Shelagh Wakely: A View from a Window

British artist Shelagh Wakely thinks with things. Working with materials as varied as resin, clay, jeweller’s wire, silk, and decomposing fruits, she demonstrated a profound awareness of substance, of how matter matters. She had a natural affinity with materials— whether natural or man-made, delicate or durable—and an ability to draw out their singular qualities. Take Towards the Inside of a Container (1979), for example. A family of forms—volumetric, flattened, and curled—are displayed atop a floor plinth, each one a variant of its neighbour, yet all exhibit the qualities unique to clay. Wakely prompts us to consider what it means for clay to ‘rust’ like a pipe; appear bark-like and graceful like a cinnamon stick; deteriorate like a textile when folded for too long; or stay curled up at the edges when it dries? Wakely carefully reveals these contradictions, and at the same time, celebrates their uniqueness.

1. Towards the Inside of a Container, 1979, (photo: Marcus 

Shelagh Wakely: A View from a Window, at the Camden Arts Centre, London, presents a comprehensive account of Wakely’s forty-year practice as an installation artist. While perhaps lesser known than other artists, Wakely worked consistently and avidly. She has exhibited widely and been commissioned to create a number of site-specific installations, including work for the Venice Biennale (1984) and the Museu do Açude, Río de Janeiro (1993). Here, at Camden Arts Centre, her work is presented full-circle—from drawings, to delicate paper works, and room-sized installations—and her fascination with the continuity of nature is everywhere manifest.

Wakely’s desire to understand the nature of things is nowhere more visible than in her drawings. Obsessively sketched, painted, roughed out, and re-drawn, they line the walls of Gallery 1 like blueprints in an architect’s office. The drawings inform the sculpture, and the sculpture informs the drawings; there is a natural correspondence between them. Wakely shows a restless need to figure things out, moving quickly from one sketch to the next in a desire to understand. Where one idea ends, another begins—and so the process goes on. Her material experiments, too, were unashamed and inexhaustible. We see blond hair furled into neat circles like precious metal; gilding leaves in a beautiful rose-coloured copper that delicately veil the material beneath; and thin plastic wire used to build structures that spring back and forth impatiently. There is a palpable sense of experimentation here: Wakely, it seems, was never satisfied.

A second floor work titled The Inside and Outside of a Bowl (c.1979) presents a collection of bowls modelled from clay, plaster, and blue and white pigment. Here, Wakely appears to have been experimenting with the idea of bowl-ness. How round should a bowl be, before it becomes a plate? How deep? How does the inside differ from the outside? And where is the ‘being’ of a bowl? Her numerous iterations of this simple form—rendered full or empty with varying washes of blue pigment—remind me of the ‘interchanges’ that take place across the surface of a stone that anthropologist Tim Ingold refers to in his essay ‘Materials Against Materiality’ in Archaeological Dialogues, Vol. 14, No. 1(2007). He uses the example of a wet stone left out to dry to call attention to the fluctuating states of matter; in the transition from wet to dry, the stone exhibits different qualities of ‘stoniness’—all of which are authentic. Like Ingold’s stone, Wakely’s bowls are ethereal and substantial, weighty and fragile. Yet, unlike his stone, they are representations of this capacity to change, fixed, as they are, in clay and pigment.

2. Gallery 2, Installation of tumeric powder on parquet
(photo: Marcus J. Leith)

Wakely’s more ‘experimental’ works in Gallery 1 are resolved in the eloquence and simplicity of Gallery 2. Here, in a corner of its large, parqueted floor lies a carpet of turmeric—rich and felted, with a vibrant orange colour that really sings. This is a re-enactment of an earlier work titled Curcuma sul Travertino that was first exhibited at the British School at Rome in 1991. The stencilled Baroque pattern is tantalisingly performed by the turmeric, which, as the gallery attendant tells me, needs constant re-touching as enchanted fingers can’t help but touch it. This work is entirely in keeping with Wakely’s preoccupation for impermanence: turmeric powder is unquiet, both in nature and odour; and its warm and bitter odour slowly seeps out of this room into the Central Space. Wakely celebrated this ‘leakiness’ of substance, where matter can be mercurial and resistant.

And this leakiness is the mainstay of her sculptures in the Central Space. A series of vitrines line up along the centre of the room. Beneath their glass lids lie an assortment of dead and dying fruits and vegetables, each one reduced to a powdery, decomposed mass, drained of colour and life. Some are dressed in fine silk jackets in greens, pinks, and yellows—like funeral cloths that adorn their wearers’ bodies. Others are strung like pearls on jeweller’s wire, where decomposition and decay are made lustrous again through the noble gesture of silver or gold leaf. Three Fruit Necklaces (c.2009) is an elegant work, and of the three her cherry necklace is the most evocative. Wakely has looped together the stems of each to form a chain. The cherries themselves have long since collapsed, yet their ghostly presence is made visible in the delicate wire casings that surround each fruit. Wakely was respectful of this deterioration, refusing to see it in negative terms. Here, the beauty and eloquence of death is captured and preserved. ‘You can make anything wonderful,’ stated Wakely, ‘if you know how’, and this alchemical sentiment is made manifest in the work.

However, the focal point of this exhibition lies in Gallery 3. The installation in this Gallery is based on a previous exhibition by the artist titled The Practice of Enchantment, which was exhibited at Instituto Brasil-Estados Unidos, Rio De Janeiro in 1997.The pungent smell of gilding fills the room, where a large sheet of black silk has been lain out on the floor and smothered in gold leaf. The work produces a golden luminescence, with the silk appearing almost to float. Positioned diagonally across two corners of the work are two parlour trolleys laden with golden, gilded fruits gilded—pineapples, pears, and oranges—that resemble polished silver. On the lower shelf of one, these wrinkled treasures have been left to turn blue with death, as if to suggest an alternative future, one where the preservative effects of gilding are absent. Two opposite panels of gold leaf—one propped up against the wall, and the other attached to it—reflect the intense shininess of the gold back into the space. Wakely has created a cacophony of degradation and beauty, collapsed and gleaming. The heady mix of decadence and decline is intoxicating.

The exhibition continues into the garden where Conversation Pieces, a collection of works by other artists that have responded to Wakely’s, have been installed. Susan Hiller’s twinkly sound installation, What Every Gardener Knows (2009), resounds round the garden, bouncing off Wakely’s Rainsquare (1994), which was originally installed at the South London Gallery. Carla Guagliardi’s More Than Full (l) / For Shelagh (2005) sees a mass-produced glass bottle capped with a balloon, the exhalation needed to inflate it remaining forever trapped inside this ready-made.

Ideas of ‘transformation’ permeate this exhibition: the change of state of materials; the temporality of nature, and its degradation; the metamorphosis from commonplace to unique, and from natural to rarefied. Shelagh Wakely was a sculptor who listened to her materials, and exposed their changing nature. And although the artist herself died in 2011, here, at the Camden Arts Centre, her inventiveness can be felt most distinctly.

Main image: Vitrine installation, Shelagh Wakely: A View from a Window

Shelagh Wakely: A View from a Window, Camden Arts Centre, London, NW3
13 July 2014 – 28 September 2014

Aurora Corio