As the penultimate Visiting Artist this academic year, Caroline Achaintre visited West Dean College for the first time this month, giving a presentation on her practice in the Main House’s Old Library and meeting with individual students in their studio spaces. Born in Germany and raised in France, Caroline trained as a blacksmith for five years before studying Fine Art at Goldsmiths, University of the Arts London. After introducing her approach as process-based and underpinned by expressive drawing, Caroline discussed a number of early watercolours and digitally manipulated images of clown-like faces, explaining her interest in the neo-gothic aesthetic of heavy metal and the complex traditions of tribal mask design. The characterful faces depicted possessed an acute psychological intensity, even in slide reproduction, that tied in with the accompanying contextualisation in relation to the uncanny.
Moving through her developing practice, Caroline outlined an interest in the affective power of domestic environments and objects, which quickly drew her toward the use of woven fabric, particularly in relation to carpets and hangings. These references to interior spaces and design involved an engagement with university facilities not often used by Fine Art students and developed into her use of a tufting gun, essentially shooting wool through the back of a given support in order to create colourfully constructed faces. Again, these images were extremely painterly in their approach and appearance, full of fluidity and intuitive mark-making, maintaining elements of the original colour studies they stemmed from whilst transposing them into an entirely different medium.
The use of the tufting gun is an additive process, broadly similar to tapestry weaving, working from side to side and adhering to a prepared plan or cartoon. Yet the carpet maker’s process resulted in highly tactile pieces that emerged from their substrate like soft reliefs, adding an unsettling fleshiness to the representations to the figures that emerge. The visages soon took on a multiple nature, perhaps as a result of the physically violent procedure of throwing them through the support from behind, each process birthing a strange hybrid – a combination of beast and human that seemed to relate as much to Surrealism and to German Expressionism. Yet the process of translation so central to the technique soon became restrictive and switched to a focused use of three-dimensions in a series of linocuts, again bringing in associated interests in primitivism and ethnography. The pieces evolved into something like eerie archetypes, as if standing in for the essential components (shapes) of characterisation, deepening the references to faciality (cf. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari – the construction of ‘face’ is established as an assemblage of possible expression that is determined by socially and politically imposed organisations of power), always with a palpable sense of invested emotion and wry humour in the background. The irresolvable contestation between face and mask in these works – where both exist entwined, one within the other – suggest that the ‘visors’ are both devoid of character and brimming with it; that they herald the artist’s fascination for shamanism and the tacit appeal to a form of animism, where images and objects take on the presence of spirits and become blurred between being living flesh and inanimate matter or representation.
The mode of production soon moved into paper-based sculptures and then into ceramics. After acquiring further skills through attending evening classes, Caroline soon developed a body of work in paper clay, associating the process to Origami whereby thin sheets of porcelain are folded and refolded to create delicate structures and volumes. Avoiding any throwing or cumulative build up of clay, each object assumed its own intuitive form, developing into another series of avatars – fetishistic artefacts that would not look out-of-place in the cabinets of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. In fact, the references stirred up by these concurrently familiar and alien forms – in terms of their exoticism and its constructed contexts – also played into the concern for modes of display – their apparent need for a bespoke context / environment in which they can subsist. This was explored by Caroline in her use of vitrines and cabinets, as well as various complex manipulations of exhibition furniture, from tinted modernist boxes and nested geometric volumes that resemble plinths pulled out of a Bauhaus skip.
The clay cast soon became ‘dressed’ with various potent combinations of materials: ceramic with leather, with lace, and so on – the contrasts serving to render the objects more viscous, living, liable to change or morph into new forms. Instead of faces, these hollow forms became more like helmets, the accoutrements of characters from either ancient or future worlds, perhaps exemplars of lost people, cartoon characters, or an admixture of the tropes of abstraction and figuration traceable throughout global culture, in all its interchangeable lineages of appropriation, colonisation and invention.