And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless. (1)
Rachel Parry and the material representation of the intangible
Rachel Parry has been making art of a very high order for decades but her work remains known only to a small band of devotees, most of them artists themselves, along with a few curators and perspicacious art lovers. There are artists like her, people who make art only because it needs to be made and who pay little if any attention to its wider promotion, but there are not many of them. Those artists have to satisfy the most demanding criteria; they have to exactly satisfy the drive that led them to make the work in the first place, and that is the only quality guarantee mark that applies. In other words they can never say they have let it out of the studio because they were under time constraints for an exhibition or because somehow it is helping to pay the mortgage. They generally ignore time pressures, if they even exist for them, and find other ways of earning the rent money. There are no critics looking over their shoulders, either supporting or advising them. They create simply because they have to, until the finished work releases them from the pressure of realising it or it metamorphoses into something else. That is not to say that they work to exactly replicate an image in their minds. It’s never as simple, or as illustrative as that. As Parry points out, “The initial vision mostly changes as the work evolves and if things don’t work out due to my own limitations and skills I am forced by this to take a different approach. I like this – that my limitations become part of the work”. (2)
Should we refer to such artists by the term ‘Outsiders’, the term that has come to be applied to those mainly self-taught artists who operate as Rachel Parry does, outside of the art mainstream, but who, unlike her are often unaware of its history and its practices? We seem to have a great need to categorise artists in the same way that we try to make sense of other phenomena in the world. Yet we retain a special admiration for those who refuse to be slotted in. No, Parry, like some other rare and special ‘refusniks’ are not Outsiders. They are too well informed about galleries and museums, history and theory for that, but neither are they at home in academies or critical talking shops. I prefer to think of artists like Parry in terms of the French ‘un Original’ as a better expression for their kind of independence. Perhaps her own words explain this best; “I want to encourage a sense of possibility, wonder, openness and curiosity – at least for myself”. (3) That also explains why she is so willing to accept her own limitations as part of her work, as an essential part of the process of discovery. Ultimately this means that she rejects the heroic concept of the artist as genius, divorced from the rest of us, but instead embraces the fallible humanity that we all share.
I first encountered Rachel Parry’s art many years ago, not in a formal art gallery, but in Rudolph Helzel’s jewellery shop, turned into a gallery for the Kilkenny Arts Festival. There her enigmatic objects made from what she, herself, has called nature’s debris, (cobweb’s, fish skins, bones, chilli peppers, berries and other organic matter) provided a compelling counter force to the gleam and polish of precious metals and gemstones. The theme of those early works was the relationship between nature and culture. And Parry’s homage to the earth and the creatures who inhabit it was to make sure that her attention to detail as she wove her cobwebs did not betray the craftsmanship of the original spiders, that her breast nests employed the softest and richest combinations of turf and gannet feathers and her fire shoes, made from stitched chilli pepper skins hold the promise of wearability.
That project was an eminently serious one, especially for someone living close to the land, sea and skies of the Beara peninsula, seeing on a daily basis the power of nature while all too aware of the way mankind, in its ineffable arrogance, neglected its needs. Only an artist with a tremendous sense of humour could face the realities of human stupidity and carry on. That humour surfaces easily in work from the mid ‘noughties such as the wasps nests, wax, paint, bronze and gold- copper leaf. ‘Ears of God and Man ; that of God, inflamed from listening to the problems of mankind, while the ear of Man buzzes with wasps and the gossip of the nest. But her work can also be suffused with tenderness and compassion as in Wrinkle Wings, strange surreal objects which reveal themselves as bronze castings of the wrinkles caused by constant smiling on an aging face. The same qualities are visible again in Barefoot They Entered Heaven , an extraordinary artwork, lovingly made from old leather shoe soles found on the pilgrim paths up Croagh Patrick and embellished with gold leaf. It is difficult to conceive a more respectful way of honouring an ancient folk ritual and the individuals who originally wore the shoes until they fell apart, especially when we realise that to recover the leathers, the artist had to follow their footsteps precisely.
