Friday, 7 September 2012

Art: The Sculpture of Emma Dexter

Traditionally, it has been the task of the art historian to look at an artist’s life and work as separate fields of enquiry. Links and parallels are often made between the events of an artist’s life and the subject of their work. To make this distinction between art and life in relation to Emma Dexter’s work is to misunderstand what her work is about. For Emma, art and life are not two separate fields; they are two sides of the same coin. What makes the work of Emma Dexter so interesting is the fact that her work is part of her being.

Born in England, Emma was raised in Germany from the age of six. Emma never made the decision to ‘become’ an artist; it had never crossed her mind to do anything different. Emma did not take the usual ‘academic’ route to becoming an artist, which could explain to some extent why her work is so personal to herself. Rather than learning through education how to express herself through art, she learnt a craft to express the art that was already part of her.

Emma originally trained as a painter, but after many years of painting, she found that her ambitions for work were surpassing the limits of the medium. To further her skills, Emma trained for five years as an apprentice stone mason and carver at York Minster, during this time she took the leap from being a painter to being an accomplished sculptor: “I spent five years in a stone yard with men, always covered in dust, looking like a man”. After her apprenticeship, Emma produced her most ambitious and revealing work to date. After spending so long in a male dominated environment, Emma created Violine (2000). The work marked a return to femininity, the statue looking as if it was literally coming out of the ground. On the one hand the work seems surreal and almost abstract in form, on the other, it can be seen as a Madonna, confidently and subtly revealing her femininity. “You always have to work from a base, and that point that base was very much me. I really tried to explore something that was sensual; something very feminine. It is made to touch. It is made to feel. It is made to evoke all of the senses.”

Emma tells us that she makes art primarily as an aid to understand and make sense of the world and events of her life. Each work of art is made for a different reason, but is always made with an honesty and intensity that seems lost with many of today’s artists. Nothing is made explicit and it is left to the viewer to consider the work in a context which is relevant to them. “My work has always gone through a progression over time. I’m at a point now where my work is going through a transformation. Everything I’ve done before appears and disappears in what I am doing now. It has become a door to a whole new way of approaching my work.”

Memory is a recurring theme in much of Emma’s work: memory of the self, memory of others. There is a hint of what has been, what could have been and what has been lost. There always seems to be a sense of optimism and hope for the future which is what makes her work so complex and intriguing. Her works are carefully constructed in a way that slowly reveals itself to you, offsetting certain ideas and creating a strange fluctuation between the normal and the surreal. If you imagine looking at a smudge on a window, the smudge is all that is in focus, with what lies outside of the window going out of focus. Suddenly, your eyes will adjust and you will see the world outside, with the smudge going out of focus. Emma’s work creates a context where what initially seems rather normal is in fact quite surreal and vice versa. The personal themes of the work fluctuate with the larger themes, which at the time can cause some unease with a viewer. “Sometimes there are moments in your life that are poignant and they wake you up. Sometimes it takes something surreal to be able to see that.”

Her work is very much interwoven with events in her life and the society around her. It is important to consider that Emma, as well as most artists, is in a two-way dialogue with the events of wider society. There are certain events that come to be very important in history; events such as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre, or the war in Iraq have become obvious fodder for an artist. It is however difficult for these events not to have an effect on an artist. These issues have been dealt with through Emma’s work. She uses subtle imagery, suggestion and metaphor, which may in some of her work allude to the issues posed by major social events, but this is never made explicit. Something which seems stable, in both an ideological and physical sense, can in effect come crashing down through the removal of a ‘key-stone’, this has been hinted at in much of Emma’s work.

For Emma, sculpture is not just a visual medium; the work she creates is often designed to be experienced by the various senses. A recent commission for the National Portrait Gallery led Emma to create a series of sculptures for the blind. These sculptures were designed to be touched, giving people the opportunity to experience sculpture, who, because of the rules of many art galleries, may not normally have the opportunity.

Although her work shares the themes of many of the Saatchi endorsed British artists of the 80s and 90s, her work offers something far more tender and honest. I spoke to Emma in some detail about the work of artists such as Tracy Emin and Sarah Lucas, and how some of her work treads similar ground. Themes of memory, sex and death are universal in art, but the way they are tackled by an individual artist speaks louder than anything written about them could.

This essay originally featured in the exhibition catalogue for Emma Dexter, 'Elixir Pandemonium', (adelicatematter, 2007)

Emma Dexter’s website is:

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