Sarah Woodfine
Text by Peter Suchin for The Drawn Curtain

According to the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, 'the miniscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world.' [1] In the case of Sarah Woodfine Bachelard’s maxim is entirely apt. Woodfine’s drawings, often contained within specially constructed structures that act both as frames and as physical extensions of the drawing itself, operate as miniature worlds, self-contained systems through which a series of vignettes are staged for the viewer’s careful consideration. The deceptive, intense surface of Woodfine’s drawings is one point of attraction; a second stage of intensification and of bringing into focus is enacted by Woodfine’s elaborate framing. One may therefore regard these ambivalent drawing-objects as a bi-part lens through which one may view a corner, fragment or snapshot of another universe. The environment presented may be regarded as a translation or transformation of selected aspects of the world we frequently take for granted. Woodfine’s practice involves the directing attention, of looking and causing the viewer to look in an active, highly interested and consistently insistent way.

The subject matter Woodfine employs is itself idiosyncratic, separated out, a sort of parallel sphere of action ghosting that of the mundane and the deadly dull. Reconfigured church architecture, fairy tale castles, out-of-date caravans, desert islands and children’s dolls: such material is at one remove from ordinary life, closer to the realm of childhood and fantasy than to our allegedly adult, high-tech, highly mobile social sphere. Woodfine’s images touch 'a nerve of memory and nostalgia' (in Colin Wilson’s expression), something that is decidedly other, still present yet no longer easily seen. [2] Perhaps a better word for this invisibility would be 'discarded' or even 'repressed'. What is brought to the surface in Woodfine’s work may appear unreal or imaginary but the issues triggered by her stark black and white drawings are never simply entertaining or bluntly childish. Untitled (Castle) (2005) presents two views of an immense fairy tale castle but the building’s half-cheery facade is itself both inviting and mildly repulsive, its apparent serenity edging into mystery and threat. The steps leading to the open doorway imply that one has no choice but to enter therein. The glittering ground of the container in which the drawing is placed stops abruptly at the edge of the castle, a move from three dimensions into two, from the real into the false but seductive setting of a gateway into an unknown interior. Fairy tale castles are places of captivity and uncertainty as much as they are dream-palaces or utopias: once inside it is quite possible that one may never be able to escape.

Similarly, Island (2006) shows the stereotypical palm tree and ditched boat of a tropical but isolated island, a mythological micro-environment within which one may again be trapped or, conversely, freed from the humdrum hell of the modern metropolis. It is an image of an idealised state, a compacted packet of meanings, gestures and suggestions, something akin to a philosophical conundrum or puzzle. To choose such pseudo-archetypical imagery is, from the start, to pose a question and to activate an act of complicity or critique. As already noted, Woodfine has in these works juxtaposed two images, a second drawing placed back-to-back with the first. From the other side of the glass can be seen the rear of the castle. It is the same with Island, although in this case an image of skeletal remains convey an unequivocally negativity tint.

It is in fact misleading to describe Untitled (Castle) and Island as 'mere' double drawings, since both works involve a complicated frame in the form of a large Perspex dome and accompanying base, vastly enlarged versions of those playful Christmas devices known as 'snow-domes', small plastic or glass bubbles in which is placed a model city, building or scene. [3] Such structures are miniatures of real or imagined life-size dwellings or events; but Woodfine has, rather paradoxically, enlarged these dream spheres, causing a disruption and redesignation of scale. Further, the three-dimensionality of the domes are effectively in competition with the flatness of the drawings, forcing another instance of refocusing to take place as part of one’s engagement with these works.

In The Garden (2005) Woodfine presents the viewer with yet another visually provocative object, a three dimensional model assembled from a number of drawings, arranged to form a coherent rendition of a garden. By the simple but clever device of placing an open doorway at one end of the piece Woodfine suggests that there cannot be one single, 'true' point from which to look at this (or indeed any) of her works. In the garden we see a latrine, a couple of trees and a theatrical arch, behind which floats a ghost. Simultaneously laid out here is an exterior and an interior scenario; what is in one viewing obscured is, in a second act of looking brought directly into play. This revelatory moment of showing stages its own conditions of visibility, reminding us that we often only see what someone has deliberately encouraged us to perceive.