Parry’s approach to artmaking is predominantly instinctive. She is drawn to certain things and allows time and the promptings of her unconscious to lead her to a process appropriate to the project in hand. So it was for her most recent body of work, the installation Cosmic Oceans which she showed at Uillinn, the West Cork Arts Centre, in September/October 2015. In many ways Cosmic Oceans is not like Parry’s earlier work. For a start it is the first work she ever made that is based on an existing painting and it is composed of a large work that defies identification as either painting or sculpture and five large drawings. The dominant central image is both a homage to and a re-interpretation of a 19th century Indian painting from the Nath Charit folio that was shown in Europe for the first time, in an exhibition Gardens and Cosmos , at the British Museum in 2009. Parry did not see the exhibition, but such was the immediate impact of the image in the catalogue on her, that she knew that she had to make it for herself, that she had to viscerally come to terms with the work by replicating it as faithfully as possible but on a scale and in a medium that carried her sense of it into a wider arena. She opted to recreate it in three dimensions, labouriously creating her own paper from cotton and abaca fibre pulp and casting it in plaster molds, experimenting with the process until she could achieve the finest nuances of surface texture chiaroscuoro and transparency. The elements of space, light and time were important to her sense of the work and its original appeal for her. Little is known about the original painting, except that it was one of a large number of artworks relating to the teaching of the Nath Yogis in Jodhpur in Rajasthan, and that those artworks were commissioned by the reigning Marahaja who was a follower of their teaching. The work almost certainly had an educational purpose but Rachel Parry was not then and is still not aware of the details of this. While there are recognizable elements in it, the work essentially remains an enigma to her and to most expert commentators. As the artist says; “What interests me about the painting, and what I am attempting to convey in my version, is that it takes metaphysical questions almost impossible to put into words, and depicts these in an almost diagrammatical way without losing a mysterious presence.” To preserve that mystery Parry, together with Ann Davoren, Director of Uillinn, installed her version of the work so that it was suspended in space and lit to enhance the impression of floating, and weightlessness, of a world hovering between earth, sea and sky, or beyond that, between the material and the immaterial.
Parry’s central image is accompanied by a series of diagrammatic drawings of the five senses on rice paper, each one 1530 X 730 mm. If her earlier work combined a deep respect for the creatures of the natural world, this body of work posits a metaphysical state that transcends the terrestrial but is nevertheless based on it and known, initially through the senses. For these drawings she found and used nineteenth century medical diagrams of the five senses which she combined with the imagery of the Nath Charit Court artists. Reviewing the exhibition Gardens and Cosmos in London, for the Observer Newspaper Laura Cumming, remarked that the vision of those Court artists in Rajasthan was a vision of ‘the universe before consciousness and matter, the infinite nothingness before time.” These became the source for Parry’s routes to knowledge and her pictures but this knowledge is imbibed through the body, eschewing the use of verbal language and conceptual thought.
Rachel Parry is also trying to convey a world outside of ordinary time or space, but in a present where world religions and their rituals or the folk traditions of centuries have been set aside to make way for the digital age, an age of numbers and codification. The knowledge of the body, acquired through time and space is all too often obscured by modern technologies and world views. In a public talk about her work at Uillinn during the exhibition, Parry referred a number of times to previous activity as a teacher of meditation and especially to the need to ‘quiet the mind’. She spoke of the senses as ‘portals into the world without the chatter of the mind, without the commentary that goes on in the brain’. In Cosmic Oceans , Parry re-opens one of the great philosophical questions of all time. How do we know our world?
Do the writer, the artist and the scientist experience the same things in the same way? Is it just that they represent it through different media, or do we experience it differently if we are introduced to it through a visual or a verbal language? Is knowing something conceptually the same as knowing it through our bodies moving in space and time or simply meditating. We often remark that words fail us in the presence of something very inspiring or powerful. Perhaps that is because they should, because words get in the way or fail to adequately express what the body wants us to experience through the senses.
