Close Encounters of the Art Kind: Fragments from the Origin of the Crown, by Keir Smith
In 2002 Colin Painter recruited a variety of six contemporary sculptors and, through Brecknock Primary School NW1, a variety of six households – staff (teaching and non-teaching), parents and grandparents.
For six months, work by each sculptor was rotated round these homes. The householders lived with each for a month, siting them as they wished in relation to their own possessions. In the interests of spontaneity they were not told the artists’ names nor the titles of the works. The artists had no knowledge of the homes involved.
Below are the commentaries on one of these sculptures, Fragments from the Origin of the Crown, by Keir Smith.
'My work takes images from Italian Renaissance paintings. They often translate according to standard Christian iconography. They are also autobiographical and refer to things that concern me in the contemporary world or even things I find beautiful. They have evolved from sensuous shapes towards ones that are quite dangerous – sharp.
'I am worried about inhumanity and cruelty. I don’t know what the specific sources are but I follow world news and live in a rough part of London....
'This is one of a series called Fragments from the Origin of the Crown – a reference to the crown of thorns. They are based around the flowers associated with the Blessed Virgin in standard Marian iconography.
'I have lots of roses, lilies and thorny stems of various sizes and degrees of naturalness in my studio. I join them in various combinations. Bronze is a versatile material. Whereas the rose is appropriately situated on a thorny stem, the lily isn’t, so the conjunction is strange, unsettling, almost a surreal juxtaposition.
'The stems are broken off, fractured. A clean cut end would imply the stems could go on for ever, but if the end is fractured it finishes definitely. The flowers on a fallen stem raise the question of how they got there. The question is unanswered in this work. Paradoxes, conundrums, strange meetings are all part of my working material.
'My current sculptures are religious works. I think of them as part of a continuing tradition. They are not ironic in any way. My work is a meditation on death and has been for as long as I can remember.'
Beeban, Spencer, Noah & Blaze
Beeban: 'Noah thought it was really great. He said he liked the way that the flowers inside (on the sculpture) had thorns and the flowers outside (on the magnolia tree in the garden) were very pretty.
' "It’s funny to have heavy flowers", he said. "One thing flowers are not is heavy."
' I said, "Maybe that’s what the artist was thinking about when he made it."
' He said, "Mummy, why do you always say that artists think funny things?"
' "Maybe it’s because I think that the reason that artists make art is to make things different from what they seem."
' "You mean like a fib?"
' "No, more like magic." '
Spencer: 'This sculpture arrived at a point of transformation in the house. We’ve been decorating – trying to take it from being slightly dour and subdued into being lighter. Suddenly this piece arrived and fitted perfectly with the graciousness of that room. Interestingly, we got a rug shortly after which echoed that kind of floral, Victorian pattern. The piece has a Victorian feel that fits with the history of the house.'
Beeban: 'I’ve realised during this project that I like my aesthetic things to be tied up with utilitarian objects. I look at this sculpture and think, "Wouldn’t it be great, if we could afford it, to make front railings like that." I just wish that something functional had all that energy, shape, quality and attention. The idea of the railings connects with the fact that the sculpture reminds me of the Sleeping Beauty story. The flowers in Sleeping Beauty were defensive. They were supposed to keep you out and after 100 years they would turn into blossom.'
Spencer: 'If you can combine functionality with art it’s actually a very gracious way to live. A double whammy. In some cultures combining the practical with art is about being closer to the Divine.'
Beeban: 'There’s not much room in a life for objects that are purely aesthetic – solely for contemplation. I think we should consider the aesthetics of things.'
Gareth, Olwen & Rhiannon
Gareth: This is beautiful. It’s so life-like. It’s real.
Olwen: They’re lovely together – the rose and the lily. Looking at it closely you realise that even the lily’s got thorns on the stems.I began to think about religious connotations. The thorns would resemble Christ’s suffering and he was referred to in the Bible as the Rose of Sharon. That’s from the Song of Solomon, one of the loveliest love poems ever written, which sits in the Old Testament. So I looked through the Song of Solomon and there is a reference to the rose and the lily and even to the lily amongst the thorns.
Rhiannon: When I first saw it I thought it was a wood carving. Even though it’s bronze it looks natural like wood. You wouldn’t think of making delicate flowers from metal.
Gareth: They look as though they’ve been snapped off. It’s as though something has been destroyed. They’re not cut neatly like they would be by a florist.
Olwen: The breaking off might indicate a love that died or ended abruptly. But the flowers are still vivid and alive – very beautiful.
Lynn, Dot, Michelle, Stephanie & Jordan
Lynn: Every time I have looked at it it has made me feel quite depressed.
Stephanie: I think it’s nice.
Lynn: It’s not the structure of it. It’s the colour. Flowers should have colour.
Jordan: Is it called a prickle bush?
Stephanie: I think it’s a thorn bush – a thorn flower.
