Sarah Sense: Weaving Water exhibition

This article was published on Trebuchet Magazine Website.

Rainmaker, the only contemporary Native American art gallery in the Uk, has collaborated with the Native American Indian artist Sarah Sense and a Project Curator of the British Museum, Dr Max Carocci, to bring together the exhibition Weaving Water in Bristol. The work combines traditional weaving with photography.

This exhibition explores the notions of both forced and chosen migration, and the impact this has had on culture and one’s sense of identity or feelings of belonging. Both communal and personal issues are suggested in this project, which is centred the on sweeping movement of people from continent to continent. In particular, the personal aspects of the work are manifest in the artist’s concentration on the migration and movement of her own tribe, the Chitimacha, from colonial times to the present day.

During her research for Weaving Water, Sense discovered that the French took her tribal ancestors as slaves to the Caribbean colonies (before the African slave trade was started). This is a new discovery for many because this reverse slave-trading route has been written out of history. Dr Carocci researched into this forgotten history and edited the book Native American Adoption, Captivity and Slavery in Changing Contexts and the film Written out of History. Continue reading

Sophie Ryder: Monumental


Remember the huge sculptures of hares that sprang up in Bath a couple of years ago? Well, the artist, Sophie Ryder, is back with even more monumental pieces at Bristol’s RWA.

There is a distinct multiplicity to Sophie Ryder’s work, achieved through the use of different media and techniques to represent repeated forms, most notably hares. By including many mediums, attention is drawn to the processes used to make the work. This gives Ryder’s art a memory – a memory of what it has been and where it has come from. The emphasis on the artistic process is important because it adds to the prominent presence of the artist within the work; Ryder is not only the creator but also the subject matter of many pieces because the sculptures are modelled upon her own body. She is simultaneously inside and outside of the artwork, dualities are constantly at play.

The exhibition is full of ‘internal’ echoes in terms of forms, themes, processes and production. Some pieces are repeated with subtle differences while others experience huge changes in scale. The viewer feels enclosed in a world of repetition. The changes make us see each form in a slightly different way, an effect of defamiliarisation. Ryder plays with our senses, questioning the act of ‘seeing’ and thwarting expectations by constantly showing shapes anew. Indeed, there is always an element of surprise, pushed to the verge of discomfort most pertinently in her installation Temple to the 200 Rabbits.

Ryder’s work specifically asks us to question and think afresh about the form and structure of the female human body. Often, Ryder combines a female body with the head – or mask – of a hare, an uncertain identity that ignites the curiosity of the viewer. The anatomy is slightly distorted, an increased limb length or muscle bulk to convey the athletic power associated with hares. This destabilizes preconceptions about female physicality as weak and delicate. By both evoking and challenging different myths a contradictory sense of being is created, giving these sculptures a sense of fragility and liminality. Their vulnerability is increased because the figures are simultaneously exposed to the viewer’s curiosity and hidden from it by the (literal and metaphorical) masks they wear.

The hares appear introverted; they are either in dialogue with another body (often that of a dog), or concerned with – and enclosed within – their own forms. Many of them are caught in moments of embrace or dance. We see them caught up in their own inner worlds, encourageing the viewer to imagine these worlds and engage with the artwork creatively.
The prominence, and even interrogation, placed upon the body emphasizes the physicality of the Ryder’s work. Though it seems drenched in mythology (such as those surrounding hares, or the female body and fertility), reality and materiality are exposed too. This not only adds to the complexity of the pieces and their meanings, but also emphasizes the tension between being ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, where one is torn between two different states of being. In this way, the hare sculptures hint not only at the multiplicity of character but also to dichotomies of being and becoming, the real and theatrical, and authenticating and performing experience.

Sitting Lady Hare Wall Piece is the only sculpture in the exhibition in a fragmented form – all the other sculptures have rounded, finished appearances regardless of whether they depict a whole figure or just a limb or detail (such as Nell’s Eye orSleeping Feet). Sitting Lady Hare Wall Piece therefore conveys a sense of transience – of simultaneously being present and yet only in part. It looks like it could disintegrate at any moment.