The diagrammatic drawings of the senses probably don’t tell us as much about them as a written account might, although only a fool would opt for one without the other. But what Parry’s drawings definitely do offer us is a sense of the beauty, fragility, and complexity of our senses. They also convey something physical but intangible, something we cannot explain yet we sense its truth. Combined with her recreation of the Nath Charit painting they give us a renewed sense of the wonder and the mystery of the universe, both natural and metaphysical and our place within it.
Ruminating on modern concepts of earthly and heavenly paradises led the poet Philip Larkin to some rueful conclusions about his time and place in the 20th century. But as he thought about a world of sexual liberation and the end of religion, an unbidden image sprang into his mind.
“And immediately Rather than words comes the thought of high windows: The sun-comprehending glass, And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.” (4)
This might just be one of the rare occasions where the poet’s words and the artist’s images bring us to the same fundamental, mind-blowing position.
(1) Philip Larkin “High Windows”, Collected Poems , Faber & Faber, 1974
(2) Rachel Parry, Artist’s Introduction, in Rachel Parry, A Book with Texts by Claire Feeley, to coincide with Rachel Parry’s exhibition at The Fenton Gallery, Cork, June 2009
(3) Parry, ibid
(4) Larkin, op cit.
Rachel Parry has described her work as ‘visual poems in which the choice of materials are the words’. But the work is also visual philosophy, giving physical form to the artist’s curiosity about death, healing and transformation, both as experienced in her own life, and in mythology and folklore. The symbolically-rich materials and the intricacy of their making perform a kind of alchemy, creating powerful, deeply resonant pieces – one could almost call them scenarios – that capture moments in the long history of the struggle to come to terms with the complexities and contradictions of being human. The work comes from a deep place within, beyond words, and affects us similarly. We respond intuitively to snakeskin, hair, fur and feather, the egg, wasps, skeletal bones – but it is Parry’s artistry, her wide learning and her unflinching gaze that directs our response and informs our experience. If a test of art is its transforming power, its ability to make you think and feel differently about important things, then this is art of the most powerful kind.
Rachel Parry is an exceptional artist. Living and working in West Cork she draws on materials and cultures from all over the world to make unique and highly symbolic objects. She is concerned to draw attention to significant aspects of human experience, from childbirth and mothering to aging. Using materials gathered from the natural world, from places as far afield as Mexico and the South West of America, she draws on myths and folktales to tap into ancient rituals and beliefs and to offer solutions to age-old human difficulties. The key to healing lies in understanding. A series of hearts fashioned from such diverse materials as hedgehog prickles, baby thrush feathers, ash and glass offer unforgettable reminders of tenderness, vulnerability and the extinction of passion. Each object yields up several readings, so that the two headed axe Labrys, so-called from the name of the temple attendant in ancient Greece, who was given the instruction to ‘ know thyself’, is at once a universal symbol of aggression and an indication of its futility.
The processes through which the objects are created are as symbolic as the product. Thus while Parry uses traditional sculptural skills such as casting in glass and metal she also uses older processes, derived from international folk culture, such as weaving spinning and sewing. What is exceptional in this regard is the application of these skills to delicate materials such as spider’s webs and the consummate skill with which they are applied. The Veil, an age old and universal emblem of the divisions between men and women, is fashioned from spider webs. It is made by spinning and weaving, traditional female crafts but the resulting object resembles a warrior’s helmet as much as a woman’s veil. What might be chain mail, is actually made of cobwebs, woven over time, requiring such ‘female’ qualities as patience and gentle handling rather that hammered metal and the suggestion of impenetrability its dense fabric carries with it is no more than that.
Although Parry works mainly with organic materials, adapting her process with extraordinary dexterity, to suit their individual qualities, the exotic nature of her materials is also a feature of the work. Her work is imbued with a desire to promote healing, whether it applies to social division or the pain of a right of passage. Much of it revolves around the human body and transcends particular cultural readings. In this and in her use of materials drawn from the natural world she could be likened to Alice Maher, significantly another woman artist, who also uses her own body as an analytical tool to a greater understanding, of self, of life and of the human condition.