens at 90 mph, both orchestra and conductor are connected instantly, and the enthusiasm swiftly engages the audience, as the triumphal fanfare is addictive. Shame, however, about the rest of the opera.

The first time I saw violinist Ioana Pectu-Colan perform, outside of Ensemble Avalon, was with Philip Glass in Dundalk, and the last time was at Wexford Opera House, soloing in Glass’s Fifth Symphony, conducted by, who else, Fergus Sheil. She returned on Sunday for a musical mano e mano with Beth McNinch, in Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major KV 364, in which Mozart specified that the viola be tuned up a semi-tone and played in D major to counter balance the brilliance of the violin.

A most amiable joust, then. There are, as the programme noted, irrepressible high spirits, yet Wexford Sinfonia – no percussion – was sufficiently at one with Sheil’s sensitive guidance to embellish Mozart’s unstated poignancy, an enchanting palimpsest with the reversal of roles of the violin and the viola.

The composer intended that both instruments should soar, and Sunday’s concert was blessed by the performance of both Pectu-Colan and McNinch, the effortless virtuosity of whom was never in danger of being disassociated from the sensuous expressiveness of a large orchestra, from the opening tutti to the coda. In a word, magical, a performance framed by Sheil’s composure, which also attest to his warmth and breadth of vision.

Oh Martha

‘Intense and personal,’ is how Martha Wainwright, daughter of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle and brother of Rufus, described her approach to song writing and performance in Wexford.

Bookending the Spiegeltent Festival, Wainwright, about whom I previouslu knew precious little, was phenomenal, in a sort of what you see is what you get type of way. Feisty and energetic, her voice has the crescendo bark of a wounded animal, and her syllables soar and extinguish like spent meteors.

Wexford was a launch pad for new work, most of which she didn’t introduce with a title, but she also dipped into a classic repertoire, with a powerful rendition of Everything Wrong, literally sculpting the lyrics with venom:

‘My husband’s been lyin’ and cheatin’

I turned my cheek and reason

I change my tune every day’

At heart, Wainwright is a storyteller, and each song is preceded by a walking preamble, occasionally too long, as in Radio Star, but when she finally switches gear, and croons

I’m at the controls in the big old chair

Nothing has changed except the atmosphere

the magic is instant, passionate and animated, and her choice of mood and rhetorical affect produces that grimace of a fallen angel, a seductive combination in her performance of Jesus & Mary.

She’s the jewel in your crown

But I’m the goal that’s gonna weigh you down

I’ll keep you around this dirty old town.’

The spirit of Aldeburgh

The Aldeburgh festival, started by Benjamin Britten in 1948, a few years before the Wexford Festival, is multi-faceted, and the emphasis is almost definitely on music andthe arts, and not just your average accumulation of exhibitions with dodgy depictions of floating swans, collies on amphetamines and jumping horses.

For example, facing Snape Maltings Hall, the main concert venue which is surrounded by the gorgeous and occasionally moody vistas of the North Sea and the tranquil River Alde, were huge images by Anya Gallaccio, inspired by Orford Ness, apparently the largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe.

Because the aura of the sea is ever present, whether walking along the attractive Victorian hub of Aldeburgh, or, further in land, at Snape, the work of Gallaccio is a reminder that Orford Ness is tenuously connected to the mainland, just about four metres above sea level.

Symbolically, the relationship between the sea and the land, is in essence tenuous. No one knows when the sea might just throw a wobble.

There were many exhibitions and installations at Aldeburgh of the highest quality: Lily Hunter Green’s Bee Composed (a piano with an a busy hive of bees), John Cage’s Music-circus at the Peter Pears Gallery, Chikato Goto’s traditional Japanese woodcuts at the Pond Gallery, a nod perhaps to Britten’s 1964 church parable Curlew River(1964), when his conception of musical theatre took a new direction, combining influences from the Japanese nō theatre and English medieval religious drama.

The Suffolk coast is the most beautiful setting for a musical festival: Snape Maltings rises like a liner: it dates back to 1846, was converted into a concert hall in 1967 and it looks out upon heath and marsh and the great River Alde, a winding signature under a huge and expansive Suffolk sky.

Britten the composer of course was fond of allegory and Church themes: besides the aforementioned Curlew River, two other religious parables, The Burning Fiery Furnace(1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968), followed. An earlier church-pageant opera, Noye’sFludde (1958), made use of one of the medieval Chester miracle plays.