The artworks in Monumental resonate powerfully with one another, constantly unsetting and refocusing the eye. There is much to take in and think about. Many connections are waiting to be made between not only the works themselves, but also between art and life, art and mythology, and the human and non-human (or even non-humane).

Mary Fedden and Sophie Ryder: a comparison of their work and styles in the two current RWA exhibitions

I volunteer at the RWA and during one of my shifts I was inspired to write about works of art from the gallery’s two current exhibitions. This article was published on the RWA blog:

The two latest exhibitions on show at the RWA (Sophie Ryder: Monumental and Picturing Arcadia, featuring Mary Fedden) suggest that both the artists Fedden and Ryder are concerned with depicting animal traits and the meeting of human beings with nature. Ryder uses female bodies morphing with hares, (her signature animal forms), to explore this meeting, while Fedden sets her interaction within a biblical-like scenario by focusing on a flock of sheep.

Boldness and simplicity are characteristics of much of Fedden’s work. Objects are painted almost using blocks of colour and minimal detail, suggesting the object’s essence or presence is conveyed rather than a demandingly ‘busy’ or intricate reproduction. Furthermore, the confident and almost minimalistic sculptural quality of the objects is partly created by the stark shading, and dramatic juxtaposition of light and dark areas. This pushes objects out into the picture plane and makes them appear tactile and rounded. Each object appears boldly in front of the viewer to be studied separately.

However, although the figure and sheep in Fedden’s painting ‘Goats in Gozo’ 1988 in the Picturing The Arcadia exhibition are boldly represented with dark shadows and contrasts, it is more the manipulation of perspective and emphasis on ‘flatness’ of style that gives them their boldness and simplicity. There is no depth or vanishing point in this painting, so the sheep appear to float around the canvas. They are almost objects of the imagination, hovering in a location somewhere between the viewer and the painting, and not adhering to normal rules of space and time. As they are not held together in a recognisable space this leads to a fragmentary tension between each of the figures presented.

These characteristics of boldness and simplicity are also found in Ryder’s sculptures and drawings. Ryder’s work presents parts of the human anatomy (such as feet, eyes and hands) as objects in their own right. In this way, they take on a life of their own and are – literally – unattached to any greater whole. The fact that they are recognisable, commonplace objects adds to their simplicity and boldness, as well as simultaneously creating surprise that they have been ‘disentangled’ from a larger figure (or limb) of which they are normally a part. Like with Fedden’s work, there is a sense of fragmentation created by this element of surprise. However, unlike in Fedden’s paintings, this also sets up a dialogue between presence and absence.

Similarly, the feeling of being in an imaginative world is keenly felt in all of Ryder’s work that draws upon mythology. The mythology surrounding hares and the female body is most clearly represented. Ideas of both power and vulnerability in regards to these myths are explored, creating an interesting dialogue. For example, both the hares and female figures convey a profound sense of tenderness. Hugging is a particularly prominent motif. This could suggest an uplifting power born out of being connected, loved and understood by each other. Indeed, each sculpture is acknowledged by another, so the feeling of tenderness resonates throughout the exhibition. However, hugging and huddling are repeatedly portrayed as similar, and even overlapping, actions in many of the works. This idea of huddling gives the work its vulnerable edge.

This juxtaposition of power with vulnerability helps to raise questions about the differences and similarities between woman and animal, myth and truth, and imagination and reality. This suggests the use of imagination – largely represented by the emphasis on mythology – has a more specific source, in Ryder’s work than in Fedden’s (where the imagination is used to create a more general sense of atmosphere and space).

Due to these multiple similarities and differences, it is exciting and thought provoking (if not unusual) to have work by these artists shown at the same time across the RWA’s two current exhibitions. Both artists are concerned with presenting objects in surprising and confident ways to help the viewer see them afresh and think about the figures depicted, as well as the potentials of the materials used.

‘Minotaur in a Mirror’ drawing by Sophie Ryder

This is another piece I wrote for the Young Arnolfini blog:

‘Minotaur in a Mirror’ is the largest pencil drawing on display in the RWA’s Monumental exhibition of Sophie Ryder’s work. It depicts a minotaur looking almost anxiously into a mirror, as though trying to ‘see’ himself clearly. The action of ‘seeing’ oneself, to negotiate one’s identity, as well as negotiating interactive spaces and relationships with ‘others’, are key motifs in Ryder’s work. This drawing however is the time she uses a mirror to represent these issues.

