Friday, 8 June 2018



Text for a talk on 6 June 2018: Michael Francis Cartwright, Shona Nunan, Jacob Cartwright and Sollai Cartwright in ‘Journeys’ at Australia House, London 5-16 June 2018

Jacqueline and Jacob, Sollai and Danica, Michael and Shona at the opening 

This is an unusual show. Not historically, but compared with what you might expect to see nowadays. First, it consists of relatively traditional sculptural forms made with classic materials - mainly wood, bronze and marble - in a gathering of considerable scale, expensive to make, and requires considerable commitment. It is well suited to the imposing architecture and remarkable marble floors of Australia House. If I had to summon one presiding spirit for the Nunan-Cartwright family’s work is it would probably be Brancusi (1876-1957), the French-based Romanian who balanced off folk, classical and modern idioms. He brought symbolic forms towards abstraction, but said ‘They are imbeciles who call my work abstract. That which they call abstract is the most realistic, because what is real is not the exterior but the idea, the essence of things’. 
Michael Francis Cartwright: Astronomer Looking at the Night Sky, 2015

The Nunan-Cartwrights use materials for what they are, undisguised – what Henry Moore would have called ‘truth to materials’ is in play. There are plenty of plinths. So, no purely conceptual plays, no artificial colouring, no presentation of art objects as if they weren’t art, no eccentric making out of say – tights as in Sarah Lucas, feathers as in Kate MccGwire or cotton buds as in Sarah Sze. Such approaches may well inform the work – I can easily imagine the family members collecting from nature and setting out their finds in the studio - but they do so in the process, not in the finished presentation.

Shona Nunan: Earth Guardian, 2015

Second, it is the work of four individuals but of one family – complete, as Michael and Shona have only two children. And though there are differences, the commonalities are more immediately noticeable: somewhere between figuration and abstraction, engagement with timeless themes, graceful lines. Shona and Michael have said that ‘When we travelled, all of our experiences were about inspiration, reflection, discovery and creative development, from visiting great art galleries to talking about the artists that excited us. So a lot of our influences have come from the same source’. As the show’s text puts it, they are ‘united by a commentary on, and celebration of life, nature and the universe. Collectively, they encourage viewers to consider the myriad of journeys that have informed the sculptures; the journey of the works themselves, from raw material through to creation; but also the journey of a family of sculptors who have continued to inspire one another’.

Jacob Cartwright: Confluence, 2018

It's likely, of course, that they will diverge further in time with the natural process of artistic development, but right now there is some unity. There's no sign here of youthful rebellion or even of the parents saying ‘ at my age I’ll do what I like!’ It’s a scenario which might remind us of the medieval tradition of passing crafts down, more than the individualistic assertions of the modern – the more so when we learn that Jacob and Sollai’s grandparents were also artists, and that Jacob has fitted right in even though he has been sculpting for only two years after following a musical path. Every impression is of a very harmonious family, even though they are now spread around Europe: Sollai in Germany, Jacob in Italy, Michael and Shona in France.I'm not surprised to hear that they often share their work in progress online, and meet up frequently as well.

Personally I don’t think it’s good or bad to be ‘out of time’ in those ways. What matters is whether the combination of subject and materials in individual works operates convincingly. So let’s look at a work or two by each, and see what’s going on.
Michael Francis Cartwright: Cloud over Montefegatasi, 2015

What strikes me first about the work Michael is showing is the mastery of a wide range of materials and scales. Several sculptures adopt the bipartite form of one material or treatment of it seemingly reflected by or shadowed by another. That put me in mind of a work many of you might have seen on Trafalgar Square in 2001: Rachel Whiteread’s occupation of the fourth plinth with an inverted version, cast in clear resin. But where Whiteread’s ‘reflection’ in Monument read to me as ‘that’s all there is’, Michael’s reads as if indicating that the world you can see is only part of the picture: for example, both Moondance and Astronomer Looking into the Night Sky draw attention to the universe beyond us. Michael’s other big theme here is the cloud – not the obvious form to cast into bronze – as happens at scale in ‘Cloud over Motefegatasi’, bringing what I’d call a light touch to heaviness. In fact they’ve emerged in part from sculptures of boats cresting waves – they are, in a parallel way, about the relationship of cloud to hilltop as much as about the fleeting presence of the cloud. I’m tempted to see such a monumentalising of the cloud as a Vanitas of sorts: where the Dutch golden age painters depicted flowers to remind us of how temporary if is, clouds shift form even faster.

