Fragments, Serena Caulfield, Wexford Festival

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The latest work 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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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)