The exhibition Form / Symbol presents three artists whose practices enagage with precepts of colour theory, physical craft and ever-evolving symbology. Spread across different mediums and generations, the works of Delaunay, Eddy and Sundaram typify a love of making and interaction with material as both a celebration of surface aesthetics and a window into much deeper notions of – variously – narrative, philosophy & tradition.
Sonia Delaunay’s practice spanned over six decades and encapsulated all the elements above at one time or another, as her early development (alongside her husband Robert Delaunay) of ‘Orphist’ art combined a generalised sense of narrative through its initial grounding in architectural imagery, but swiftly moved beyond the representational and into the realm of celebration of pure colour and movement – casting behind it the more muted and overwrought compositions of the early Cubists and Vorticists. By the late sixties and early seventies (the period from which the gouaches, fabric works and prints in this exhibition arise) Delaunay had further refined her style into an intensely individual and recoginsable graphic language, that she applied to a dizzying array of media. From her early engagement with design beyond painting – beginning as far back as 1918 when commissioned by her friend Sergei Diaghilev to create costumes for the Ballets Russes – Delaunay would create endless and seemingly intuitive compositions that somehow also always hint at a certain hidden order. The interaction of colour planes, textures and divisions that tell, as can be found in music or dance, a story that is without content yet utterly compelling.
The notion of a ‘hidden language’, of an implied meaning, is strong too in the fantasticly intricate textile works of Sagarika Sundaram. The phrase ‘multi-layered’ is employed far too often (and too lazily) with regard to art in all manner of forms – but in Sundaram’s extraordinary felted tapestries it applies in the most literal and powerful sense. Through her use of traditional techniques and materials, Sundaram’s narrative is one passing back through time, though concerned far more with the connection of the present than any sense of nostalgia. She writes in 2021:
I treat textiles like a body –rupturing the flat surface, revealing what lies beneath layers – the sexual, painful, ugly, beautiful – interrogating what it means to be both of and alien to this world. I use abstraction to reinterpret textile as mutant, botanical, and psychedelic forms. By estranging what is familiar, I create work that possesses its own unique life. My material, my way of making, traces a lineage of makers spanning 15,000 years. Through my work I’m looking for our shared fingerprint.
Through this highly involved and labour-intensive practise Sundaram forms the conditions for works of rare confidence and impact. Densely saturating her works with uncompromising colour and patternation – Sundaram draws on a wide variety of sources in both the easten and western canons of modern art and antiquity. It is however in the intuitive building – as Delaunay built before her – of her own language that these works may best be read.
For every language – split as we are into a thousand tongues – there must be the possibility of translation, and in the practice of Austin Eddy we find a sublime process of the translation of the autobiographical and the poetic into variously joyous, haunting and often tantalisingly ambiguous painting. In common with Delaunay and Sundaram, Eddy creates work across a variety of media – incorporating drawing, sculpture and poetry – but it is perhaps in his painting that we find the purest expression of a talent for both composition and veiled storytelling. The bird motifs in this recent series can be seen as totemic ‘stand-ins’ for Eddy’s own internal emotional landscape, as well as the events playing out in his life and of those surrounding him. The use of colour theory in his work can be read both emotively and in the context of his own grounding in art history – in particular the influence of the Fauves and the the Colour-Field movement that emerged in the 1940’s in New York, his adopted hometown.
The impassivity of the central figures is offset by their surroundings, and the colour combinations that hint at varying emotional states. The suite of paintings in ‘Form / Symbol’ was created during the latter stages of the pandemic lockdowns in New York, and thus at a time that personal freedoms were curtailed, which may account for the stillness of the compositions, as may the incidence of loss to the artist during that time. These melancholic notes are balanced, however, by the sheer charm and edge of optimism in the work. Eddy’s is a language, too, of celebration.