The Undoing of the Square: The Recent Work of Sylvia Edwards

"What tremendous variations from the smallest shading to the glowing symphony of color. What perspectives in the dimension of meaning!" - Klee

The most recent work of Sylvia Edwards is the outcome of a period of deliberate experiment, of a purposeful and courageous redefinition of artistic purposes, and finally of a remarkable breakthrough to a new mode of expression that will have far-reaching effects upon the development of new work. It is not so much a matter of style - although that is part of it - as accession to new areas of subject matter, and to the more direct expression of ideas and feelings previously suppressed or disguised. It may be better to begin by considering the qualities that have characterized the work hitherto; for Sylvia Edwards is an artist of distinguished achievement, and the strengths that have underpinned her work in the past have undoubtedly been carried forward into this new and latest phase.

Broadly speaking, there have been two distinct aspects to Sylvia Edwards' art: on the one hand there has been a persistent impulse to the sensuous celebration of the visible world; on the other a mystical, even visionary, tendency to a refined, dream-like representation of symbolic figures engaged in an enigmatic spiritual drama. These contrasting moods in the work have reflected different sides of a complex personality, and their expression has been kept more or less strictly separate. That is a simplification, I know, but it is a simplification that will help me clarify the issues and to present with a more dramatic directness what is about the most recent work that makes it so significantly a new departure for the artist. The celebratory side of her work takes the natural world as given and renders the rhythms of its movement through light and darkness, its constantly variegated color and the wonderful diversity of its forms with a brilliant directness that is the purest expression of delight - a kind of amazed gratitude. Watercolor is the perfect medium for this joyful catching at the evanescence of things: its effects are created with an immediacy that comes of that specific interaction of materials - water, dye, and paper - that have natural affinities and combine with a quickness in those processes of staining, soaking and stippling that allow the support to project its own light and texture through the color. Edwards has always chosen her paper with great care, valuing each for its individual qualities, its particular material vitalities. (We remember here her torn-paper collages in which dyed Japanese rice papers were varnished and combined in abstractions that caught something of the aerial delicacy of oriental landscapes.)

Edwards effected the tricky move from the translucencies of watercolor to the opacity of oil paint for a series of paintings executed in 1984-85 with no loss in coloristic brilliance. Her paintings of that period are strongly designed and have an atmospheric richness that comes of a penchant for intensely deep blues, greens and purples - colors that are applied with a powerful density and deployed across large areas of the canvas with a minimum of gestural fuss.

In absolute contrast to these works in oil, with their hot-house, almost expressionist intensities, or to the watercolors with their exuberant luminosities, to all those works in fact that make a willfully affirmative expression of emotional response to the physical actualities of the sensible world, are those other pictures of Edwards', made always with a great simplicity that depends upon the drawn line, of cloaked and hooded figures in barely adumbrated locations, unidentifiable plain and mountain, or as in The Nucleus (which she published in 1985 as a sort of philosophical statement made entirely in visual terms) In a theatre of loneliness, a mysterious place for the enactment of silent and enigmatically poignant events: pictures that speak of disconnection and separateness, of the spiritual desolation of anonymity in an empty world - a bare promontory - beneath a cold moon or in the light of a pitiless spotlight. There can be no doubt that these extraordinary and utterly personal works have sprung from a deep sadness at certain aspects of universal human experience, that they have their origin in pain.

We may discern, then, a dichotomy in the work, a split between the vividly realized celebration of the perceptible natural world which rejoices especially in its light and color, and in the inexhaustible variousness of its vegetable and mineral morphologies, and a sparely poignant rendering of a peopled place, undifferentiated and bare, a spiritual desert. In The Undoing of the Square I believe we can observe the process whereby that division is bridged and a new integration of response to the reality of the world is achieved. It is the work of the artist to make such processes visible, and it must be said that it is the way of Sylvia Edwards' art to work upon the material presented by her imagination - that most human of faculties in which thought and feelings are inextricably merged - in purely visual terms.

The series begins with an analytic act - the squaring of the paper, the arbitrary division of the picture plane into a geometric grid. The square is quintessentially inorganic - there are no squares in nature - and the grid is a mechanical device that brings with it its own formal discipline. To these self- imposed constraints Edwards adds a willful limitation on color: any invitation to an easy or automatic spontaneity is denied. The visible scene in these pictures is reduced to its components, the world is literally broken down. Such an act of analysis ("The resolution of anything complex into its simple elements." definition 1. Shorter Oxford Dictionary) must precede the necessary synthesis, which follows progressively through the series, as color and form are liberated from representation, and mood from the constraints of a natural or fictional setting. In the later pictures in the series the square tumbles out of its Euclidean confinement, escapes from subservience to rule and order into the glorious irregularity of an unrepressed freedom. The deliberate self-imposition of an arbitrary discipline has led to the discovery of possibilities unsuspected within the framework of her established modes of procedure. It was as if Edwards unconsciously recognized the need for a new beginning, a new point of departure from which to strike out into imaginative territories previously unexplored in her work. She went back to square one.

In the very latest paintings, color has been rediscovered in magical and multiple brilliancies of lemon yellow, blue, green and red, and the spaces it defines are completely lacking in illusionistic device. Freed from referential purpose, color in these works takes on a directly expressive function: it registers - and communicates without ambiguity - delight not only in the world of appearances, but in what is perceived by the inner eye. Fantastic landscapes, created with a sublime disregard for the law of gravity or the logic of perspective, are peopled by objects and creatures whose categorical distinctions are of less significance than their occupation - as equals in the picture - of the flat and decorative compositional plane. The decorative properties of these works have their origins, even in the most wildly free of them, in the schematic treatment of the square as an arbitrary given, a base for improvisation. The decision to begin with that - essentially geometric - constraint may own something to Edwards' long and deep familiarity with Islamic art. The geometric decorative in its multivarious permutations is of course a universal element in primitive and non-Western art; it is certainly a feature of much Amerindian art, and I discern in these pictures something that speaks indisputably of influences (unconscious without doubt) of Mexican and Central American folk-art. We may also detect the traces of the archaic art of Egypt and North Africa. Certainly the figures - shawled women, gourds, trees, owls and pigeons, mythic beasts etc. - seem to have been drawn from a variety of possible imaginative and ethnic sources: the brilliant and paradisal world they inhabit is entirely and originally of Edwards' making.

These recent pictures are the best that Sylvia Edwards has made: in their presentation of a magical landscape, in which the character of the observed external world and the vitality of the imagined and the dreamed are merged, they evince a new-found freedom of expression, give evidence of new tap- lines to the personal and the collective imagination. They signal perhaps that inhibitions have been overcome, and that sensation may be integrated with contemplation, that the pleasures the sensible world affords may be registered as an element in our reveries. They suggest, too, that her work is moving in a radically different direction, that energies have been released, and that we have much that is exciting to look forward to.

Mel Gooding

Mel Gooding is a London based writer and critic. He has written widely on contemporary art contributing to Arts Review, Artscribe, Art Monthly etc.