Jordan: It’s been ripped off a bush, but it’s metal. It looks like the round wooden things we had on the Christmas tree.
Lynn: It has got to the stage that it fills me with gloom and doom. No matter what changes there are in the light, it’s all one dark colour. It’s just a sort of emptiness.
Dot: We’re used to seeing flowers in vibrant colours. A rose would normally have thorns but not the other kind of flower. Is it a lily?
Lynn: I think the artist has a lot of anger in him and it’s coming through in his art. It speaks a lot of anger. To make something so beautiful so dark... I can’t relate to it.
Stephanie: Maybe it’s because it hasn’t got a lot of detail.
Lynn: But it has. I think it’s because it has thorns... The emotions it arouses are all negative. If you saw it briefly in an art gallery, you probably wouldn’t have time to get all those feelings. But because I’ve had it in my home and lived with it... Maybe it’s made me think about things. I’ve been doing examinations and I’ve been very superstitious – losing sleep and getting paranoid – and I’ve been trying not to think about this sculpture because I’ve wanted to think positively.
Maggie & Sylvester
Sylvester: 'This is a surprisingly heavy sculpture. I like the shapes and being able to rearrange the two parts in different ways. The dark colour, the thorns on the lily stems and the rose on the same stem as the lily gives it an "edge". There is something uncomfortable about having it in the living room.
I find it a bit assertive and challenging. Maybe if we had a showpiece "reception" room that wasn’t used that much it would be OK, but here it challenges you when you want to flop and are at your most vulnerable. If I had to live with it for long I would probably be tempted to soften it and turn it into a joke by adding some artificial freaky blooms or a giant insect or lizard.
I looked at it one day and thought of a chocolate cake. I am sure I have seen a cake decorated with a chocolate rose made of shavings of hard chocolate. I wonder if small versions of this in chocolate would sell...
There is one thing you don’t notice at first. Both stems have a bloom pruned off, just leaving a stub stem that you had thought was just another thorn. You’re not sure what has been pruned off or why. What would the other bloom have looked like? It adds a bit of uncertainty and seems to try to make you feel slightly uneasy with flowers. I don’t find it very comfortable to be with.'
Maggie: 'When you think of what must have been involved in bringing the bronze pieces into form – physical effort, heat, noise – it is such a contrast to the characteristics of the actual plant... A lily is so waxy and a mixture of being almost translucent but also quite firm. It is interesting that the process of the making could produce a likeness of something which is so different.
If they were light in weight they would virtually be artificial flowers which everybody is so snooty about. But they couldn’t be taken for artificial flowers. They are what they are. I like them. Because you can move them around it would be hard to get bored with them. I’d like to find a way of arranging them so that they’re standing up. We decided to elevate them so that they are reflected in the mirror, so we put them on some boxes. To cover the boxes, we used a piece of cloth but it has a rather dominant pattern. The mirror effect was muddled by the reflection of the books on the book case opposite but the fairy lights around the mirror create a rather "homey" effect. I looked forward to coming down in the mornings and seeing the flowers and how they were reflected.'
Mari & Michael
Mari: 'I decided to place the two sections apart in the room. This involved changing things around so the sculpture was a welcome catalyst for change. It is accessible but they don’t look exactly like flowers. They’re quite stylised and modern and having two different species of flower on the same stem is impossible.
I have a John Singer Sargeant print in my room called Lily, Lily, Rose. I suppose this could be called the same. They look like wood but, being made of bronze, they are much heavier. I like the way they seem to grow over the shelves. My granny used to have wooden elephants in her home and these remind me of those.
I suppose the rose could be a Labour Party rose which may be part of the reason that I like it. It evokes the idea of the rose having many thorns, beautiful but with a dangerous edge. The flowers look beautiful but they are much heavier than you expect and if you grasp them they are sharp – potentially lethal. They remind me of those wooden carved fireplaces.'
I’ve found this awkward, intrusive and rather morbid – very threatening. I think it’s the thorns and the pointed petals of the lilies. I’ve been uncomfortable with it. It’s quite a violent piece given the imagery that it’s depicting – something so soft like lilies. It’s reminded me of medieval bludgeons.
I placed the sculpture on a low table, covered in a white tablecloth, in the sitting room. The whole piece resembled a small coffin draped and decorated with bronze weapons – the cast bronze images hark to a time I cannot feel for. I cannot answer this anger, or identify with dead emblems.
While I don’t think it’s beautiful it is thought provoking. The stems have been torn or pulled off – rather raw looking – as if they have been snatched from the plant, not cut delicately. That makes me wonder where it has come from in some obscure way. It’s quite a dramatic statement. I wonder if it is political – war, peace, religious? I like the idea of the rose and the lily growing from the same stem – blossoming in different ways. The lily can be as thorny and dangerous to touch as the rose. It’s quite challenging. It shouts at you as you come into the room.
Written to accompany the exhibition Close Encounters of the Art Kind.