Of the several strands of illusion evident in Woodfine’s work it is easy to overlook what is in a sense the most obvious one: that of drawing itself. Although emphatically two-dimensional Woodfine’s drawings have the marked intensity of etching and utilise a refined, repetitious technique notably associated with painting and sculpture. As she herself has observed, many viewers of her work assume that what they are looking at are prints. This dialectic between drawing and other media in the work of Sarah Woodfine is itself deserving of extensive critical attention, a task regrettably beyond the confines of the present, essentially introductory account.

(C) 2006 Peter Suchin

1. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, 1969, p. 155.
2. Colin Wilson, The Black Room, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971, p.163.
3. For a discussion of the importance of the frame and what it contains or enables see Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, University of Chicago Press, 1987, especially chapter 1, 'Parergon'. According to Celeste Olalquiaga, the first recorded appearance of the snow-dome was at the Exposition Universelle, Paris, in 1878. See her The Artificial Kingdom, Bloomsbury, 1999, p. 62.

Peter Suchin is a critic and artist. His writings have been published in a wide range of contemporary art journals including Art Monthly, Art Press, Frieze, Untitled and Mute. The Grey Planets, an exhibition of Suchin’s paintings, will be at Gold Factory, Nottingham during September/October 2006.

Text by Marc Hulson for Perfume

In terms of their close-ranged focus and minute detail, Sarah Woodfine's drawings demand from the viewer the kind of intimate inspection more usually devoted to pictures in books. Her images also relate to illustration in more psychologically complex ways.

It is not uncommon during childhood to encounter illustrations which arouse an inexplicably powerful sense of the sinister. This quality is not by any means restricted to images of overtly disturbing subjects - some pictures of the most innocuous content strike children as frightening, almost as if they were stylistically malign. Children possess an unerring capacity to perceive the most subtle indicators of unnaturalness or affectation in behaviour and perhaps something of this capacity extends to their apprehension of images. Perhaps there is also something in a child's cognitive faculties that immediately detects the presence of an adult (and hence indecipherable or forbidding) code, in the manner of an image's execution.

Woodfine's recent series of drawings of tattooed bodies are characterised by virtually subliminal stylistic inflections that call to mind those distinct suggestions of the psychedelic that give a double-edge to almost any graphic work of the late sixties or early seventies. Other images more obviously recall the ornate grotesquerie and intensely unnatural atmosphere that seems to emanate from so many of the generic artistic products of late Victoriana like a kind of sickly perfume. A subtle and insidious intimation of the unnatural is a characteristic of all Woodfine's drawings. All the more appropriate perhaps that she is currently working on a series of images based on wildlife illustrations.

Images of birds, spiders and snakes appear in the tattoo drawings as well, in the guise of unlikely embellishments on people's bodies. The stylisation of the figures in these drawings is in fact rendered doubly unsettling by its inverted relationship to the style of representation of the tattoos themselves, the maiority of which are far more solid looking or realistically detailed than the bodies on which they are notionally displayed.

These imaginary skin decorations present themselves as microcosms of representation within the overall representational schema of the image, begging the question as to whether the subject of the drawing is ultimately the figure, the tattoo or indeed the tattoo's subject.

In this sense the tattoo drawings explicitly codify a complex relationship to the imaginary subject of representation that is less overtly stated in all of Woodfine's work. The imaginary worlds of the tattoo images occur entirely within the confines of the figure's delicately inscribed outline, beyond which there is nothing but white space. Woodfine often transcribes the outline, or a fragment of the outline, of a found image as a starting point. From this rudimentary template she works progressively inwards, referring only obliquely to the source image - eliding, inventing or amending in ever finer detail.

Beyond the periphery of the drawing's subject there is nothing - no contextual information, location or even cursory spatial definition - just blank white paper. The images float like objects in a vacuum - the decorative gilt frames in which the drawings are mounted only serve to confirm the unreality of the space they border.

Sometimes the activity of the artist's imagination within this space is startlingly evident -as in the image of a baby doll which, at some point in the process of being drawn acquired a sinister gas mask and attenuated, vampish legs. It can as often be the case however, that Woodfine's intervention is virtually undetectable. In many of the recent drawings of birds and animals it is as good as impossible to distinguish invention from accurate transcription; the images simply have an unmistakable aura that all is not quite right. Or is their strangeness simply the kind that any image aquires when it has been stared at too long and too intently? Or is their something about the eyes?

(C) 1999 Marc Hulson