And then The Rape of Lucretia marked the inception of the English Opera Group, with Britten as artistic director, composer, and conductor. This undertaking gave rise to the Aldeburgh Festival, which slowly became one of the most important alternative English music festivals and, specifically, the centre of Britten’s musical activities.

The current director of Aldeburgh is Pierre-Laurent Aimard , who , according to a report in the Financial Times on the eye of this year’s Festival, stood accused of not being ‘quite English enough’, which can hardly be his fault.

The charge sheet against him is petty: he is closely aligned in spirit with the postwar European avant garde, which Britten had little time for. But, if the opera cognoscenti didn’t split hairs over such trifling matters, it wouldn’t be the blood sport we have all come to admire.

The Festival proper runs for the second half of June, with operas, recitals, film, concerts, masterclasses and lectures, in a plethora of venues, including Blythburgh Church, Aldeburgh Church, Britten Studio, Jubilee Hall and the concert hall at Snape Maltings where I attended a performance by Ensemble 360, wandering at the interval, ice cone in hand, like a blithe spirit, among the reeds and water and Gallaccio’s photographs.

 

Four is a special number

Like Telemachus, I find myself on the shore awaiting the telltale configuration of silhouettes on the horizon to signal the return home of those whose reputation was forged abroad. Since Ben Barnes informed me about WexFour earlier this year, the adaptation for the stage at Wexford Arts Centre in October of new work by four Wexford writers who continue to bestride the world, far and beyond the anadromous caul of Loch Garman, has had the swallow note of Odysseus’s lyre.

Why a swallow? As every dabbler of Homer knows, swallows migrate and return to the nest they previously inhabited. Ben Barnes was born a stone’s throw from the Arts Centre and got his short back and sides from Syl and Willie Carley at the bottom of George’s Street; Billy Roche’s first incarnation of A Handful of Stars – the raw The Boker Poker Club – was directed here by Patrick Sutton, with a very young Gary Lydon, last seen in the Arts Centre in Roche’s One Is Not a Number; Eoin Colfer’s first full length play, The Crescent, saw the light of day in the Arts Centre when he was still unknown, and both Colm Toibin and John Banville have given readings here.

Four celebrated Wexford alumni: Homer’s lyre also had four strings, and one knows that Barnes is best suited to pluck Toibin, Banville, Colfer and Roche to enable us to admire the multifariousness of the works you are about to see which – having read the text – will have an enduring hold on your imagination.

Nicky Furlong maintains that the riches of the many parishes of Wexford fertilise the proliferation of living characters, ‘many of whom choose to express themselves with urging pens.’ I have to imagine that for Barnes, Colfer, Roche and Banville, raised in Wexford, and Tobin, who was educated here, the soundtrack of an average year in the life of the town when they were young was a riotous cacophony of the musical and the theatrical on its streets, especially during the Wexford Festival which continues to segue mild autumn and cold winter.

Arias, declamations, perorations and proclamations would have cruised colourfully through the cloistered and multilingually-baptised streets and lanes, forever descending in cobbled free fall to where Wexford began, the sea, a recurring source of the cathartic and the catalytic in their novels, short stories and plays.

And being from Wexford, it is inevitable their paths would have crossed: Billy Roche sheepishly gave the manuscript of his first novel Tumbling Down to the eminent historian, the late Dr. Billy Colfer, for his perusal, only for his young son, Eoin, to borrow it first and gobble it up. When an older Eoin, a teacher in Coolcotts and a member of the local opera society, was on the cusp of introducing Artemis Fowl to the world, he shared a stage at a reading event with both Roche and Banville in the Talbot Hotel, the scene – eight years earlier in 1992 – of his first foray into playwriting, the one actStereotypes.

When Ben Barnes was appointed artistic director at the Abbey at 43, he had already directed 28 plays from the Irish repertoire and 20 premieres of new Irish plays, including John Banville’s adaptation of Kleist’s The Broken Jug; he initiated the adaptation of Toibin’s Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush for the stage (they were at St. Peter’s College together and played tennis against each other) and Barnes awarded the Abbey Writer in Association to Billy Roche, which would culminate with On Such As We at the Peacock, featuring Brendan Gleeson.

Is it too much to consider, in the context of WexFour, that the town which binds them together can consolidate their identity, if only for the duration of a performance? Writers, however, are not tethered to the same vernacular, so what is important, to paraphrase Colm Toibin, is that ‘the word somehow remains – the beauty of the word.

Walking on the Wind

 

Listen to the music in these lines:

With rasping sighs the breeze-brashed branches

 fling their russetness 

 through churning skies to crust the ground

The leaves, which are not mentioned by name, just don’t cover the ground, they crust it, like a hardened layer.

