Exhibition Essay by Isabel de Vasconcellos
“I always say I'm Catholic - but a cultural Catholic.” So said Kiki Smith to the New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman in 2006. In the interview, she went on to explain that she prays every day; and when asked who to, she responded, with characteristic humour and pragmatism, "That shifts around. I try to cover all my bases."
In this exchange, and in the work that springs from it, she expresses the situation of many Western artists, albeit secular, non-denominational, spiritual or “none of the above”. Informed by imagery and values that have long since floated free of the strictures of organised religion, their work is nonetheless culturally rooted in Christian symbolism, and implicitly in dialogue with or away from it. This is part of the legacy she shares with artists Paul Benney and Laurence Edwards, and explored in this year’s Aldeburgh Festival exhibition, Remains to Be Seen.
Suffolk’s diverse and archaeologically rich heritage brings into particular relief the artists’ common interests in the body as narrative and site. The county is significant for having around 500 medieval historic churches, the second greatest density in the country according to the Suffolk Historic Churches Trust. With that, comes the ubiquitous presence of the spire punctuating its low horizons, like a reminder and a reference. It is also renowned around the world for finds from the bronze age, iron age, Roman and medieval periods (most famously the find at Sutton Hoo of the ship burial site of 7th century Anglo-Saxon ruler King Rædwald), but its riches reach as far back as the ceremonial sites of the Neolithic. One might go as far as to say that they cover quite a few of the bases themselves.
Paul Benney met Kiki Smith when he was part of New York’s lively East Village art scene in the 1980s. His move to Suffolk in 2018 connected him with a similarly vibrant local community of contemporary artists, notably Laurence Edwards, who first showed his Creek Men at Snape fourteen years ago. Working in a variety of media and disciplines, from oil painting and sculpture, to film, printmaking and textiles, the artists share a reverence for the natural world and the human form as symbol and vestige, exploring connections between myth, religious iconography and ritual.
Smith came to prominence in the 1980s and 90s with a series of sculptures and works on paper, focusing on anatomy and the female body. Although not intentionally autobiographical, her subject matter has always followed a journey, an intuitive process that sees the artist amassing clues and chasing down leads. The works arising from it externalise or metabolise lived experience, becoming models for further examination and perspective. The result of this is a practice imbued with personal significance and a distinct cosmology of its own.
Early in her career, after the death of her father she began to focus on the body, which had been inspired by a copy of Gray’s Anatomy given to her by a friend who worked at a bookshop. She began with drawings, prints and sculptures of individual organs, and bodies emitting fluids. Blood, which resounds throughout Christianity as a symbol of salvation and subject of transubstantiation, becomes emblematic of menstruation and the female reproductive system and evokes fears associated with HIV and AIDS.
Following her interest in the body she went on to take a course to be licensed as an Emergency Medical Technician with her sister Beatrice, who subsequently died of AIDS, as well as her friend David Wojnarowicz and many other friends and associates.
A conversation about extinction with a scientist at Harvard’s Peabody Museum in 1994, together with a dream around that time, turned her focus to the relationship between humans and the environment. Fairy tales and medieval bestiary have become a way of pulling together these strands. The Catholic dualism of Smith’s upbringing, which initially saw her taking the body – in whole and in parts – and placing it in a political context, has evolved into a syncretic vision embedded against a wider cosmic landscape, drawing out the continuum between heavenly and earthly bodies, the detail and the bigger picture.
A multidisciplinary artist, Smith places printmaking at the centre of her practice, and most of her works begin as a printed image which becomes the source of works in other media. Her fascination with the interplay between flatness and 3-dimensionality shines out in her tapestries, where the visual vernacular of medieval pageantry meets Smith’s own highly stylised and attenuated narrative language, playfully and even slyly incorporating the symbolism of animals with Christian and hermetic iconography. Speaking of Harbor, (Ocean-Rocks-Birds) she laughs “It’s not literal in any sense, and it’s always completely wrong. It doesn’t actually show nature in the slightest.”
Proportions are important, and the figures in Smith’s tapestries are close to life size, so that the viewer can relate to them, one to one. Aware that changes in scale from small to large or vice versa upend expectations and signal a move into the imaginative realm, the artist deploys it in varied and deliberate ways. It is not surprising that Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland holds such fascination for her. At just under 5’3”, her Alice in Seer (Alice I) confounds the viewer, presenting a figure of apparently normal human dimensions; but seated, so clearly a giant were she to stand on her stockinged feet. Is she too big for this world or is it we who are somehow out of proportion?
Like Girl with Stars, installed in the Switch Room at Snape alongside Laurence Edwards’ prone figure, A Thousand Tides (inspired by Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ), and Paul Benney’s slow-burning Reliquary series, the constellation of Smith’s works in Remains to Be Seen consider our relation to faith, and our place in the grander scheme of things.
The cluster of derelict Victorian buildings on the banks of the Alde that have been slowly reclaimed to form the Snape Maltings arts complex, were Laurence Edwards’ childhood playground. His artistic complexion was forged in these Suffolk hinterlands, a landscape against which his ragged figures have arisen as witnesses to resilience and personal survival.
His passion for what he calls “the poetry of casting” finds expression in his evolving experiments with the iterations of making. For Edwards, bronze is the quintessential “art metal”. Not only for its lineage as a material used by the ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians and the Greeks, and through the Renaissance to the present day to commemorate and reify; but by the fact that is it the subject of repeated circulation, each time a piece is melted and reformed into a new work of art. “The evidence of human activity in metal will always be there,” he says.
