Sarah Woodfine  We can hardly imagine how much the angels love the truly chaste

Untitled (Branch) I  2015  pencil on paper, steel and perspex  72 x 24 x 24 cm

Peter Suchin  Serpents Slipping from Sight

Sarah Woodfine recently received an unexpected gift in the post. It was an old book entitled The Carmelite Directory of the Spiritual Life. [1.] The postal packet bore Woodfine’s name and correct address but contained no note, inscription or other indication as to whom the book was from or why they had sent it. The mystery of the gift remains unsolved, but the book is exactly the kind of material often studied by the artist in preparation for the making of her work. As a guide to a certain Catholic version of the 'spiritual life' the volume focuses upon the perhaps conflicted rituals of an esoteric group of nuns. Such specialist discourses interest Woodfine for their curious linguistic contingencies and tightly prescribed patterns of action and attainment, their suggested dangers, rewards or consolations, and, more generally, for the whole way of life they encourage and reinforce. With an earlier body of work Woodfine researched the literature on the physical properties and cryptic combinations of materials involved in the alleged flight of witches. [2] In the present case the Carmelite codebook supplied not only the title of the show – We can hardly imagine how much the angels love the truly chaste – but also, intrinsically, three or four approaches, moods or themes relevant to Woodfine’s work: imagination and its abilities and impossibilities, angels or creatures utterly “other” in relation to ourselves, and the notion of the authentically chaste, pure, or pristine attention to Higher Values.

It is not surprising that the artist employed this peculiar line as a title, her current work being a further investigation into certain modes of morality, an exercise in the examination of a complex value system that may be glimpsed around or through our workaday Western beliefs but is never entirely apparent. More accurately, Woodfine’s new body of work touches both on our mainstream ideas about moral behavior – what is good, right, desirable and true – and upon repressed or otherwise obscured drives, intentions or beliefs. These 'drawing-sculptures' – for they are both these things at one and the same time – operate at a level that is realistic though imaginary, being pictures formed of natural elements distended or distorted so as to assume a fantastic otherness, a striking strangeness that simultaneously seduces and repels. An alchemical transformation ceaselessly enacts itself before the viewer’s eyes, broken off branches become serpents, a snake becomes a rope, and human hair reconstitutes itself as a clutch of vipers writhing on the head of the Medusa. If the onlooker is ostensibly here turned to stone, then it is the alchemist’s “Philosopher’s Stone” that is further suggested, a state of grace conveyed to the viewer, at least as a model or ideal to which one may assiduously aspire.

Arthur Rimbaud famously remarked that the artist must become a seer; with Woodfine it is, similarly, a matter of opening oneself up to the potentiality of artistic practice. [3] By this I mean that although Woodfine draws upon extensive personal research in making her work she nonetheless holds onto an openness through which what are sometimes quite dark undercurrents may emerge. Her drawings are closely controlled exercises, yet made in such a way that whatever the image held by the artist prior to marking the paper, room for the emergence of 'deviations' is consciously maintained. But the 'going with the flow' that this implies is in fact tied into the difficult act of making the flow go, getting the drawing to work, that is, to succeed and, thereby, to resonate and exist within its own terms. The pieces display many paradoxes: icy images of sliced skin, folded and overlaid flesh emerge from what at first glance looks like a conventional botanical drawing. The precision and subtlety of Woodfine’s line leads the viewer into what is actually a false act of recognition, since so much of her recent work encourages one to look for the truth or accuracy of what one believes is depicted therein. But this realism is produced by the “code” of an already-established drawing style, and what in fact occurs when one recognises what the drawing actually shows is an effect conventionally described as that of the 'uncanny'. [4] The concept is complex and convoluted but in the present usage I am referring to an act of recognition in which something entirely out of place is convincingly positioned precisely where it should not be. This unhomely intrusion is, very unfortunately, right at home, and this is what is so terrible about it – a successful invasion has occurred, turning normal into abnormal, real into unreal.

The present series of drawings has moved some distance away from the narrative structure of Woodfine’s previous work, being more open to a range of different readings; that is, the artist is more accepting of the innate openness of all works of art and is indeed keen to encourage a more involved act of reading by the spectator. This is made manifest in the very structures of the drawings themselves, being, as I have suggested above, hybrid forms. Woodfine has carried out the sometimes very difficult task of drawing onto sheets of paper that are to be presented as standing cylinders, vertical spirals on the outside of which she has produced drawings in such a way that they are completely visible even though the paper is rolled up and positioned in the gallery so that the drawn-on area of the paper is prominent. (The works collectively titled Branch are good examples of this). Whilst the drawings on the cylinders are visible in their entirety, the rolled up nature of the form hints at something hidden, obscured by the very surface available to hold it. And this sense of something just out of sight is a continuing theme of the exhibition, not just because Woodfine alludes in her work to a range of non-Western or at least relatively obscure belief systems, but because she is keen to leave aspects of her practice void of replete, full, or overdetermined 'meanings'. This is, literally, where the viewer comes into the picture, and, given the structure and staging of the work, is requested to complete it.

