Richard Noyce reviews Darkness and Light, a collaborative exhibition held at The Bleddfa Centre throughout July. Featuring work from Don Braisby, Frances Carlile and Jane Harding, the project explored the fragility of the earth through sculpture, film and print.
Following a time of uncertainty during which we have witnessed light and darkness in equal measure, both literally and metaphorically, it came as a welcome change to be able to see a real exhibition again. Darkness and Light is described in the exhibition information as ‘a celebration of the weather systems of the earth, the oceans, sky and forests: a lament for the changing climate, for the shadows cast’, and as a ‘collaborative project that has evolved over three years’. Taken together these ideas offer a space for reflection and, ultimately, for hope that we might now find ourselves on the brink of emerging into something resembling ‘normality’. For all that, uncertainty remains as the pandemic ebbs and flows around the planet, as if we cannot yet feel completely free from events and matters beyond our control, and cannot at this stage be certain whether or not we ever shall.
This is the background to the exhibition at The Bleddfa Centre, which is an intriguing set of spaces for the making and sharing of the arts and spiritual practice in the green heart of Powys. Darkness and Light features a broad range of work by Don Braisby, Frances Carlile and Jane Harding, including printmaking in a number of mediums, sculpture and film, and using a wide variety of approaches. The implied common thread is not immediately obvious from a first quick tour of the works in the exhibition. This is no bad thing since artists, and printmakers in particular, frequently demonstrate their independence and individuality. In order to find that thread, recourse may be had to the information supplied. Either that, or visitors can look at the works and draw their own conclusions from the evidence of the work each artist has selected to share, that is distinctive in its own right, and very different from that of their co-exhibitors. These are works that deserve to be looked at carefully and with sufficient time, since rushing past them would not allow the slow revelation that they offer. There is much to be said for slow art.
Don Braisby worked for many years as a graphic illustrator before studying printmaking at Glyndwr University, where he also researched into electroplating as a means for creating a matrix for printmaking. Previously resident in North Wales, he moved to the Cork area shortly before the pandemic led to periods of lockdown and found himself confined to a small flat without access to printmaking facilities. While this created problems it nonetheless offered inspiration, in that the flat had an extraordinary view across Lough Mahon, an estuary landscape with sunrises, sky and sea. The focus of his work shifted of necessity to the medium of photography and film, using his extensive archive of photographs and video clips of the sea and sky, and the bogs and forests of Ireland. By selecting and combining elements from this material he made Motion Graphic videos, collaging elements together with drawings and prints to create a series of dynamic hybrid works.
These form the basis for the twenty-minute film that he calls a ‘motion graphics meditation’, a continually shifting movement of fragments of colour and half-seen imagery that recede and advance as the film progresses. This film forms the centrepiece of Braisby’s contribution to Darkness and Light (that he has titled ‘Magic Forest’), accompanied by a series of eight colour lithographs, created from stills from the film, using four plates for each. He made this work at Cork Printmakers once lockdown was eased, and in their turn they complete a complex circle of stages of creation that became expedient through the problems caused by lockdown. Don uses the ‘reality beyond appearance’ of film to enquire into the nature of the world around us, offering viewers the opportunity to reconsider their own reactions to place and time, and in turn to the possibilities for creation that are inherent in even the most stressful and challenging of times.
Jane Harding studied Printmaking at The University of the West of England and has worked in both special education and at the Royal Society of the Arts. The central focus of her work for this exhibition is to treat darkness as a positive entity rather than as an element to be feared, in which moral and psychological attributes become negative forces invoking evil or sin. Using a mixture of mediums including collagraph, drawing and sculpture her work can be viewed as a journey from darkness towards light, using elements from the natural world as well as her imagination. These themes reveal themselves slowly, being implicit rather than explicit in her work, putting the onus on the viewer to look, then see, and then consider their personal response to what is presented.
While this may be an approach that viewers are less accustomed to, and one that might not always work, it does nonetheless offer rewards to those who persist. That journey is, after all, one that each of us takes, not only in the daily cycle from night to day, but also in our lifetimes, in which we emerge from darkness and gradually learn about the world around us as we live our lives before we return to darkness, or another form of light. The continual fascination of the realm of dreams, in which notions of reality and imagination merge and cease to have binary relevance, runs through parts of her work, with titles such as ‘Safely curled in my own dream world’ and ‘Darkness through which might shine a beacon of hope’ reveal a thread of meaning, while other works such as ‘Ice melt’ and ‘The cold is no joke’ tie her concerns to the more immediate threats of climate change.
Redemption from such dark themes is resolved through a confident use of colour so that — as the journey reaches a place from which it can continue — hope is present as a positive element.
Frances Carlile studied sculpture at Camberwell and Chelsea colleges of Art and, more recently, Printmaking at the Regional Print Centre in Wrexham. She is well known for her sculptures, often to be seen in natural settings, which draw on themes suggested by the environment and the turn of seasons, threaded through with elements of myth and legend.
The making of such works is accompanied by delicate and thoughtful drawings, many of which achieve autonomy as works in their own right. Her work in these mediums has been joined by a powerful practice in printmaking, primarily in linocut but more recently also in etching and woodcut. Many of these prints are small and, like her small drawings, contain within them a powerful thread of mysterious narrative. Hints of the stories can be discerned within the silent darkness and light of the prints in the exhibition.
The gallery space within the Hall Barn at Bleddfa contains a haunting sculptural installation, ‘Full Fathom Five’, comprising an emblematic house structure made with slender aluminium tubes and nylon thread within and around which are suspended multiple remnants of marine life, gathered on the beaches of the Hebrides and Wales — seaweed, algae, and egg cases of shark, skate and ray, some left in their natural dried colour, some painted and some copper plated and patinated. This last technique is based on the research of Don Braisby, with whom this artist shared her studies. The scale of the work is such that it occupies the centre of the hall, with the air currents causing the suspended remnants to move and turn, creating a mesmerising vision of marine life dried and stranded in the moving air.
The installation is by turns deeply melancholic, mysterious and enchanting, underlined by the artist’s choice of Ariel’s song from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. Another sculpture, made with slender aluminium tubes and nylon thread occupies a space between the trees in the adjacent orchard, but is more tentative and less resolved — not inappropriate given the situation in which we find ourselves at this time. In the main gallery, in addition to a remarkable set of small etchings, and a selection of the small scale sculptures for which the artist is well known, are three large woodcuts that show the darkening stages of falling light on a wide estuary.
The matrices were carved into the block using a utility knife, and were subsequently printed by hand, using a ‘baren’, on to fine Japanese paper using delicate pale inks. These powerful prints are movingly evocative of the final moments of light on that suspended world between land and ocean, creating images that in their stillness are both literal and metaphorical, poetic and dreamlike.
Darkness and Light contained a wide variety of works, linked by essential elements of quietness and contemplation that are inherent in the work of each artist. Through a steady progression through the exhibition spaces both inside and outside The Bleddfa Centre, visitors have the opportunity to see how three very different artists have approached the making of work in a period in which isolation and separation have been forced upon us all. In turn we can make contact with their creative imaginations through our observations of their practical skills in the use of materials to give expression to themes that concern us all. Like the artists, in sharing the works they offer, we may continue our journeys.
Wales Arts Review complies ten Welsh exhibitions which offer thought-provoking analyses of life and history in Wales and beyond.
Richard Noyce is a freelance writer, lecturer, curator and artist.
Header image: Darkness and Light (Artwork by Don Braisby)