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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.


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

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.

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