Mirrors feature in many feminist literatures, images and artworks in similar ways. For example the inclusion of mirrors is a typical feature of female photographers’ self-portraits in the 1920s. Isle Bing, Florence Henri and Lotte Jacobi come to mind. In terms of literature, ‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte, ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by Radclyffe Hall, and ‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter all use mirror motifs to negotiate or form a sense of subjectivity and develop knowledge of the ‘self’.

The minotaur’s masculine body is physically powerful. The attention given to the shading round the muscles clearly shows this. Yet, the inclusion of the mirror and attention given to ‘seeing’ suggest the beast has a searching and vulnerable mind. He could almost be looking in the mirror in search of a companion to comfort himself. In this way, there is a discrepancy between the inside and outside, between inward and outward realities. The outside appears strong, but the inside is acutely vulnerable. This dichotomy is emphasized by the inclusion of the mirror in the composition. It makes the minotaur both the subject and the object, a self and an other. He is simultaneously in a passive and powerful position.

The mirror – and the way the minotaur is reflected in it – throws up many questions. Is he looking at his idealised self or a projection of his imagination? Is there even a mirror at all, or is it just a prominent metaphor for his ‘second’ or ‘sub’ conscious? Is the mirror a barrier? Does it mark a division between imagination (or illusion) and reality? Does it suggest the limits and containment of the mind? Is the mirror a stage onto which one can project and ‘re-see’ oneself? The minotaur is turned inwards, suggesting the scene is not theatrical but rather a dramatic projection inwards towards the self.

However the drawing does not depict a clear mirror image because the minotaur’s head is not reflected ‘accurately’ in the mirror. Additionally, both bodies are drawn and represented in the same way – such as using the same amount of shading, depth and solidity. Therefore, it is impossible to tell which minotaur is the reflection and which the ‘real’ body and contemplative audience.

The way the minotaur and the mirror interact is indeed puzzling. There is no central figure to look at. This disrupts the viewer’s gaze, which provokes in the viewer similar feelings of insecurity as the minotaur is shown to feel. We have no mastery over the world, the idea of reality, what we see. Ultimately, we have no mastery over ourselves, and so the self remains unknowable.

This drawing reminds us that we are made up of split, fragmentary selves – and the different parts cannot be accessed all at once. With this in mind, I feel the overarching question this drawing poses is which side of ourselves are we going to see and project today?

New pop-up gallery in Clifton Village

As part of The Young Arnolfini group we blog about events, opportunities and anything related to art in Bristol (and sometimes beyond). This post is one of my contributions to the Young Arnolfini blog – which can be found at the following link:

I have often thought there is not much in the way for students and young people within the Clifton Village art scene. However, this summer a new contemporary Pop-up, aptly called ‘LITTLEWHITESPACE’, has emerged. Located on Clifton Down Road in-between WHSmith and the old antique shop, it offers an accessible space for hosting exhibitions, galleries and launch events of which there are many this summer.

At the moment an exhibition of the artist Abigail McDougall’s work is on display. Her paintings have featured in several magazines including Vogue and Art of England, and last year she was selected as an Artist Member of the RWA.

She mostly has watercolour paintings on display, depicting different scenes around Bristol – notably of the Harbourside. The way she depicts the reflections of Bristol buildings in the water is beautiful. She uses many different blocks of colour to indicate the reflections, which conveys movement and depth in a layering effect. Additionally, the types of brushstrokes used vary from crisp, thin lines to thick, blurring smudges. This gives an interesting contrast between realistic accuracy and an almost tangible blurring of pure colour that reminds us of the painting’s materiality and the medium used to create it.

McDougall’s watercolours are striking for the way she chooses bright, invigorating colours. In the past, I have sometimes been uncertain about whether watercolours as a medium can capture scenes of modern urban life, yet in McDougall’s work the watercolours seem fresh, vibrant and modernised. This makes the Bristol scenes seem very sunny and rather tranquil.

