The Land of Heart’s Desire, in William Butler Yeats’s play of that name, is the location to which a young bride is stolen away, where “the faeries dance in a place apart.” It is a realm free of the world’s cares, such as labor, old age, childbearing, and oppressive religion. It is also the wooded landscape of County Sligo in Ireland, seen through the door of the farmhouse where the play takes place, from whence the faeries come and to which they return with the soul of the young woman. The Land of Heart’s Desire represents not only her sole means of escape from what she thinks of as her “captivity” of repressive family and cultural strictures, but also, tragically, her death.
The landscape of his beloved Sligo was a powerful, profound, and multivalent inspiration to Yeats, as it is to Rowena Dring. For her new series of landscapes, named after a line in the faery song in his play, she traveled in the poet’s foot- steps to depict places he loved and about which he wrote: the mountain of Ben Bulben, the waterfall at Glencar, Loch Gill, in which lies the Lake Isle of Innisfree. Not confining herself to Ireland, however, she also portrays views precious to other writers, including a lonely island in the Stockholm Archipelago, where August Strindberg lived and set two of his novels, and the Alps of the South Tyrol, which D.H. Lawrence traversed and celebrated in his Twilight in Italy.
Following in the paths of these authors, Dring records the scenes they immortalized in literature, and later in her studio transforms them into large- scale canvases, wondrously composed of thousands of pieces of meticulously cut-out fabric sewn together. She creates intricate and sophisticated pictures from flat areas of uninflected color and simple, usually blue, outline, testifying both to the consummate skill of her eye and hand, and to the diligence of her labor. Her palette comprises hundreds of individual colors of fabric she has assembled over the course of years. Her line, stitched with a normal sewing machine, describes volume and contour, as finely expressive as a mark drawn by hand. And what essentially amounts to a Pop Art-influenced, paint-by-numbers approach achieves a truly remarkable degree of realism. Dring creates dazzling tapestries by pushing craft technique to new levels of complexity and subtlety. Her mastery of material(s) renders light, atmosphere, and depth, as well as an ineffable but very real sense of place.
Yet the European landscapes about which the early Modernist writers enthused existed not as untrammeled wildernesses, but as places that had been inhabited for hundreds, if not thousands of years, surveyed in folktales, songs, and previous works of literature, and even portrayed in paintings, sketches, prints, and other works of art (and we should remember that both Strindberg and Lawrence exhibited their own paintings during their lifetimes, and both Yeats’s father and brother were well-known Irish artists). These were civilized landscapes, even if they did serve the authors as places of respite, somewhat remote from the urban and the everyday but still mediated and symbolic. Re-presenting these places one more time, Dring pictures poetical landscapes, views carefully cropped and framed—by the edge of the canvas and strategic omission, or, more literally, by the window within the image that frames an Alpine vista as the farmhouse door framed the Sligo forest in Yeats’s play—to provide a semblance of untouched nature, but always already framed by literature. The lingering Romanticism found in the literary works, which allowed Nature to serve as foil for Culture, carries over into Dring’s images, as does an echo of the way these landscapes served as icons, emblems of coalescing national and European identities. But for all their cheery craft, for all their nods to Modernist romance, Dring’s landscapes come fraught with the knowledge that Nature and Culture are but two sides of the same coin, that wilderness no longer exists, if it ever did, and that there can be no real flight to a place apart except in the mind. Strindberg’s island can be visited on a day tour; the Glencar waterfall is wheelchair accessible; the rugged Alps appear through the window of a ski lodge. For the artist, distanced by history from ideals of the natural (a distance embodied by the representation of the natural in a flattening and abstracting craft technique), it is only the construct of landscape that may offer escape from the cares of the world. The land of heart’s desire is a mere idea, an idyll, and that is its tragedy.
Joseph Wolin 2006
stitched fabric over canvas 170 x 250 cm
bedtitched fabric over canvas 85 x 150 cm
room 04, Hotel Lorenzetti
stitched fabric over canvas 198 x 300 cm
heathers at Lock Gill
stitched fabric over canvas 170 x 440 cm
Installation at QED gallery
Installation at QED gallery
stitched fabric over canvas 130 x 350 cm
stitched fabric over canvas 250 x 230 cm
Detail of Waterfall
stitched fabric over canvas 140 x 150 cm
stitched fabric over canvas 300 x 200 cm
Every so often Discovery Channel runs an advert to encourage tourist to America with the slogan “You’ve seen the movie, now visit the set” against a backdrop of the vast landscapes of the Arizona high desert. Intrigued by the idea of the whole of the west of America as one huge movie set in 2006 I took a road trip through California and Arizona, driving two and a half thousand miles with the NY curator/writer and critic, Joseph Wolin. The photographs I took on this trip are the source material for my new body of works that looks at the landscapes of the American West.
Images of the landscape of the west of America and ideas of the nation are deeply intertwined. Ask any US president what is his favorite movie, and they will all answer with a Western; for John F Kennedy it was Bad Day at Black Rock, for Clinton, Nixon and George W Bush it was High Noon. The American West is a region that is defined by memory and nostalgia, making it a symbol of what was irrevocably lost.
In his book “Skyline, The Narcissistic City” Hubert Damisch reminds us that whilst this is the west of America, anywhere west of the great lakes is actually the east, LA being the first orient.
Rowena Dring 2008
Other Side from Vegas
stitched fabric over canvas 220 x 155 cm
flip side/south side
stitched fabric over canvas 115 x 80 cm
Oasis of Mara No.3
stitched fabric over canvas 145 x 160 cm
Barker Dam, early evening
stitched fabric over canvas 90 x 150 cm
Entrance to Hidden Valley
stitched fabric over canvas 110 x 85 cm
Barker dam, Joshua Tree
stitched fabric over canvas 120 x 200 cm
stitched fabric over canvas 120 x 250 cm
Oasis of Mara No.1
stitched fabric over canvas 225 x 165 cm
Monumental Rocks at the Entrance to Hidden Valley
stitched fabric over canvas 150 x 225 cm
Oasis of Mara No.2
stitched fabric over canvas 225 x 165 cm
detail of Oasis of Mara No.2
Nha Trang lilly pond
Fly into Danang, drive south, pass China Beach and eventually you arrive at Nha Trang. To many people of the pre and post geneneration x who grew up on a cultural diet of seminal Vietnam war movies: Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon…these key places are a roll call to a collective (non) remembered past. Today Nha Trang is home to an artificial kingdom of the Thai-styled boutique holiday resort, designed to attract foreign tourist dollars. The Nha Trang Lily pond series is about that contrast, past & present, surface & depth and the construction of an idyll.