This palpable connection keeps him testing the limits of what each stage of making can achieve. From the original solid figure in clay, to the plaster negative into which wax is poured to create a second positive, then liquified by the molten bronze which hardens into a shell to create the final work, the sculpture that meets the eye is a skin, containing an unseen void. Edwards’ quest in casting has partly been one to render that void visible, and Leaf Man marks a moment when he took the atomisation of that surface to a point where it revealed the negative (space) contained within the positive (metal).
Yet this not exclusively a flexing of skill, as taking the body through these ordeals – forming it, entombing it, rendering some part of it into air and ash – re-enacts the Biblical torments that form the bedrock of the artist’s early religious grounding. Born into an Anglican family with a long tradition of active participation in parish life, Edwards describes his first fifteen years as characterised by weekly visits to church to contemplate the body in the tomb and on the cross. Having turned away from it, he nonetheless discerns the traces of his Christian upbringing everywhere. His Carriers, bearing their burden of sticks, bring to mind the Pieta. The repeated motif of the stick can be read as a worldly load – be it physical or moral – but the spectre of the wooden cross is never too far out of mind. “It’s hard baked into me,” he admits, and his celebrated altarpiece at Blythburgh is testimony to that.
Time spent with the remote Eveny herders in Siberia in 2018 made Edwards see the strings and knots he used to gird his clay figures together in a different light. Meditating on the traditional use of reindeer-hide lasso and ligatures in every aspect of the herders’ lives, brought home to him the timelessness of cord and string as an emblem of existence and survival. Knots carry a signature, a distinct method which he recognised as full of personal resonance. These casual, ephemeral gestures which speak so much of the person and moment are made permanent in the String Sculptures, where the burning out of twine fixes that instant in time.
Seen against the expanses of marsh and wetland, his Walking Men have a weathered timelessness about them. They can point to a lived moment, or to a continuum of habitation, and struggle to survive. His Carriers were hatched when Edwards found a load of wooden planks that had fallen off a ship and washed up on the Suffolk coast. The repeated action of collecting and carrying them had an inherent pathos and weight. Existential and totemic, they bring to mind the starkness of Samuel Beckett’s “I can't go on. I'll go on.” Humanity, now more than ever, forever on the point of failure. Or is it? Perhaps the Carrier is a hopeful figure, recycling, picking up the pieces and building anew; undefeated by the relentless cycle of failing, and failing better.
Paul Benney’s interest in Renaissance painting and the iconography of saints, biblical stories and ancient symbolism are the starting point from which he sets out to interrogate contemporary symbology.
Albeit not a practicing Christian, or adhering to a particular religion, he is nonetheless aware of the power of iconography and the symbolic languages of faith. He is interested in how these are activated at different times, to different ends.
For him – a British artist who made his home in the US for some time, and has travelled extensively, including long stints in Jerusalem for work – this is a common currency and language, and a reservoir to which he regularly returns. His technical ability means he can collapse the ancient, the Renaissance and Golden Age, and the contemporary into one, seeding incongruity, uncovering contemporary mores and testing our notions of free will in a secular society. Speaking of how Old Master paintings served didactic and edifying purposes, as means of moral guidance – models and exhortations to lead a “morally respectable” life – he asks what is the equivalent symbolic language of our time, now that the church is no longer there to show us the way.
In Lacrimosa, Deposition and Pieta, recognisable figures from the Passion (representing the mourning of Christ on the cross, his descent and his grieving mother Virgin Mary cradling his dead body) are juxtaposed with present-day hazard symbols. “I think one of the things that’s taken its place is we’ve given that responsibility to the municipality. We’re completely surrounded by images that tell us where to go, what to do... Is this an emergency exit, or a cul de sac?” The mysticism and virtuosity of Benney’s visionary paintings, together with his status as one of the country’s leading and most garlanded portrait painters, belie a provocative and iconoclastic questioning of contemporary authority, with its signage and Nudge Theory, and the use of behavioural science to influence the behaviour and decisions of individuals and society at large.
Fire is a constant motif, as agent of destruction, purification and revelation. In his Potter’s Hands, it emerges from cupped hands: whether the flame is offered, received or even consuming is left open. Ambiguity also prevails in his Reliquary series, six hybrid digital/painting installations showing a candle at progressive stages of burning down, yet contained within a bell jar. The work is one of surpassing mystery, as not only does it defy the physics of fire – how can a candle burn in the absence of oxygen? – but the flame appears to flicker and smoke. Can the viewer believe their own eyes? Here as elsewhere in Remains to Be Seen, the artist’s works touch on faith, belief, ordeal and survival.
Benney’s fascination with fire reflects a lively and complex relationship to mortality, born partly out of his own widely documented brushes with death, ranging from a childhood near-drowning and a horseback cliff fall in Mexico, to a studio fire in London. The legacy of these last two experiences was a short-lived but vivid sense of disembodiment, and of being in a waking dream. There is notably no ground in many of Benney’s works: his figures float in inky waters or fiery heavens, or else emerge from darkness. It establishes a sense of their being in a different dimension to our own; not necessarily distant, but in common with Smith and Edwards, an imagined realm we all can plot the coordinates of, and our own way to.
The exhibition is curated by Isabel de Vasconcellos, Messums Wiltshire.
Paul Benney is represented by Anima Mundi Gallery; Laurence Edwards is represented by Messums Wiltshire; Kiki Smith is represented by Timothy Taylor