I have, with fascination, watched Liz Rideal make art since the early 1980s and although these sculptures appear to come as a surprise, I can see that they are a logical step forward from previous work. She has always been creatively involved with flowers and plants, and in the 1980s she shared her home with a loved Ficus Benjamina called Frank, who often had displays of home-made and found items set amid his branches. With her move to a bigger studio and a walled garden in the mid 1990s, the botanical theme has continued as a distinctive and imaginative part of her work.
Her first ever solo exhibition at the Exe Gallery in Exeter in 1982 was entitled ‘Bagatelles Vegetales’, and the title came from a poem written in 1956 by the Surrealist artist and writer Michel Leiris. The show contained bright abstract paintings on hand-made paper which Rideal made from plant material, and one of the works was called ‘Rumba’. Twenty years on, the title for this show – ‘Mandrake Tango’ – also brings together words which refer to music, dance and the vegetable world, and reveals that although the work might look different, Rideal’s creative obsessions are still the same.
Hand-made paper featured in her first solo show and it is an activity she still practices today, since it provides her with an unpredictable support which has its own colour and texture and a sense of the third dimension. She is deeply interested in technical processes, especially in her photographic pieces, and for her the work of art is usually the result of a systematic ritualised activity, which has a strong dimension of time embedded in it. Her photobooth works utilise improvisatory techniques and a wonderful choreography of gesture, and she has brought this sense of choreography and movement into her new sculptures.
At the centre of her art is the transformation of something ordinary into something strange and compelling and seductive. Her ingredients are for the most part commonplace and familiar. She is fond of the object trouve and collects second-hand objects. In the early 1980s she made some sculptures which consisted of appropriated recycled domestic items. One of them involved an old television set containing a mass of dried starfish, gathered off the coast of France, on l’Ile d’Yeu.
This defunct television formed the base of a Kienholz inspired construction, which included a painted blue radio, an aquarium with real shells and plastic fish, and a working television, the whole conglomerate referring in essence to the work of Nam June Paik. The balanced construction had an air of artless improvisation which belied the questions about material, about gravity, about form and content which lay behind its making.
The new sculptures in this exhibition came to Rideal as object trouves. After cutting back flowerheads, trimming new growth and pulling up weeds in her garden , she found she was left with a stalk and root system of a favourite flower – Night-scented Stock – Matthiola – which although unexceptional, had potential. The plant stems and roots pulled from the soil had their own ambiguous presences and looked at closely offered a veritable ‘minutiae of vegetable terms’ – the phrase is from the poet Coleridge. They had a living spirit which appeared to demand a metamorphosis into a more considered and lasting statement, and Rideal decided to have them cast into bronze, using the lost wax method.
She had done some experimental (and fundamentally dangerous) casting in the 1980s, melting roofing strips of lead in a saucepan in her kitchen and pouring the molten metal into a variety of containers , both man made , such as Victorian jelly moulds, and natural, such as walnut shells. She also poured dental plaster over honesty seed pods laid out on greaseproof paper, and found that the casting process gave her a new sense of control over her material.
Her papermaking using plant material had already performed this task, giving the plants an extra lease of life on an aesthetic level, but with the lead casting she wanted to achieve something with more mass and volume to it. She also wanted to investigate the tension between the transitory and the ephemeral, and the permanent, and she found herself addressing this area again when her beloved French grandmother, Marthe Callet, died in 1994. Partly as an act of artistic testament to her, Rideal made a work called ‘Head to Toe’, which involved having her dentures and worn slippers cast into bronze, and laying them among tissue paper in a shoe box, along with a photograph of their deceased owner.
When her Matthiola was returned to her, having been through the oven heat of the casting process and emerging as cold, hard bronze, she began to play with the inherently unstable metal forms, propping them up against each other, or in front of some monoprints she had recently made, taking photographs of them as she experimented with their orientation. She also laid them out side by side on her studio table, making them into a flat pattern, and their odd, almost utilitarian, forms reminded her of black and white engravings of gardening and surgical instruments in the 17th and 18th century practical guide books of which she is so fond. She has searched out forgotten practical drawing manuals and encyclopedias in libraries, which have not only inspired her in her creative life, but have also served to aid the quality of her teaching.
Two of the photographs of the bronze plant forms have the titles ‘Implements’ and ‘Instruments’ and these titles relate to the type of reproductions found in John Woodall The Surgeon’s Mate, published in London in 1617, and Denis Diderot’s ‘Encyclopedia: A Systematic Dictionary of Science, Arts and the Trades’, published in several volumes in Paris between 1751 and 1772. These significant publications depicted in great detail the tools and methods of the artisans and tradespeople of their day, emphasising methods and processes. They put names to objects in the world and helped people to recognise things. Woodall offered a practical guide to performing operations such as tooth drawing and limb amputations, while in Diderot there are pages devoted to paper-making and to lead and bronze casting, and many of the illustrations show disembodied hands making meaningful and carefully choreographed gestures as they go about their craft.
When Rideal set her bronze plants with their roots uppermost in her studio, she was reminded of the painter Paul Nash’s photographs of strange twisted roots and upended trees, taken in the 1930s and 1940s. He did not manipulate the natural forms that he photographed, but he wrote poetically about them. Of two fallen dead trees which had been struck by lightning so violent that their roots had been torn from the ground, Nash wrote : ‘What reference they have to life should not be considered in relation to their past… they now excite our interest on another plane… these now inanimate natural objects are alive in quite another world’. And of seaweed roots he wrote : ‘We grow so much accustomed to the tidily hidden roots of land plants that there is something almost shocking in the naked, clinging tentacles, as of an octopus waiting for its prey.’ Nash’s rather gothic imagination turned his found vegetal objects into troublesome animal spirits, while Rideal’s cast plants reveal a benign, even light-hearted disposition, as they perform their merry dances for the viewer.
Rideal is not the first artist to turn a plant upside down for the sake of art. She discovered that Robert Smithson made his ‘First Upside-Down Tree’ in spring 1969, by planting a dead tree upside down in Alfred, New York. He followed this with two others, the second a palm tree by the sea in Florida. Probably Smithson’s intent was to make us look at this tree anew, in its unfamiliar orientation. Not only is the tree dead, but it is upended, or ‘resurrected’ to a new purpose, art. Smithson would have rejected any allusion to religious iconography, but the symbol of the up-ended tree with aerial roots is found in many theologies and is part of our universal archetypes.
Islam provides the idea of the Prophet Mohammed’s Tree of Bliss in Paradise which grew downwards towards earth, uniting Heaven and Earth, drawing down wisdom and illumination via its roots. Dante writes of this tree in the Paradiso section of his Divine Comedy. And in the ancient Hindu texts – T he Rig Vedas – mention is made of an Indian fig tree whose roots are kept up in the middle of the sky by the god Varuiia. These roots were thought to invisibly hold the stars and planets in their place.
The possibility of movement and orientation in Rideal’s plant sculptures gives us an enriched haptic experience, which contrasts creatively with the fixed viewpoint provided by the two-dimensionality of her photographs. Yet some of her recent photographs have been made by sandwiching two transparencies together, giving them some other sense of dimension.
Her most public and monumental statement concerning photography with an added sense of dimension is her commission for a glass wall fourteen metres high and eight wide at the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre. The original image for each panel unit was a small photobooth shot of drapery, which was enlarged and silkscreened onto sheets of plate glass using the fritting process. This process spreads a layer of ground glass and pigment onto the plate glass, which is then fired at a high temperature in order to melt and fuse the ground and plate glass together in a permanent and stable bond. Rideal’s prodigious sense of invention continues on its way.
Dr Judith Collins, 2002