Isn’t that a beautiful line: note how the poet used the alliteration of breeze-bashed branches to move the poem from a standing start to third gear.

And then these breeze-brashed branches fling their russetness through churning skies to crust the ground.

But the poet isn’t finished, not by a long shot: he is directing a film sequence for us to conjure…the breeze brashed branches/the churning skies/

And he continues

To crust the ground with autumn’s pall/ a detritus to delight us in the cough out calm that follows squall.

The poem is Walking on the Wind, the collection is Turn Now the Tide, and the poet is Joe Neal, from Wales but living in Wexford.

Joe is one of those poets, in the great Welsh tradition of Thomas and David Jones, who is concerned with the sound of the spoken word, and the relevancy of sound to form.

Caroline Ward

 

Theory aside, which most artists avoid, the progenitor of a still life deploys their gift to shepherd the eye to what they think is important. With the best will in the world, the artist’s ambition is impotent without an endowment of a special talent that is nursed, but not taught.

The evolution of Caroline Ward (pictured with her still life entry to the 2014 RHA exhibition) into one the Ireland’s foremost still life artists has been breathtakingly rapid: a trajectory from aquifer to surface in recent years has been marked by a technical virtuosity to match the broadening of her visual spectrum, from memento mori to the transience, both emotional and physical.

For Ward, light emerges as chiaroscuro, the gradation of contrasting tones, though her light is never harsh or dramatic. It has none of the aggressive voltage of Caravaggio’s tense tenebrism. Ward’s light is not the battleground of opposites. It is, however, despite its transience, a source of endless possibilities.

Her signature is instinctively recognisable: she has carved her own niche with a collection of work that is immediately distinctive, an intense study in metamorphosis, the remorseless quest to recapture the initial impulse of excitement and curiosity on the canvas.

Book Emporium

 

Best bookshops in the universe? I’d recommend two in Bath: Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights and Topping. They are, as the crow flies, around the corner from each other and boast both readings by visiting authors (David Mitchell in Mr. B’s and Lee Child in Topping), and a plethora of signed books, with Topping offering the weary bibliophile free coffee. It is, however, difficult to find a bookshop quite like Topping of Bath anywhere. There are as many signed as unsigned novels, a genuine collector’s paradise. Further afield, I’d recommend the very pleasant and quaint The Yellow Lighted Bookshop in Tetbury, which also has author readings,  Helen Macdonald etc.

 

 

I don’t know what’s happened to Summertime: 9A in the Tate. I normally visit it whenever I pass through London, but it wasn’t there this time. Maybe it’s on tour. An awful pity, really. Tate had located a seat almost as long as Summertime:9A, facing it, and if you turned round, there was a large Monet verging on abstraction from his late period. There is, however, the wonderful Yellow Islands (pictured), painted some years after Summertine:9A. If anybody knows where Summertime has gone, let me know. I feel bereft without the promise of seeing it again soon.

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Everything Flows

 

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Sonja Landweer at the Greenacres Gallery

A piece of art needs to connect. And how it achieves this state of connectivity has as much to do with the input of the viewer as it has with the existence of an object. We cannot have one – a presence or the resonation of recognition – without the other – a piece of art which is the outcome of a conscious malleability.

Because clay or paint have their own ideas, the artist may not end up where they thought they were going. A shared conscious malleability is needed to segue the relationship between what the artist creates and exhibits and the individual sufficiently moved to acquire it. No artist sleepwalks to the easel or the kiln, and nor should we into an exhibition.

Acquisition or appreciation need not solve the mystery inherent in the transformation of an idea into something that is tangibly physical. From birth, our first instinct is to hold, to be tactile. And so it is with art.

Leaving the delectation of the senses aside for a moment, I have always enjoyed how Sonja Landweer’s work commands the arena of its space. Whether observing or clutching, I enjoy being led by a bronze, by a pot or a vase, by the striking colours and textures, so the relationship between the craft and the maker continues. This is how we connect, how we, to paraphrase Whitman, may contribute a verse.

Dutch-born Landweer is undoubtedly the most critiqued and documented potter in contemporary Ireland. You don’t have to cast your net too far nor too wide to find published reviews of her work and her career as she has been exhibiting since the 1950’s. Landweer has had over thirty solo exhibitions, has participated in twice as many group shows (she was a regular at the annual Art at the Vocational College during the Wexford Festival) and has been analysed and dissected and in the main honoured by some of the best critics and writers in Ireland and in Europe.

