PhD Exhibition ‘The Corbel Series’ by Susan Fraser-Hughes, at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, December 2014- February 2015.
As the artist’s statement explains, these charcoal drawings are the result of three visits to the Bishop’s Palace at St David’s in Wales over a period of time, and noticing head-shaped corbels exposed to the elements where once they would have had the protection of the building. A corbel is ‘a structural piece of stone, wood or metal jutting from a wall to carry a superincumbent weight, a type of bracket’, says Wikipedia. So straight away, the thought of bearing pressure, exposure to weight , experience of burden, is attached to the drawings through the title of the show.
I feel unsettled by these alien faces. I am reminded of Francis Bacon’s ‘Screaming Pope’ paintings, of Munch’s ‘The Scream’. I approach the set of six drawings in front of me carefully, taking in their staring eyes and distorted, grimacing mouths. Not as visceral as Bacon’s ‘Popes’, these are plainly stone faces, but ones which bear the marks of erosion and time, hinting at dark emotions of pain, fear and helplessness. In spite of being caricatures, their presence is powerful and intimidating. Am I being deliberately frightened away? Are these stone sentinels, determined to keep me from the treasures they guard? My imagination leaps forward to another possibility. Maybe their faces record terrible realities, testimonies to the traumatic nature of events that took place in Wales centuries ago. I am not a scholar of Welsh history, but I consider finding out more about the Bishop’s Palace in St David’s. Maybe there is more to being a corbel than I thought.
The group of four drawings to my left catch my eye, their harsh black lines and set mouths a metallic extermination of emotion. Here are sentinels of a more dramatic sort, the kind I imagine bearing down on Dr Who in an intergalactic confrontation, powerful and pitiless. The question arises once more, what is it that they guard so jealously? A vision of mysterious mediaeval ritual lures me, but I will never know what the story is truly about, for too many years have passed and civilization has moved on. Or has it? Fear, horror, death, destruction have not yet been exterminated from human experience, merely changed their outward appearances in my modern twenty first century technological world. My thoughts make me uncomfortable.
The final group of three shifts the balance away from the murky depths of the past to the concrete nature of the present as the artist demonstrates the richness of her response to what she saw in the corbels. Each of these drawings opens another door, indicates another path down which the artist could have meandered to explore her theme further. Reassuringly safe, comfortingly contemporary, these drawings act as bookends for the whole exhibition. Have they lost their hostility, their sense of threat? Or are these merely preludes which will be even more fearful when they emerge into the world as finished drawings, the calm before the storm?
Why are we so inherently afraid of the unknown and the unfamiliar? These are merely drawings after all, just charcoal on Mylar. Aren’t they?