Shona Nunan: Life, 2018

Shona provides, if not the figures, then the figure-like forms watching over the show, hieratic, tribal, vertical, and bigger than most people. Of the four, she seems to me the most clearly influenced by native Australian modes of expression, though the family also talk of Papua & New Guinea, the west if Ireland and China as formative influences from their travels. My sense is that it’s people who interest Shona, even if their realism is stripped back to allow the symbolic aspects to come to the fore. Fir example the bronze ‘Life’, which acts as a guardian as we enter the hall, operates as a figure even though you could certainly make a case for most of the forms being plant like – the curls of a fern come to mind. The bud could be a head, the uppermost whorls can read as eyes or arms, the lower as a pregnant belly. I see 'Life' a combination of human and vegetal, a celebration of connectedness and fertility. Hence it is an appropriate title. It’s hard not to be reminded, though, that the human is getting increasingly out of balance with the natural. It's not such a straightforward matter to celebrate our relationship with the natural world life nowadays.

Jacob Cartwright: The Space Between Us, 2015

Jacob trained as a musician and composer. He’s worked with photography and made sound installations, but only in the last three years has he arrived at sculpture. Appropriately, perhaps, the work he shows here is the most explicitly about journeys: not only did he have plenty of travel when growing up, as his parents moved from Australia to Asia to Europe with frequent returns by boat to Australia, but his own personal journey to his current artistic expression sounds as if it has been the least straightforward. The boat emerges as his predominant theme here, and they are boats with an evident symbolic significance. ‘Confluence’ is the classic small craft tossed on heavy seas, a sculpture out of Turner’s roiling seascapes. The boat is on the crest of a predicament which is very much present, a point which endlessly disappears into the past of the wave behind and faces up to the future of the wave to come. The title of ‘The Space Between Us’ suggests we see these half-boat forms as people in conversation, and that the negative space becomes a relationship which takes on a presence of its own. That’s confirmed by the male and female markers nailed on to the sides. Relationships, of course, are another kind of journey.

Sollai Cartwright: Woman Figure, 2017

Sollai is the son who’s been sculpting for longest, trained in the family way rather than in the formal education system. I think his driver is form rather than people – though as the form is sometimes that of his dancer wife and muse, Danica, there are figures by him here. Jacob also evidences a particular love for marble and its characteristic qualities of light: it makes absolute sense that, though based in Berlin, he makes regular visits to Pietrasanta, Italy, where the best marble can be found. According to no less an authority than Wikipedia ‘the low index of refraction of calcite allows light to penetrate several millimetres into the stone before being scattered out, resulting in the characteristic waxy look which gives ‘life’ to marble sculptures of any kind, which is why many sculptors prefer marble for sculpting’. That’s seen most clearly in how Sollai uses white marble, but I am also drawn to his black marble boat, a new piece made in response to the title of this show, even though it might seems that his father and brother are the main ‘boatmen’. The title ‘Midnight’ indicates that qualities of light – or its absence – are still on Sollai’s mind. This particular boat has waves carved into it, a gently surreal touch which also suggests a notably integrated and holistic conception of the world.

Sollai Cartwright: Midnight, 2017

In fact all four relish what I’d call ‘the paradoxes of materials’, the sly interplay between what the depicted thing is made from and what material is used to depict it. Stone or bronze as sea or as cloud, bronze as vegetable as figure, heavy boats lifted on high… I would also group them as ‘contemporarily informed romantics’. Their materials and skills are put in the service of suggesting the grandeur of nature, landscape, the universe, and how humanity can stand in awe of the natural world. That is the classic stance of nineteenth century Romanticism. But now it comes with an awareness of the vulnerability which lies behind that. That would make for that the biggest of the journeys implied by the show’s title, which could cover simply the geographical and artistic journeys of the Nunan-Cartwright family; or the individual journeys of any one of us through life and relationships; or the many difficult journeys of people on the move today in the difficult circumstances of war and migration; or the journey of humankind through history and through our relationships to the earth – as expressed through the materials most elementally present in the planet. We should take the example of the Nunan-Cartwrights’ many journeys to remind us of the need to pay heed to the bigger journey of humanity, our place within it, and our need to act responsibly.

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About Me

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Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09) and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.