Media & Cultural Studies
Deborah van der Beek was born in London and divided her childhood between the riding stable and the British Museum. Her communist father was French: her mother English. Loath to be straitjacketed into the prevailing art college orthodoxies, she failed to find direction at Central St Martin’s and in Cambridge and Cardiff, and combined her child-rearing years with writing and illustrating children’s books. She came to sculpture about ten years ago with an already mature artistic vision and swiftly attracted notice. As the critic Peter Davies has written, her sculpture “stands out for its compelling mixture of potent thematic content and brisk, expressive handling of form.”Modernism, tradition and Avant-Garde are the tension between successive movements in modern art and art-loving observer in this period. One of the most relevant examples can be depicted at ‘Deborah van der Beek's sculpture depicting horses, riders, ancient warrior queens, bulls and other mythic or legendary subjects stands out for its compelling mixture of potent thematic content and brisk, expressive handling of form’ (Davies, online). So modernism in this sense is not only a set of art objects, but an empirical and ‘critical framework within which most modern art could be conventionally ‘understood’ (Taylor, 1995:7). An interest in observative and narrative stemming from a non-straight and post-modernist sensibility is not, of course, confined to particular topics or interests. In Deborah van der Beek's sculpture the narrative speaks with clear language and through an examination of multidimensional spectre it is what academics and critics called the narrating of natural and compositional identities that has proved highly amenable to the modern form. The high moral tone of Deborah van der Beek's sculpture impressively labyrinthine reflections approaches a limiting point, however, in terms of the kinds of seriousness normally permitted to avant-garde art. According to Davies this art works ‘open to space and light, that seem to invade or erode solid form, tell the story of their making while providing a suitably rough membrane in keeping with such emotionally tactile subjects as Ned Kelly, Amazon queens, Salome and other archetypal or legendary figures’ (Davies, online). It is the result of the creation of psychologically sculptures. What is understood in these words is what Davies called ‘genuine work’ has more often been approached through play with materials and orthodoxies of Modernist art:
For its directness and tactile qualities, her preferred medium is clay. She also works in the rather difficult medium of ciment fondu; most of the bronzes in this exhibition were cast from that. The typically craggy intricate surfaces are a challenge for the mould-maker and call for expert foundry work.
Naturally inclined to side with the underdog, one of her recurrent subjects has been the counter-cultural icon, Ned Kelly, whom she reads as a victim of prejudice and poverty in nineteenth century Australia. Another preoccupation has been power, be it the animal power of the bull and horse with their age-old mythical resonance, the female assertiveness of the Amazon warriors of ancient legend, or the sexual power of Salome or the sheela-na-gig, the ancient Celtic fertility symbol. To Deborah “the psychological truths found in myth and legend are as true and tellable in art today as ever they were”.
In Peter Davies’s view, her “natural technical ability…conspires with a knack for manipulating the emotive or universally-potent subject to produce what will surely become an enduring set of memorable images.”
“Van der Beek's journey as an artist is both seasoned and novel: seasoned in that during art student days, first in London and Cambridge, then in Cardiff in the early 1970s, she complemented what would be a lifelong compulsion to draw in the life room with an urge to make solid form. She made sculptural ceramics, for instance a teased parodying the baroque excesses of Sèvres and Meissen, encrusted with gilded cherubs, animals and small figures, prefiguring her sculptural intentions. During the next 25 years or so van der Beek used her drawing skills illustrating (and latterly, also writing) children's books. Her recent career as a fully-fledged sculptor is therefore novel, coming to fruition only in the late 1990s when she started attending life sculpture classes taught by Sue Larner at Widcombe Studios in Bath”.
Deborah has just delivered a major commission for a garden in Oxfordshire. It was a very welcome opportunity to work on a grander scale than most of her previous work, but with all the "casting and carting" she is discovering what Peter Schaffer meant when he called sculpture "one of the world's few truly heroic pursuits". The World Gone Pear-Shaped flows from current hopes and anxieties about the future of life on earth. Artists have long used fruit as a metaphor for both the abundance and transience of life; the pear's irregular shape and in particular its knobbly skin suited Deborah's purpose. The surface is cast with organic forms: fossils, insects, leaves, nuts, gourds, berries, fruit – some half-eaten, some rotting; around the equator a parched mud-cracked belt with dead fish and the skeleton of a bird. Everywhere, signs of man's presence – footprints, tyre marks, coins, half-buried cars and other detritus of the machine age. A large bite exposes the core: the single bronze pip, burnished as gold, perhaps suggesting hope and the earth's capacity for regeneration. The World Gone Pear-Shaped were exhibited in "Spectrum", the Centennial Celebrations show of the Royal British Society of Sculptors at Abbey House Gardens in Malmesbury from 28 July until October 2007, and at "The World Gone Pear-Shaped", a solo exhibition of Deborah's work at the London offices of the European Commission at 8 Storey's Gate SW1, just across the road from the west door of Westminster Abbey. It was from 2 to 12 October this year. It is available in bronze in an edition of 6 at a price of £25,200.
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