Tuesday, 8 November 2016
Essay: Val Wolstenholme Clay
Val Wolstenholme Clay
‘Outside the window, there slides past that unimaginable and deserted vastness where night is coming on, the sun declining in ghastly blood…’[i]
Thus describes Angela Carter, in her novel Nights at the Circus, a scene that could be one of Val Wolstenholme Clay’s paintings. Or is it the other way round? For during a year working in Rome, Wolstenholme Clay spent time at the Villa Borghese, ‘where, around the magic hour, as the sun starts to go down, these dramatic long shadows appear….’ In this fantastic light, she saw ‘enormous trees silhouetted against the sky,’ like characters from a circus, only missing the ringmaster, inspiring her next series of paintings.
In Three Wise Men, these characters collide and, by the light of the full moon and the twinkling lights above the distant big top, they stand poised for action, if only someone would give them the cue. The watery mist throws a veil across the scene, rendering it indistinct and dreamlike – reach out and it might dissolve.
Wolstenholme Clay has an eye for composition and a love of the visual. Although imagery is the driving force, the narrative element is also key to her work: that idea of character and story; creating a scene, not just a landscape. Her pictures have that ‘once upon a time’ quality of a fairy tale, making anything possible, inviting viewers in to take part in the telling of the tale. In her latest works, she plays with a limited palette, creating a specific ambience of magical mystery: the twilight hour.
In Nights at the Circus, the big top appears from behind the lilac branches and snow-white, frosty curtain. The paint is thin, the image fragile – again a hazy moment in an unrealised story – yet there is much lurking just beneath the surface, undergrowth breaking through and clouds crystallising behind the fleeting flakes. Myriad plotlines are waiting to unravel.
Wolstenholme Clay also paints portraits, but sees them as the landscape of a face. She seeks to capture ‘an unusual beauty’ – something which appeals to her. ‘You have to fall a little in love with your subject’ after all. This beauty might be strange, sometimes dark, a little sinister even, but her figures and faces are alluring and full of potential – you want to engage in a conversation with them, unearth their stories.
Working with oils, the transitions remain visible on the surface of the canvas, the paint swirls into Van Goghian trees and clouds. There is an alchemy at play before our eyes. The ringmaster could appear at any moment. The stage is set. And there is magic in the air.
© Anna McNay, September 2016
Images © the artist
Three Wise Men
Nights at the Circus
[i] Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus, Chatto & Windus, 1984