Ellen Bell is impressed but not tempted by Helen Sear's solo exhibition at the Oriel Davies Gallery in Newtown


The title of Helen Sear’s solo show at Oriel Davies Gallery, Newtown, is an enigmatic one. One word. Lure. A warm word. A seductive, richly evocative word. A sexy word. And yet the art is cold. The gallery is cold. The gallery is empty. The adjoining café is busy, made steamy with chattering lunchers and oozing peppery aromas of soup and stew that snake their way, unbidden, into the exhibition space.

Rotating pictures – first on two small TV monitors and then on a large, floor-to-ceiling screen – of a frozen pond, ice-coated branches, leaves caught in rigid, freezing mortis, distant livestock with steam rising from wet nostrils, undoubtedly do much to add to the sensation of coldness. As do the four white, alabaster-like forms that sit, hefty and lumpen, on the main gallery floor. The chill of tombs. Winter or the approach of spring, it is hard to say. Two photographic works of bales, straw and hay, stand and hang opposite each other. Both in black and white. One has been squared-off into sixteen pieces, the other concertinaed. Autumn or the approach of winter, again it is hard to say. Boxed into a jutting, glass-fronted shelf lie a series of twigs, their life-sap sealed in, like a Goldfinger victim, by thick, glutinous, silver paint. Colour is present in the remaining inkjet works: the sharp, forget-me-not blue of a wild flower, the pale turquoise of a milk jug, the sunflower yellow of a pair of matching cagoules and the ochre-y greens of pottery songbirds. But it is not enough to melt this iciness.

Sightline by Helen Sear
Sightline (4) by Helen Sear © the artist

Lure. To tempt. To attract with the promise of a prize. Lure – the word echoes around the space. There is a cipher to decode here. And it is worth the effort. This is elegant work. And elegance, by its very nature, must be aloof, cool, hovering above the ordinary, the visceral. Sear, recipient of a Major Creative Wales Award from the Arts Council of Wales in 2010 and joint winner of the Gold Medal at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in 2011, is an artist of great poise. She holds back. References to various art genres, the natural world and the human condition float like feathers, to be caught if one chooses or to just let fall. She suggests without leading, without telling. Sightline, 2011, a series of twenty-one head and shoulders portraits of women – each of their faces blotted-out, masked-out by a china bird – triggers notions of kitsch-ness, artifice and the airless claustrophobia of our interior landscapes. Plinths for Imaginary Birds, 2013, extend this theme. The banal made huge. Echoes of Claes Oldenberg but without the luridness, the whimsy. Pastoral Monument 1 MYSOTIS ARVENSIS, 2012 and Pastoral Monument 6 DAUCUS CAROTA, 2012 are equally immense. As with much of the work in this show, scale toys with our sense of what is important, real or worthwhile. The posy of hedgerow flora looming large over the hayfield, the setter dog dwarfed by the marble-like bases. The light in the two pastoral scenes is theatrical. The foreground brought forward. A stage set. A ha-ha. Nature landscaped to fit the romantic ideals of a post-industrial revolution audience. Caught up and tamed.

Pastoral Monument
Pastoral Monument (6) by Helen Sear © the artist

In the back room, the giant video projection of Pond, 2011 continues to churn round. Opposite it, and set into the wall, is another TV monitor. Lure, 2012. A group of walkers, day-trippers – some in hiking boots and waterproofs, rucksacks on their shoulders, others in court shoes and mackintoshes, carrying handbags, heels digging mud – stand in a disparate, scattered mass, flanked by an imposing forest of firs. Some carry binoculars; others shield their eyes with their hands. They are all looking at something, waiting for something to happen. Some grow bored; children skip around while others remain still, constant, alert, ready. Lure is a beautiful and intelligent collection of work that poses, rather than imposes, questions about our on-going relationship with the wild. Nevertheless, it remains a chilly aesthetic and one whose lure sadly, may all too easily be overlooked on such a grey, rainy Newtown day.

Lure by Helen Sear is at the Oriel Davies Gallery Newtown until 17 April 2013.

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