Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Conflux: Sean Henry at Salisbury Cathedral

For some reason I forgot to post this catalogue text online during the exhibition, but although the exhibition is now over I'm posting it anyway...just for the record. Better late than never. Most of the works referred to can be viewed on Sean's website here.

Sean Henry at Salisbury Cathedral

It's hard to imagine a more appropriate environment in which to view a representative selection of sculptures by Sean Henry than at Salisbury Cathedral, one of Britain's finest Gothic buildings. The cathedral's location at the confluence of five rivers suggested the title for the exhibition, Conflux, which also alludes to the coming together of the sacred building and the anonymous secular subjects of Henry's sculptures.

Henry's work has its roots in a deep empathy with the European tradition of polychrome sculpture, for a long time considered unfashionable in relation to the dominant neoclassical taste for uncoloured white marble or monochrome bronze. However, coloured sculpture is now enjoying something of a renaissance of public appreciation and Henry can take a good deal of the credit for that revival. Judging by the enthusiastic crowds flocking through Salisbury Cathedral for the duration of the exhibition, Conflux represents a milestone in that resurgence of interest. 

During the Middle Ages, cathedrals were the focal point of the community, a meeting place for people of all classes and occupations. The so-called  'Medieval Miracle' — the erection of numerous cathedrals across Europe from 1050 to 1350 — was the product not only of visionary architects and skilled craftsmen, but of the labour of the common people. Even the unskilled peasantry were often conscripted into hauling materials to the building site and undertaking other rudimentary tasks. This period also marked the emergence of the so-called ymagier tailleur, the carver of small images and later of more monumental sculptures. The architectural and free-standing works these medieval craftsmen produced — which adorned both the interior and exterior of the building — helped the faithful negotiate their passage through the cathedral, strengthening their faith as they went.

However, while Europe's cathedrals have long memorialised saints and other figures from Christian doctrine, the common workers whose humble toil helped bring these magnificent projects to fruition are long since forgotten. In this regard, Henry's works fulfil an important function, momentarily deflecting our gaze from the more familiar sacred objects to settle upon secular figures that subtly evoke aspects of the cathedral's ancient past.

Man of Honour (1999), for example, quite literally elevates a contemporary orange-clad labourer to the top of a column doubtless once occupied by a blessed saint. Meanwhile, the figure in kneepads, entitled One Step Forward (2004) might stand as a modern representative of the multitude of medieval stonemasons whose sweat and toil helped raise the building in 1238 (Salisbury still boasts the tallest spire of any British cathedral). Similarly, the figure entitled Seated Man (2011) — a middle-aged bearded figure dressed in a leather waistcoat and collarless shirt, his gnarled hands clasped in a gesture approaching tentative prayer — could be a medieval artisan pausing for a moment's rest in the cool of the cathedral's cloister garden. Framed against the gothic tracery of the lancet arches, he becomes a signifier of the unchanging essence of medieval cathedrals everywhere.
It is in that dialogue between the sacred and the secular that the power of the Conflux project resides, helping us not only to appreciate Henry's innovative approach to figure-making, but at the same time prompting a fresh appraisal of Salisbury Cathedral's indigenous sculpture. Nowhere is this creative dialogue more marked than in the contrast between Henry's sleeping figure in Folly (The Other Self), located on the cathedral green outside, and Salisbury's own tomb effigy of the English nobleman and military commander William Longespée, 3rd Earl of Salisbury (1176-1226) inside the cathedral.

Through its open structure, Henry's Folly (The Other Self) invites physical engagement as the viewer enters the room to speculate on the identity and thought processes of the slumbering and standing figures within. As with all Henry's work, the scale of the sculptures in Folly (The Other Self) is critical, providing a defamiliarising counterpoint to the empathy triggered by their naturalistic colouring. At certain times of day, the roof members throw shadows across the room, subtly evoking the ribbed vaults of the cathedral interior. Even the chair suspended from the ceiling offers an oblique reference to its location here for the word cathedral stems from kathédrā — the Greek word for chair (and the source of the English word chair). Located on the cathedral green, Folly (The Other Self) provides both a physical and thematic link between the town, the local community, and the cathedral.

Cathedrals have always provided a calm sanctuary away from the vicissitudes of the world outside and during the medieval period this function was extended in ways we might today find surprising. People were allowed to sleep in cathedrals, for example, so the idea of a recumbent figure such as Henry's Man Lying on His Side (2000) seems particularly apt in this setting.

Many of Henry's sculptures focus on the overlooked symbolic power of the ordinary, capturing the viewer's attention through simple shifts in scale. To this he adds a layer of psychological intensity by showing his figures in states of private meditation. This aspect of his work takes on a wholly different significance in the cathedral environment where, for example, the downward focused gaze of the figure known as Standing Man (2007) assumes a quality of engagement that we normally associate with saints looking benevolently down on the faithful. This is not to suggest that the cathedral context makes the secular seem sacred, although it adds an ineffable aura of spirituality to these very contemporary subjects; rather it reminds us of how effective were the communicative strategies employed by ancient craftsmen in their mission to serve the church though their art.

Similarly, The Duke of Milan (1999), his head partially obscured by the hood of his puffer jacket, recalls one of the most celebrated polychrome figures in Spanish religious art — Pedro de Mena's St. Francis Standing in Ecstasy (1663) in Toledo Cathedral. Just as the artists of the ancient past and indeed of seventeenth-century Spain used naturalism to deepen the devotional engagement of the pious onlooker, so Henry uses realism to deepen our identification with the figures he has placed in and around the cathedral. They underline what it means to be alive and yet at the same time in this setting they function as memento mori — a reminder that all things must pass.

Another sense of time passing comes in the disappearance of many of the cathedral's original sculptures, although many were happily replaced during the nineteenth century and some indeed more recently. In the medieval period, cathedral sculptures would have been naturalistically painted. Today it is hard for us to imagine how these buildings might have looked with their original polychromy in place. Henry's Man with Cup, standing comfortably atop a column on the exterior of the building holding his coffee cup as if it were some saintly attribute, contrasts with the monochrome stone figures of St. Thomas of Canterbury, St. Edmund the Martyr and St Alphege raised in niches just around the corner on the West Front. These are nineteenth century replacements by James Redfern, left unpainted to match the dominant colour of the building after centuries of weathering removed the original polychromy. Henry's work allows us to dream a little and envision the building as it might have looked in the mid-thirteenth century.

The two-figure group called Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (1999/2011), located in the north transept during the exhibition, also alludes to the transience of human life. The Latin phrase, meaning 'Thus passes the glory of the world', might have made an appropriate title for the exhibition. Coincidentally, it was inspired by an encounter Henry witnessed on the steps of a church in Italy. Here in Salisbury Cathedral, like its other modern counterparts, it takes on a subtle new resonance.


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