Helen Denerley: Fight Or Flight

24 Mar 2009 in Highland, Visual Arts & Crafts

Kilmorack Gallery, Kilmorack, until 30 April 2009

Crocodile by Helen Denerley

HELEN DENERLEY’S latest solo show at Kilmorack Gallery captures a moment of beauty and horror where every fibre of a creature’s being has been honed for fight or flight. The “tension between predator and prey” in the animal kingdom is beautifully realised in a series of drawings and sculptures that reveal the artist’s powers of observation, fine draughtsmanship and ability to transform scrap metal into living breathing form.

The way the show has been displayed, with animals raised on scaffold, perched or suspended in the gallery and lit dramatically against the red walls, heightens our sense of the impending moment of action.

Denerley’s Crocodile is without doubt one of her finest works to date, a complex and intricate arrangement of agricultural chains forming the undulating rhythm of armored skin and animating the great serpentine sweep of its body. Life-size, the sculpture is a terrifying testimony to evolution, supremely geared to its purpose – a survivor of millions of years.

The artist is able to distill its essence into every last piece of recovered metal. Soldering around the mouth and teeth give the creature a feeling of age and endurance, while the greenish swamp-drenched stain of the underbelly gives the viewer a flash of colour like that seen from the corner of an eye.

The machine-like efficiency of the animal bears an interesting relationship to the human cast-off industrial parts that make up its body. From the rudder-like tail to the curve of its splayed toes, every detail is poised for movement, ready to launch itself across the gallery floor in a millisecond! The real beauty of this work is not its essential realism but the way in which Denerley masterfully transforms her materials and activates the imagination of the viewer.

A group of three Hunting Dogs in pack formation demonstrate the artist’s understanding of canine anatomy and body language, with every muscle and sinew articulated in metal; heads down, eyes fixed on their target, ready to run. The way that we read this fragment of narrative is with the excitement and anticipation of the natural drama to follow.

Denerley’s drawings and sculpture of her own dog, Molly, give wonderful insight into the artist’s creative process. Molly in Basket (Charcoal on Paper) and Molly Sleeping ii (Ink on Paper) are superbly observed, drafted and understood. Without this essence of line the sculptures would not be realised.

Denerley uses line within three dimensional forms to great effect in her two Thompson’s Gazelle, allowing us to see through the form of the body to follow the elegant lines of the face and neck. Exploration of positive and negative space together with the play of line and shadow in the focus-lit exhibition space create another level of articulation in the work.

Less convincing are Denerley’s feline studies and sculptures, which seem heavy set in comparison. Whilst the metallic stare of her Amur Leopard is arresting, the form of its body is less finely articulated than the group of Hunting Dogs, her lurcher Molly or Sid the boxer dog. There is something unnaturally awkward about the Amur Leopard and Snow Leopard sculptures in comparison to the other works on display, a quality that seems at odds with the essence of the animal and the exceptional ability of the artist.

Contrast of materials is utilised beautifully in Golden Scaffinch in the molten gold of its back, delicate spiral screw legs and keys ingeniously forming the tail feathers. Together with Eagle, Sparrowhawk, Owl, Warbler and Wagtail sculptures, the exhibition is an ornithologists dream.

A series of Bull monoprints in the vestry, notably Bull ix, gave the impression of a rubbed surface, like that of a cave painting, and interestingly explore the symbolic line of the animal’s body. This print in particular reminded me of ancient painting and sculpture, combining observation with ritual. These pieces have an interesting resonance and it would be fascinating to see Denerley explore this further in future two or three dimensional work.

Fight or Flight is a show with wide appeal to an audience of all ages, and anyone with an interest in art or nature will find much to enjoy in this exhibition. Helen Denerley’s skill and insight as an artist are undeniable and it would be wonderful to see her work on permanent public display in the North.

© Georgina Coburn, 2009