Currently on at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Newcastle, is a sharply evocative survey exhibition of new and recent work by Caroline Achaintre. The show presents a diverse combination of pieces that are textile, ceramic, leather and ink based, generously offering a viewing experience that is texturally rich and affecting. In continuity with her work of the past, the pieces forming this current survey demonstrate Achaintre’s ongoing interest in the primitive - its aesthetic qualities, visual references and associations.
Dispersed throughout the exhibition and commanding the greatest degree of presence is a collection of large, hand-tufted textile works displayed on multiple walls. Each describes a mask-like, rudimentary face or a basic animal form in colourful blocks of shaggy thread. Despite being positioned on a two dimensional surface, the fraying fibrous texture combined with cascading strands of yarn gives each of these pseudo-tapestries a distinctly sculptural quality. With these works Achaintre reveals a unique aesthetic sensibility, and a talent for generating a great deal of expression through very minimal material manipulations. With basic shapes, use of texture and the strategic use of negative and positive space the artist creates for each face and figure an energy, a personality, and an emotional character.
Equally as animated are the ceramic works in the show. Delicate masks formed of paper clay and leather are mounted on walls or perched on stands. Echoing the primitive aesthetic defining Achaintre’s textile works, the ceramic masks are also given shape with elementary forms and rudimentary rendering techniques. ‘Tie Man’, for instance, describes a portrait in a single, rectangular sheet of cream-coloured clay. The material is creased very basically and accessorised with two small eyeholes to reference the structure of the face. A leather strip dangles at the base, suggesting a necktie. The formal components of the piece are very minimal, and yet curiously it possesses a distinct personality and emotional expression. The small hint of a mouth, innocent round eyes and elongated face combine to trigger feelings of sympathy and regret for the character - perhaps a unidentifiable sense of empathy, both familiar and unknown. Accompanying ‘Tie Man’ are numerous ceramic masks in the show, each characterised with its own endearing innocence and personality, and each prompting a unique mental and emotional reaction from its viewer.
But Achaintre is not solely concerned with primitive aesthetics in the articulation of figures and masks. Clay forms resembling prehistoric sea species or simple organisms also appear throughout the show. Like the masks, these simple organisms are formed of very few clay elements, but the folding and shaping of the material is powerfully expressive in its simplicity. ‘Chubbier’, for instance, is a basic, imperfectly round form with small, crude cones of clay outlining its perimeter, much like a bloated starfish. The piece is animated with two pebble eyes and an open-mouthed frown. Cartoonish yet uncannily human, it appears behind glass on an isolated plinth, lonely and helpless. On some level, whether superficial or deep, we empathise with this expressive creature. The display of the paper clay works has been configured carefully and effectively; while many stand alone on customised colour plinths, others occupy intimate, cave-like spaces built into the architecture of the gallery. Importantly each is the individual inhabitant of its own personal space, and thus each is personified as a unique specimen.
Achaintre’s survey exhibition at the BALTIC is one rich in texture, materiality, expression, and evocation. Each work reveals its individuality in its aesthetic and visual uniqueness, and each too has the power to spellbind and speak to the viewer in its own particular way. With this show, not unlike others previous, Achaintre reveals an impressive intuition regarding material, form, and the power of the artist’s hand to generate emotional impact from the simplest of creative gestures.