A further strand of hiddenness – which is not to be confused with an arrogant or pointless obscurity – is again derived from one branch of the materials from which Woodfine has made the work – intellectual materials, philosophies and psychologies, the common point of which is that what is important or primary can in no way be equated with what is visible on the surface – on the surface, that is, of the artwork or, indeed, with respect to an individual’s superficial utterances or actions. One may apply Freudian, Jungian, Hindu or occult-based readings to the pieces in this show, but it would be a mistake to try to pin Woodfine’s practice down to a single theme, an error often made by the very experts Woodfine has studied, each of whom adhere to a single, totalising world view. When a snake becomes a plant and then perhaps reverses this transformation within a single image, what is in fact occurring is that within the physical action of drawing – which is for Woodfine a laborious undertaking – changes in imagery take place and are accepted and developed, or, of course, resisted as the artist physically makes the work. This is not to suggest some sort of 'higher force' is dictating the imagery; it is, rather, an indication of Woodfine’s willingness to make a place for whatever emerges within the act of drawing itself. There is a kind of cautious trust involved in such a process, and a willingness to take risks. Such an approach puts the viewer at some risk too, but that is what one should expect of art, a putting of the human subject into process (to borrow a term much used by Julia Kristeva). [5]

The Hindu but also Western image of the spiral threads its way through almost everything in Woodfine’s recent drawings, even if it sometimes travels by a subterranean route. The half-hypnotic coiling of paper as well as of the body of a serpent drawn upon it implies restrained tension, delayed potential, energy stored up. It also recalls the idea of something returning but in a different place, and therefore in a new historical configuration. [6] The serpent is a creature turning back on itself, a symbol both of creativity and evil, of death, but also of infinite return. Representing the animal as severed in two suggests sacrifice and pain, the latter also finding expression in the images of thorns scattered throughout several drawings. One is reminded of Grunewald’s Christ crowned with thorns, another vicious spiral of pain.

Rosalind Krauss has remarked that, irrespective of the now-widespread presence within artworld discourse of her term the 'Post-Medium Condition', she never had any time for what this description implied: the now naturalised argument that artists no longer need to master the forms, limits and contingencies of a specific artistic medium. [7] What Krauss did assert was that the artists whose achievements were most engaging and advanced within such a pluralist, 'Post-Medium' state – for which read 'Postmodernism' – were those practitioners who, rather than abandoning a concern for medium, chose to reinvent it, forging for themselves a new hybrid medium in which to work. This is something more than a little evident within Woodfine’s practice, a need to expand what’s possible through the concocting of a hybrid formal device. It was Roland Barthes who pointed out that interdisciplinary occurs not through a fashionable desire for novelty, but when established formal conventions are no longer capable of conveying the range of meanings the artist desires to activate or arrange. [8] Are Woodfine’s recent pieces drawings, sculptures, both or neither? Their necessary ambivalence perfectly reflects the anxieties, complexities and convoluted energies inherent within the slippery, difficult issues with which Woodfine has chosen to engage.


1. Austin Chadwell, The Carmelite Directory of the Spiritual Life, first published in 1940 under Vatican jurisdiction, with numerous reprints. The remark employed by Woodfine is from p.153.

2. See, for example, Emile Grillot de Givry, Picture Museum of Sorcery, Magic and Alchemy, University Books,1963 (first published in French in 1929), especially chapters V and Vl. For a study of occult imagery relevant to Woodfine’s current work see Alexander Roob, The Hermetic Museum: Alchemy & Mysticism, Taschen, 1997, especially the numerous images of serpents, including the ouroboros, a creature shown in the act of biting its own tail.

3. Arthur Rimbaud, letter to Paul Demeny, 15 May, 1871, included in Arthur Rimbaud, Complete Works, Selected Letters, University of Chicago Press, 1966, p.307.

4. For a detailed survey of this subject see Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny, Manchester University Press, 2003.

5. See, for example, Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, Columbia University Press, 1984. Kristeva’s notion of abjection is also of relevance to Woodfine’s imagery, for which see Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, Columbia University Press, 1982.

6. On the notion of history as a spiral see the references to Giambattistica Vico in Edward Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978. The spiral was an important figure for, amongst others, Roland Barthes, Alfred Jarry, James Joyce, and Robert Smithson.

7. For discussions of the Post-Medium Condition see Rosalind Krauss, Perpetual Inventory, MIT Press, 2010, and especially Krauss’ Reinventing the Medium, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 25, No. 2, Winter 1999.

8. As Barthes wrote at the beginning of his essay From Work to Text (1971), “Interdisciplinarity is not the calm of an easy security; it begins effectively …when the solidarity of the old disciplines breaks down… in the interests of a new object…”. Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, Fontana, 1977, p. 155.

This text has been written by Peter Suchin on the occasion of Sarah Woodfine's solo exhibition We can hardly imagine how much the angels love the truly chaste.