Another striking thing about the artist’s work is the way areas of the paper have been left white. Apart from this being a watercolour technique for suggesting highlights and reflections, it has the effect of increasing the feeling of space within the scenes depicted. It invites us as viewers to become involved with the paintings and the scenes depicted by encouraging our imaginations to ‘fill in’ the ‘blank’ areas.

The paintings in acrylic and oils initially have a slightly brash palette, but do convey a lot of energy and vigour. It is refreshing to see Bristol in this colourful and almost carnival-esque light. In particular, the acrylic and oil painting called ‘Bristol from Cabot Tower’ gives mythic (and almost turbulent) dreamscape of Bristol.

It was great to be surrounded by such positivity – and positivity associated with Bristol. The exhibition definitely felt like a celebration of this city. Along the same lines is a fun exhibition entitled ‘Balloons in Bristol’, starting at LITTLEWHITSPACE on 8th August (until 11th). It will celebrate the Bristol Balloon Fiesta. It is refreshing that the exhibitions at LITTLEWHITESPACE are so pertinent and relevant to Bristol and the current events going on within this city.

Anthony Whishaw’s ‘Green Landscape’ painting 1970

This piece is adapted from a public talk I gave to over forty people at one of the Leamington Spa Art Gallery’s ‘Friday Focus’ weekly art talks.

Anthony Whishaw was born in 1930, and is still a practicing artist today. He has tended to paint in series throughout his artistic career, with many paintings taking years to complete. However, although there have been overlaps in terms of form and themes because of this, his style has changed a lot over the years. Some paintings appear quite traditional and are done in oil on canvas in an impressionistic style, while much of his later work is very abstract and textured, and uses found objects to create reliefs and texture variation. This technique gives a very urban and industrial feel to some of his work.

Whishaw was influenced by Abstract Expressionism. This was an art movement that emerged in the early 1940s, primarily in New York – where a small group of artists introduced radical new directions in art. These artists included people like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. They broke away from accepted conventions in both technique and subject matter due to the primarily abstract nature of the work, making monumentally scaled pieces that were reflections of their individual psyches. Rothko himself once said: ‘I paint big to be intimate’. Although the scale of their work can feel overwhelming, the viewer is enveloped by their experience of confronting the paintings, which can feel like a personal and totalizing engagement with the art.  Continue reading

Meeting Dr Richard Cork

Meeting Dr Richard Cork was something I was very curious to do after reading his biography provided by The Courtauld website. I was looking through The Courtauld’s art history summer school courses at the time. His is also a name that pops up everywhere in the art history section of the library at university and in the introductions to many books such as those found in the Tate shop. He is indeed an eminent man at the top of his field; Brian Sewell has called him an exogete recently. So although I was drawn to the period of art explored in Richard’s course (early 20th century art across Europe) I was equally keen to go on The Courtauld summer course in order to meet him and see what he was really like.

Despite Richard’s very impressive and formidable biography, he is a very approachable and friendly man; he is always laughing and making jokes. A girl from France on the course said he has a very English sense of humour. His laugh is just as distinctive.

He told me several stories about meeting or interviewing prominent artists, such as Picasso, Francis Bacon, and Duncan Grant. He remembers anticipating his interview with Francis Bacon would be one of the most challenging he would have to do. He remembers arriving with lots of prepared questions and being faced with the artist who promptly whisked him off to a bar to drink champagne. He was surprised they were not travelling to the place in private transport, but Bacon exclaimed he loved the tube. Bacon admitted that he only painted from 7.30am – 9.30am each day, after which he was no longer in a working state. Indeed, this gave him time to go and drink champagne, something that he would normally do as soon as his ‘working day’ was over. Richard remembers looking back on his shorthand notes the day after doing the interview and realizing that the material he had collected during the second half of the session was useless as it was just drunken scrawls. This was in the early 1970s, just before Bacon’s big show. Richard noted that the artist’s friend killed himself when on the toilet at the same time the show opened, and this was why Bacon went on to do a series of figures crouching or sitting (as though they could have been on the toilet) after this. Tragic. Continue reading