BLOG Michael TomlinsonNWR Issue 102
Meri Wells, MOMA Machynlleth Exhibition at MOMA, Tabernacl, Machynlleth, runs until 15 February 2014
Meri Wells is a ceramic sculptor based in mid Wales and she has been making her wonderfully strange part human, part animal, part bird creatures for a quarter century or more. They emerge out of our mist, part of a vague, collective memory or step into our world from some slightly off-kilter parallel universe. Her sculptors resonate because, even in their otherworldliness, their struggles are familiar. The figures strain against the same emotional tensions as ourselves, barely contained by the glazes that skin over the pulsing earthy energy of her rope-built forms. Her technique, the build up of corded layers of clay around an empty core, acts as a metaphor for the interaction between maker and spectator. She puts a face to our hopes and fears and in each hollow vessel provides a container for their safe keeping.
Mischievous sprites and animist totems alternate in her work with the little gods that used to haunt the landscape and that perhaps a small part of us hopes still do. At a time when traditional religious belief is on the wane, Meri Wells provides us with this alternative secular pantheon of watchers and guardians. They offer us the promise of renewal, inviting us to wake from our drugged indifference and live again. They are the prompts and stand-ins we know as conscience. The choices we can either take up or decline. Their surfaces are also a reflection of the artist’s inner life. In this sense, they can all be seen as self-portraits of the subcutaneous, the mind.
Sometimes into these streams of artistic consciousness occasional interlopers stride, favourite intellectuals with all their baggage and sensibilities. These might include Zola or Lorca, perhaps too the ghost of Guy Debord. Meri Wells’ watchers recall The Society of The Spectacle
, they warn of the loss of self-consciousness and remind us that life demands participation. They seek to jolt us out of a commodified passivity so that we can re-engage with society.
For her latest exhibition at Y Tabernacl the interlopers [and inspiration], The Herefordshire School of Romanesque sculptors, are much more nebulous. They are known only by the discrete body of work they have left us along the borders of England and Wales; a remarkable series of twelfth-century carvings reaching their apogee at Kilpeck Church, an unprepossessing three-celled structure not far west of Hereford and just off the Abergavenny road. In many ways the sculptures at Kilpeck are an ideal source material for Meri Wells; they surround the church fabric, watching over its interior life by giving form to the evil spirits that were thought to infest the landscape outside. Saxon bestiaries and abstract Celtic knotwork combine in unique and beautiful syntheses. Other images are drawn from popular myth and legend, angels, a green men and a sheela-na-gig. The sacred mingles with the profane in strong, simple and arresting forms. The sculptures are in a remarkable state of preservation but being of sandstone, remain, despite the strength of the carving, essentially lifeless. By transposing them into ceramic sculptures, Meri Wells has imbued them with warm life, exaggerating their innate humour. Some of the pieces offer direct translations; others simply inhabit the same subconscious landscape as the originals. In one, an upturned stag’s head, the glazing is so dramatic it almost obscures the form. The mouth is like a volcanic crater out of which the glazes appear to have boiled up and spilled, lava like, down the sides.
The first piece in the exhibition stands alone in execution, drawing only tangentially on the source material at Kilpeck but it illustrates how anything and everything is put at the service of Meri Wells’ singular vision. It is composed of three boxed scenes. The artist says that after she had finished it she became aware of the influence of the intense and complex decoration she had seen on the cathedral of Monreale in Sicily. More bizarrely, it was also informed by the childhood memory of an exotic Easter egg filled with a magical spun sugar world. So magical in fact that she couldn’t bring herself to eat it, leaving it instead to sit on her windowsill until it spoiled. Two of the motifs are casts of toy figures found in and around the old farmhouse where she lives. One she has converted into an angel.
Meri Wells sits firmly in a sculptural tradition that stretches back through the medieval world to the very start of artistic expression. It is preoccupied with the fears and anxieties of the human heart and seeks to achieve catharsis through the creation of deeply felt personal votive figures that transcend individuality.
The field of ceramics is all too often dismissed as a craft rather than an art but whilst there is an essential element of craft to Meri Wells’ work, it is secondary to and put entirely at the service of her creative expression. She is without doubt one of the most individual and interesting artists working in Wales today and her work is more necessary than ever.
Represented by Martin Tinney Gallery
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