Yet the most prescient and discerning awareness of her work has not come from the pen of a critic, but of a friend. In Stepping Stones, Seamus Heaney recalls how Landweer as a fledgling artist was deeply marked by the cruelty of what happened to her father – murdered by the Nazis for helping Jews and the underground resistance – and by the beautiful windfall of a memory, emerging after a swim from the waters of the North Sea with the luminescence of plankton all over her body.

The dichotomy of these experiences were related years later by Landweer to Heaney, and were in turn revisited and reimagined by the poet at his desk in the privacy of his own smithy. Perhaps with an unconscious nod to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, he recasts Landweer as ‘a nymph of phosphorous by the Norder Zee.’ Heaney’s ekphrastic poems tend not to end up in anthologies of his work, but the poem inspired by his knowledge of Sonja Landweer, ‘To a Dutch Potter in Ireland’, was the first he recited at his acceptance of the Nobel Literature Prize in 1995.

I reference Heaney specifically because he was a close friend of Landweer and a frequent visitor to Wexford, where he read from his collection, District and Circle, in 2006, in the Talbot Hotel. His unerring eye for the detail that eludes others unearthed an aesthetic and anthroposophical essence to Landweer that has not atrophied one iota in the half century since their first meeting: a fierce conviction about the value and necessity of good and beautiful work. Art critics may have touched upon it, but Heaney articulated it best: ‘she lives at a high spiritual pitch.’

In or about 1960, Landweer had developed her batik technique on ceramics, with  decorative motifs inspired by nature and Moorish influences: in contrast to the normal wax resist method where wax is directly applied to the once fired clay, Landweeer would immerse a bisque-fired pot in glaze and apply a wax decoration on some of the first layer of glaze. The process was repeated until it was put through one firing cycle.

Before committing herself to a future in Kilkenny in the mid-1960’s, the young Landweer enjoyed a peripatetic existence, visiting Finland, Lapland, Spain, England, Russia and indeed Ireland, staying in the Burren in 1959. ‘I loved the starkness of my first winter there. I loved it with a passion.’ She established her studio in Thomastown, ‘initially in a rambling Georgian house,’ with her partner, the artist Barrie Cooke, moving later to Jerpoint House. She had chosen Thomastown over Clare for logistical and practical considerations: the need to find a market for her work, proximity to the Kilkenny Design Workshop and access to good clay, which she sourced from within the country and further afield, importing a tonne at a time of her own composition from a factory in Holland.

Though she came to relish the dramatic and ever changing seasonal landscape of her rural existence by the River Barrow, she managed to hold nature, as an endless source of inspiration, at bay. The inspiration for her work came from deep within, the realm of instincts and archetypes: she is celebrated for her instinctive feeling for innate energy in objects, articulated seamlessly as an ensoulment.

Fortuitously, on the July afternoon I visited Landweer at her home and studio in the sylvan amphitheatre of voluptuous nature that is Jerpoint today, the Visual Centre for Contemporary Art in Carlow was hosting a lecture by Dr. Mark Wormald to mark the 40th anniversary of the first fishing trip upstream from Graiguenmanagh of Landweer’s friend, the poet Ted Hughes, and Cooke. As practitioners of their art – painting, poetry, pottery – they were saturated with the confidence that comes from knowing exactly what they wanted. Landweer is, contends Michael Robinson, the greatest artist in earth and fire yet to have worked in Ireland.

The exhibition at Greenacres is invaluable insofar as it makes the connection between the inviolable trinity of artist, subject and observer, the continuity of Landweer’s personal strength and integrity into that which she fires, which is beauty as truth, the edification of the individual within the artist, the unbridled celebration of what it means to think for yourself and to act accordingly, the ‘I am’ which makes the improbable possible in a studio, and finally the practice of art as the antithesis to the despoliation of nihilism. Art as hope.

Landweer is the liberator of the innate pulse held captive by the inanimate; she is the respecter of the holistic consciousness among the myriad forms of the earth which can soften like gossamer to her touch; she is a diving rod of what once was and what might become, the artist as a medium who extends her material beyond its boundary, or the limits we perceive, and becomes part of us.

And unlike other artists, Landweer gets to play with fire, she gets to both bring down the sun and bring up the earth, and this confluence of apparent opposites opens a door to a new way of seeing and a new way of being.

What a wonderful gift.

The catalyst in the metamorphosis from seed to flower.

The sun has never seen a shadow.’ (Leonardo da Vinci)