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Don’t Ignore Your Longing for the Orange, Paintings by Serena Caulfield
Cherry Smyth

‘I won’t opt for narrative, which would mean inventing reality instead of searching for it.’ (1)

       Serena Caulfield may be considered a figurative painter but she uses figuration to figure out reality more than represent it. Like the French writer, Annie Ernaux, who tests the boundaries between memoir and fiction, Caulfield teases out the edges between the conscious and the unconscious image. Her dense, vibrant paintings strike us with the strangeness of a dream and the certainty of a memory we didn’t know we had. In ‘Orwell’s Roses’ (2023), the deep red roses smelled by the girl are clearly not roses, but the dream and the dreamer know they are. In ‘The Light That Holds the Hot Sky Tame’ (2023), a girl? a princess? is the wrong size to inhabit this woodland idyll, populated by a myriad of earthly creatures, but she holds the reins to a white horse, and so emits an aura of authority that makes the make-believe desirable. Despite the lurid, unnaturally yellow sky, that in a more representative painting would signal climate catastrophe, here we willingly embrace a world of inter-species harmony where apples can grow on whatever tree they want. Recent studies of wild animals found that they scattered more quickly on hearing human conversation than the roar of a lion. In Caulfield’s Eden, the animals are guides and the lone girl harmless and fearless in her quest. The non-hierarchical placing of figures asks us to consider the lost ‘inter-being’ between humans and more-than-humans, and thus gain access to the shared, bright carnival of the everyday. In a world we’ve pushed to the brink of a sixth mass extinction, Caulfield invites us into an abundant, unthreatening and unthreatened world that can only exist in the imagination or dreams.

       I’m reminded of the American poet, CA Conrad’s somatic rituals which de-centre the human, in an attempt to revive the spirit and the planet. Caulfield’s visions are void of adults and reconnect with that time when we were in touch with imaginary friends and bunnies who could talk. In ‘Savage Dreams’ (2023), two children glide on horseback through water, with a dusk-lit farmhouse in the distance. One is dressed as an Indian chief – the ‘savage’ of the title, or is it the savage colonialists who decimated the indigenous Americans and brought misrule and famine to Ireland? For many of us, there was more vivid freedom in the persona of the squaw, than the cowboy. The tower, like the dilapidated arches in ‘In the Ruins of Memory’ (2023), stands as an echo of the island’s ancient kings and battles for conquest. Monstrous forms, with hinted blue eyes, lurk in the dark, indistinct clumps of trees in ‘Savage Dreams’. These moody densities recall the work of Franz Marc, one of the founding members of the German Blue Rider group, who was to die in WW1. The innocence of childhood, that can often only be experienced later in art, conjured so powerfully in Caulfield’s work, is echoed by the censored Romanian poet, Nina Cassian:

‘Don’t stir up purple.

Leave some mystery intact and undisturbed.

But don’t ignore your longing for the orange of lighted windows

that shine beside your childhood door.’ (2)

       Caulfield’s paintings both invoke myth and invent it. Whether it’s Morrigan, the Raven Goddess, or the goddess-mare, Macha, these symbols shift between war-like virility and feminine fecundity. We sense that despite the raven’s warnings in ‘The Raven and the Rainbow’ (2023), this girl-seeker will continue to quest with her back to the rainbow and the impossibly blue sea. She embodies the bold naivety of the fairy tale protagonist who enters the wood as night falls. To individuate, she must renounce sentimental, seductively enhanced ‘nature’ and also the naturalism of the Irish landscape tradition. To that end, in many paintings, the landscape disintegrates into intense patches of abstract gestures, becoming splotchy or sinuous, with a complexity that is at once alluring and invigorating. In these under or over stories, the still-wild landscape of an older age is suggested, with the uncultivated patterns we must learn again to discern.

       Horses recur in ‘Wild Horses at Midnight without the Moon’ (2023), where a herd of white and of pink horses appear both in and up in the trees. The stark simplicity reads like a record of a dream and recalls Freud’s patient, Sergei Pankejeff’s drawing of white wolves in a tree outside his bedroom window. If analysis can unlock the latent thoughts in a dream, can painting also unravel this latency? Like white and pink sugared almonds, the horses evince smooth, uncomplicated sweetness. Left to their own symbolic framework, they graze, at one with each other and the woodland.

       In this new work, Caulfield delivers a fresh, dynamic lexicon for contemporary painting that employs colour saturation to defamiliarize the landscape, nimble figuration and moments of luscious abstraction to create and recreate territories of myth, dream and imagination. We become the lost visitor following her path through the woods.

(1) AnnieErnaux,Shame,London:FitzcarraldoEditions,1997,p.28

(2) NinaCassian,LifeSentence,London:AnvilPress,1990

 The Light that Holds the Hot Sky Tame, oil on canvas, 80cm x 100cm 2023


Essay by Marysia Wieckiewicz-Carroll


Subtle clues to unpuzzling Serena Caulfield's work emerge from the titular painting of the exhibition: 'Not somewhere else but here'. In it, a tall, slender woman with long dark hair rests her back against an old tree. She is surrounded by an entourage of obviously devoted animals: an old dog with a shaggy beard looking like a wise sailor, and a disproportionately large horse - both lying at her feet. Two other pups: a sheepdog and a yellow-brown small crossbreed sit within reaching distance of her hands, looking for affection or attention.


Nearby, though the distance and relation of things to one another are not quite reliable, a pair of swans engage in a love dance by the tree trunk, undisturbed by the presence of others; they are a part of the equilibrium. The full moon rises above an outline of a lookout tower - a familiar built structure within the Irish landscape. It feels like a midsummer night as the bonfire crackles at the fore, sending bright-orange trickles in the air.


