A gallery, cloistered and more precise than messy worldliness, is a step removed from the hustling and bustling urban surround. Within this insulated, focused space the work can inspire another stillness. Sean Caulfield’s Active Workings does this dramatically by flipping convention upside down so that we are suspended by the toes on the barely perceptible trapeze of existence. Caulfield casts an indelible spell that settles on the shoulders with the softness of a fishing net floating downwards, a pleasant feeling but it catches none-the-less.
Simplicity underscores the installation Dead Weight. Each of the materials, paper and wood, have been allowed an individual life and dressed to advantage. Wood blocks, usually used as a secondary partner, a tool for printmaking and overshadowed by the glory of the paper print destined to be born from the impression of markings upon the paper’s surface, form a floor and wall that by proportion and placement suggest an altar. The block whose time on the stage is usually only a reflection has come into its own being and now breathes with the subservient tie to paper now broken. The intrinsic beauty of the material overrides purpose while the carving into the wood appears to ripple as gouged waves snake and writhe as if rushing from a source to metaphorically suggest a route from and to other levels, this time of the consciousness. On the carved wood wall a tree drops leaves with great weeping splashes while vaporous air spaces balloon from its core.
On this floor rests a dark boat polished to a waxy sheen and the tree is like Mother Earth overlooking and then succumbing to weeping, so that we are pulled Lethe wards. The Greek’s mythological river in Hades where drinking of the waters caused forgetfulness is remembered, the boat a funereal bullet breaking the waters. It carries dead twigs away from the tree mourning in the background.
The water depicted upon the wood floor appears female as it parts and then sheds as the boat makes its journey forward. The prow cuts into the waves and then the wake behind the boat flairs like two wings, as again it becomes part of a larger fluid dimension. The steely masculine blackness crossing the russet, sienna, umber and other earth tones inherent in the wood, calls to mind aerial photographs of the scarring caused by the extraction of bitumen from the tar sands. The imagery, politically pertinent wears a patina of ink, the essential carbon-based black. The stains deepen the cuts and burnish the surface.
Sean Caulfield furthers the sense of psychological underpinning by juxtaposing the male- female inference with a black architectonic tower. Lined up so that the boat points at it, the sentinel structure compliments the organic floor and relates to the basic form of the boat. Like the disruptive imposition of man upon nature, there is a small divide between the two, a walk-through. The edifice harkens, in size and by virtue of the somber palate, to a tomb from which an angled slice of wood like a weather vane veers tangentially. A grave marker is often the last physical reminder of the personal presence and is made to remind the living of the worth and dignity of the buried. Associations to the human struggle against oblivion arise.
To promote the printing blocks from servant to master with such aplomb defied the block’s destined “death” and in doing so the impact from Caulfield’s Dead Weight is memorable as if the river once drunk, awoke memory to chart a new course – backing us up, slowing us down and directing us away from the blather of teeming modernity to a place where contemplation regains stature.
Within cultural heritage there is built the possibility of reversing the insistent role of destiny and not dying as the work of art endures. Active Workings makes an active case for remembering through the power embodied in phenomenal objects.
The paper works within the exhibition maintain a more traditional bid for immortality using historical methods of print-making. But the large scale grid of woodblock prints, Signal Fire pasted poster-style on the wall bring temporality into play. Like the bid to keep the current act running with a cinema billing if the audience numbers lessens there is the potential for another “truth” to be pasted overtop. As if channeling Hieronymous Bosch, Guston or the prescience of Hestor Prynne, wood stacked like a pyre with funnels and tubes venting off the waste of whatever is hidden in the depths of the sharpened poles insinuates undercurrents. There are issues, indistinct but unavoidable, that Caulfield cannot ignore and yet in reminding us of the dead weight of existence, he lightens the message with an aesthetic that is elegant and beautiful.
Sean Caulfield Active Workings. Vernon Public Art Gallery, March 8 to May 16, 2018.