Mary Fedden and Sophie Ryder: a comparison of their work and styles in the two current RWA exhibitions

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The two latest exhibitions on show at the RWA (Sophie Ryder: Monumental and Picturing Arcadia, featuring Mary Fedden) suggest that both the artists Fedden and Ryder are concerned with depicting animal traits and the meeting of human beings with nature. Ryder uses female bodies morphing with hares, (her signature animal forms), to explore this meeting, while Fedden sets her interaction within a biblical-like scenario by focusing on a flock of sheep.

Boldness and simplicity are characteristics of much of Fedden’s work. Objects are painted almost using blocks of colour and minimal detail, suggesting the object’s essence or presence is conveyed rather than a demandingly ‘busy’ or intricate reproduction. Furthermore, the confident and almost minimalistic sculptural quality of the objects is partly created by the stark shading, and dramatic juxtaposition of light and dark areas. This pushes objects out into the picture plane and makes them appear tactile and rounded. Each object appears boldly in front of the viewer to be studied separately.

However, although the figure and sheep in Fedden’s painting ‘Goats in Gozo’ (1988, pictured above) in the  ‘Picturing Arcadia’ exhibition are boldly represented with dark shadows and contrasts, it is more the manipulation of perspective and emphasis on ‘flatness’ of style that gives them their boldness and simplicity. There is no depth or vanishing point in this painting, so the sheep appear to float around the canvas. They are almost objects of the imagination, hovering in a location somewhere between the viewer and the painting, and not adhering to normal rules of space and time. As they are not held together in a recognisable space this leads to a fragmentary tension between each of the figures presented.

These characteristics of boldness and simplicity are also found in Ryder’s sculptures and drawings. Ryder’s work presents parts of the human anatomy (such as feet, eyes and hands) as objects in their own right. In this way, they take on a life of their own and are – literally – unattached to any greater whole. The fact that they are recognizable, commonplace objects adds to their simplicity and boldness, as well as simultaneously creating surprise that they have been ‘disentangled’ from a larger figure (or limb) of which they are normally a part. Like with Fedden’s work, there is a sense of fragmentation created by this element of surprise. However, unlike in Fedden’s paintings, this also sets up a dialogue between presence and absence.

Similarly, the feeling of being in an imaginative world is keenly felt in all of Ryder’s work that draws upon mythology. The mythology surrounding hares and the female body is most clearly represented. Ideas of both power and vulnerability in regards to these myths are explored, creating an interesting dialogue. For example, both the hares and female figures convey a profound sense of tenderness. Hugging is a particularly prominent motif. This could suggest an uplifting power born out of being connected, loved and understood by each other. Indeed, each sculpture is acknowledged by another, so the feeling of tenderness resonates throughout the exhibition. However, hugging and huddling are repeatedly portrayed as similar, and even overlapping, actions in many of the works. This idea of huddling gives the work its vulnerable edge.

This juxtaposition of power with vulnerability helps to raise questions about the differences and similarities between woman and animal, myth and truth, and imagination and reality. This suggests the use of imagination – largely represented by the emphasis on mythology – has a more specific source, in Ryder’s work than in Fedden’s (where the imagination is used to create a more general sense of atmosphere and space).

Due to these multiple similarities and differences, it is exciting and thought provoking (if not unusual) to have work by these artists shown at the same time across the RWA’s two current exhibitions. Both artists are concerned with presenting objects in surprising and confident ways to help the viewer see them afresh and think about the figures depicted, as well as the potentials of the materials used.

By Helen Cobby, part of the RWA volunteer team. To find out more about volunteering at the RWA, visit our website.

Helen has also written about Sophie Ryder: Monumental on the Young Arnolfini blog.

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