On myth, on magic


The scene is painted with a certain looseness, typical for Serena's practice.

Shapes and features are lightly sketched here, rather than imbued with realistic precision. And though some elements at the fore of the picture plane are more laboured: both the dog's and the horse's features are distinct and readable, the detailing becomes fainter and more obscure the further into the picture plane we move. The swans appear drawn out of the negative space of the base colour rather than painted onto it; their shape softly hinted at by simply gesturing at their nebulous presence.


The woman is almost faceless and anonymous, yet central both to the narrative and composition of the painting. This centeredness of the figure brings to mind Brueghel's Diana and her nymphs after the hunt, awakening the ancient myth of the goddess of hunting, and wild and domestic animals (and dormant local stories but more on that later). The woman is the one around whom the others gather, a safe haven and a commander. Her presence is dominant but also interestingly offset by the deceiving sense of proportions and relations between the subjects/objects in the painting. This distortion makes the work both surreal and mythical. A similar intervention can be spotted in an earlier work: In a Lion's Den, Playing (2021), - an exuberant, almost biblical scene depicting animals at play in a tropical oasis. At its forefront we can see a woman in repose, with her three dogs huddled around her. She appears at ease and unfazed by the pride of lions frolicking about. These are the rare examples of Serena's works that feature a human protagonist - one in control and at one with the nature around her.


On myth / on belonging


Being able to visit an artist's studio over long stretches of time allows for a certain intimacy of viewing; one gets to see the work 'happening' in real time, as it slowly emerges, develops, takes shape. You see blank canvas getting stretched and primed; numerous paintings getting started, arriving at their assumed end point, to be replaced by a new work 'on the go'. Some of the artworks vanished to emerge again, this time re-worked, with only faint traces of their past life on the surface. Not somewhere else but here went through its various stages of reincarnation, with different elements brought to life or faded away. For a while a large, white rabbit was there, resting on the horse's back that is now consumed by fire. That same rabbit can be spotted in a number of Serena's earlier works: and Creatures Dream (2021) among them.


A white rabbit is a creature of dreams - a conduit to the world of magic. Its presence re-enforces the dream-like, surrealist quality in Caulfield's work. It marks a clear departure from depicting the traditional, or more precisely, the rational vision of life in favour of dreamscapes that capture the uncanny and unleash the potential of the unconscious.


The white rabbit also anchors the work in a local context, bringing back to life, or reviving the memory of an old myth of a white hare that used to appear in the artist's four hundred year old garden. The uncovering of such a myth suggests an act of looking closely at your surroundings, seeking out information that helps you better understand and relate to a place.


A closer look at Serena's work from the last two years reveals what unfolded as a result of that search. Familiar motifs such as the animals (the dogs, horses, and swans), the tree, the tower come to the fore, like a thread woven through the various canvases at different points in time. In some instances, their presence is only gently suggested. In 'Where This Place Is' and 'The Light That Gets Lost (Two Horses)', some of the animals are formed by simply applying layers of paint around them - the negative space shapes their bodies. Other objects have a more persistent presence, the paint applied here is thicker, the brushstrokes more decisive. Regardless of the treatment, the artist's gaze remains intimate and focused. The exercise stretched across months. We get the sense of time passing by seeing the now familiar tree depicted through the seasons, with and without its foliage, as both the main protagonist and in the background of the story.


Nothing exists here in separation from one another. The house, the lives lived in it, the myths and animals - all these elements are crucial parts of the story, of both the artist and the work in progress. It is a story of becoming one with, of noticing - one's own surroundings and circumstances, of realising that at this point in time, this is 'not somewhere else but here'.


Not somewhere else but here


On my repeated visits to Serena's studio over the past year many elements kept changing within the space. In this state of flux and continuous rotation, (clearly a sign of productive studio time), one thing remained constant: a tired A4 piece of paper stuck to the wall, with Adrienne Rich's poem 'What Kind of Times Are These' printed on it. Stained with paint and handprints, it clearly has been Serena's companion throughout the creative process.

The poem, written in 1991 and often perceived as Rich's intergenerational dialogue with Bertolt Brecht's 'To Those Born Later', explores the varied responses to political atrocities and traumas at different points in time. Rich approaches the topic from a micro perspective, focusing on the familiar and personal. She looks at her immediate surroundings and recognises the dread and horrors of the historical past that those places often internalise. 'This is not somewhere else but here', she says, pointing at the immediacy of the issues at hand.


I can understand why Rich's poem would become a continued reference point for Caulfield in recent months. We have been through a lot. For a moment, the world around us shrunk; forcing us to inspect the immediate surroundings, only to expand again to grapple with a different humanitarian crisis. The quote: 'This is not somewhere else but here' stands as an apt reminder, a demand even, to pause and reflect on our own reality. It prompts us to stay aware of our circumstances and the surrounding landscape: be it physical or political. We can't keep on looking away - this is here and now.

Marysia Wieckiewicz-Carroll is an independent curator and art writer. She has curated a number of exhibitions and projects in Ireland and abroad, most recently New Considerations of Familiar Settings at Newbridge House, Donabate as an inaugural guest curator in collaboration with Fingal County Council Arts Office. She worked as Assistant Curator at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane and was one of the co-editors of Paper Visual Art Journal between 2014-2018. Marysia was the founding director of Berlin Opticians Gallery - a contemporary art gallery that operated both online and in physical spaces. Together with Nathan O'Donnell she co-edits Numbered Editions - a new imprint for artists' writing across forms.

Not somewhere else but here installation view, Wexford Arts Centre, February 2023

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