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Presence of Absence - Liz Sullivan

I was asked recently to write an introduction to an exhibition of recent sculptures by my friend artist Liz Sullivan. I was delighted to be asked as I have been a fan of her artwork for many years.


By David Glyn Davies.

'Presence of Absence' - Recent Sculptures by Liz Sullivan

‘I’ve always admired Classical Sculpture, its strength and perfection. The human form has evolved as integral part of my work. This was confirmed recently after a trip to Europe where I came to see another vital aspect of Neo Classical sculpture and painting: the contradiction of human power and frailty. I considered this for some time and decided that these aspects are common to all people, past and present’. Liz Sullivan 2019.

For artist Liz Sullivan, there is a material form that exists in the present moment. It is a material that rises slowly as if to cling to a human body, which in the true light of day, is invisible. It does not exist: it is a hollow into which, thoughts and feelings come into being and preside, for a few moment’s consideration, so as to give the artist and those who come to view her sculptures, time to contemplate the artistic contradiction and relationship between subject and object. In this group of sculptures, objects rely on a counterpart of emptiness to complete their subject: that subject being several key figures in Raphael Sanzio da Urbino’s great masterpiece, The School of Athens.

Raphael’s fresco The School Of Athens has become for many artists, historians and art lovers, a symbol of a great marriage: a marriage between the arts, philosophy and the sciences. As a consequence of this Neo Classical union, The School of Athens has come to be seen by many as the signature artwork of the Renaissance period. It was painted between 1509 and 1511 and is situated in the first of four rooms (designed by Raphael), known as the Stanze di Raffaello in the Apostolic palace in the Vatican.

The School of Athens is a vast artwork that has been described, interpreted, re interpreted, mused over, lauded and criticised by many learned people. For numerous artists who look to find reference and inspiration from which to build a new body of artworks, interpreting or reinterpreting this monumental fresco would be a daunting task to say the least. Not so for Liz Sullivan, who from her love of Classical and Neo Classical sculpture, has taken a particular aspect of the fresco (that being the dress of its key subjects), and represented it in sculptural form.

There are many characteristics to consider when looking at these sculptures that call us to question the nature of space and our day to day spatial perceptions. In Rafael’s masterpiece the space around the figures is calculated, structured carefully to guide the viewer’s eye in a particular direction to the fresco’s central figures: Plato and Aristotle. By drawing upon structured painted forms (that in the fresco take on many sculptural qualities), and removing them from their context, these new sculptures create another spatial dimension upon which to focus, as well as reconsider the sculpture’s related visual structure.

It was often the case that Classical and Neo Classical sculptures were grouped together to create narrative and context to their setting. In this regard, Liz Sullivan’s sculptures give rise to an alternative narrative that allow the viewer to focus on and complete the artwork. They also allow the viewer to consider the very fabric (artistic, physical and metaphoric), of what the foundations of artistic practice can be.

‘Part of my art practice is painting. When painting, I have always wanted to extend the paint stroke. I let it move to express the nature of the paint; the smudges, the dribbles, the accidents and perfections all come into play and are an integral part of my work. The same happens in my sculptures where I apply resin over flowing fabric. For me, each fold and turn becomes a mark in its own right: a gesture around emptiness. I hope also , that my sculptures appear to defy gravity with the omission of the figure’. Liz Sullivan 2019.

Two aspects arise from this statement. Firstly, the artist has created a visual narrative around which these sculptures have an artistic and historic connection; and secondly, draw the viewer’s attention to the foundation of art practice: that being the artist’s instinctive need to make marks. In the words of Liz Sullivan, ‘each fold and turn becomes a mark in its own right’, which in turn begs a question; what is a mark?

For many artists, a mark in physical terms is simply the manifestation of an action: an action driven by their need to make thoughts a reality, make the invisible become visible, from cloudy obscurity to clear focus. This simple notion has many links to Plato’s Theory of Forms in which he believed that the physical world could never be as real or true as timeless ideas. We might consider the many aspects of mark making and ask: when does a dot become a line? When does a line form a letter? When does a letter form a word? When do words become a sentence? Without interpretation, musical notes on a page are no more than marks on a music score until someone plays them as a real sound for others to hear. The essence of these sculptures lies at the centre of this simple Platonic notion.

‘Da Vinci’s use of fabric, particularly in his drawings, suggests a mystery and volume that is so intriguing. Words are also incorporated, marks of colour, translated into letters, numbers and symbols and jargon made from line’. Liz Sullivan 2019.

From jargon can come order or structure from which, creativity can spring and become something else and is where artistic truth and human interpretation must surely lie. Light and sound are an integral part of these sculptures and as such, are manifestations of the gestural mark. The sculptures are incomplete without these additions to the mark making process and bring into play other sensual perceptions. With these additions too, masculine and feminine qualities rise at the centre of each artwork that are evoked by the flowing nature of the material. The notion of expressing the many qualities of water (that can be seen in many of Liz Sullivan’s paintings – its abstract qualities reinterpreted in opaque and translucent ways), can be seen in these sculptures.

‘After trying out different fabrics, I settled on a crêpe fabric called Georgette that is named after its creator, a French dressmaker called Georgette de la Plante. The fabric flowed and had many qualities that I considered androgynous. It had the fluidity of water while remaining a powerful physical extension, as well as giving the sculptures an emotional expression of the strength of the Classical body’. Liz Sullivan 2019.

There is a direct relationship and natural progression in this body of sculptures from Liz Sullivan’s recent paintings of waterfalls. There is a fluidity in these paintings and subsequent wall sculptures that contain movement and undulating marks: quick and fluid, long and curved, short and sharp, smudged for a smooth interpretation of a delicate surface, a touch from the tip of her index finger to splatters and a rolling wax line: all jostling against one another and yet, at one with each other so that movement and luscious surfaces guide our eyes to what could be considered Neo Classical or Post Modern Harmony. Here lies another connection and relationship with ancient wall sculptures: that is, friezes that usually consisted of a band of relief sculptures that were attached to the facade of a building or monument. Indeed, several frieze sculptures can be seen set into the walls of Raphael’s School of Athens.

Liz Sullivan has created a body of new sculptures that ask us to reconsider and take a fresh view of the sculptural form in a way that pays homage to its artistic heritage and all other aspects of its physicality. The sculptor Constantin Brancusi is said to have been one of the first sculptors of the Modern Art era to have taken free standing sculpture off the pedestal: that he devised a way of including the sculpture’s plinth as an integral part of the object’s aesthetic. He did this by carving many of the sculpture’s shapes and angles into the base upon which it stood. His works were (and still are), considered to have resolved the issue of how a contemporary freestanding sculpture could and should meet the floor. It is therefore a joy to see an artist like Liz Sullivan resolve what many artists consider to be one of the hardest aesthetic aspects of free standing sculpture with such consummate ease. Her wish that her sculptures ‘appear to defy gravity’ has certainly come true.

I think, after due consideration, Socrates and Pythagoras, Euclid and Ptolemy, Diogenes and Heraclitus, Aristotle and especially Plato, would have given Liz Sullivan their approval.

Read about and see more of Liz Sullivan's vast artistic out put at:

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