by Roisin O'Sullivan
What is particularly striking about Eve Shepherd’s ‘White Exhibition’ is its subtlety. Placed in an unassuming spot in the foyer of the Jubilee library in Brighton it took some moments before realising I was face to face with the exhibition which was perhaps significant given its theme. ‘White exhibition’, a retrospective covering fifteen years of the artist’s career, is a small collection of white figurative sculptures which aims to present and capture social minorities. The sculptures have been executed with such delicacy of feeling that it is easy for them to be overlooked. The artist’s concern for the unseen and underappreciated minority culture jarred with the surroundings as the exhibition balanced precariously on the periphery of the busy library entrance, creating a distinct feeling of disjointedness and vulnerability. Hopefully those who did see the exhibition were as struck as I was by her ability to capture humanity at its most vulnerable.
Although working as a collective whole, each sculpture in the exhibition manages to hold its own and contribute something unique and different to the rest. Particularly diverting is the diversity with which she approaches the subject matter as the sculptures range from depicting the elderly, transgender, disabled, mentally ill and unborn. As I write I feel discomfited as I approach the discussion. Why? Perhaps it is the lurking feeling that in our culture difference is seen as a negative thing, something to be crushed as an obstacle in our search for total equality. Unfortunately ‘difference’ has long held negative connotations having been associated withmany prejudices that cause harm within our worldShepherd handles this delicate subject with skill and care.
The captured fragility of old age is inspiring. Initially I was unsure whether it was male or female as age had rendered her almost androgynous. The nudity helps communicate physical frailty as she struggles to stand and keep her head upright on her thin neck while her skin hangs like paper from spindly arms, legs and wrists which contrast strongly with her heavily sagging breasts and stomach.
Bride, is another seemingly androgynous figure; although in bridal attire it exposes a male torso. Although holding its arm out seemingly to survey the ring on its finger, when faced the figure’s gaze is not focused on the hand but disconcertingly directly at us.
This unusual pose is powerful and elegant but the outstretched arm acts as an aggressive boundary to the viewer who is literally kept at arms-length.
The choice of an embryo is interesting and one not frequently explored as a minority within art. Here Shepherd depicts vulnerability as a state of total dependency, highlighting the joyful and fearful reality of responsibility that accompanies it. The sculpture complements Dignified perhaps signalling the artist’s interests with the beginning and end of life. The leaf or wave-like form encompassing the baby creates a nature and nurture emphasis to the piece.
The sets of sculptures, Silent Circle and Reflection are a more direct expression of emotional and psychological vulnerability. In Silent Circle, the figure, curled into the foetal position, is repeated nine times, and is a clear physiological communicator that a powerful emotion is being felt, the position being a classic signifier of protection and defence. The visual repetitiveness of this unarticulated emotion is disconcerting. .The theme of repetition is further explored in Reflection –where three figures sit upon identical versions of themselves. There is something deific about these sculptures perhaps because of their ‘sameness’, touching on the undefinable world of the psychological and emotional. It could be argued that these two groups are trying to say something about self-perception, how we engage with the self; the repeated, mirror-imaged forms leading us to think about the double, our ego, our emotions, encompassing something which we all struggle to confront within ourselves and others.
Confrontation and mirror imaging is continued in Face-Off. Culturally understood to mean a violent confrontation, the artist has reinvented its meaning through the creation of facial expressions and body language to express hesitant curiosity and possible attraction. Practically identical, dressed in the same baggy trousers, naked torsos except for a rosary hung around their necksthe figures face each other with such casual vulnerability that our initial expectations are subverted, creating somethingpowerful and disarming. Is the artist trying to undermine our initial impressions of how we view other people?
Fragility powerfully captures the tragic figure of Camille Claudel (1814-1943). One of the great and underappreciated women artists of her time, she was diagnosed as mentally ill after destroying many of her sculptures and admitted to a psychiatric hospital where she lived until her death. Once a vibrant artist, she is portrayed during her final year. There is no passion, violence or any sense of genius but an individual whose crossed arms, slightly skewed posture, and droopy heavy features convey uncertainty, fear and vulnerability. The unsettling slight lean to the left tell us that all is not quite well.
All the sculptures have a sense of what I call ‘being met’, where an issue or vulnerability is confronted or exposed. Particularly interesting is the artist’s understanding of her own work: “it is never finished…people bring their own histories and opinions to the piece, it’s this collaboration which allows the sculptures to live.” Her work indeed provides a space for us to reflect upon how we approach and perceive vulnerability within ourselves, others and society. The Stephen Hawking and Faith juxtaposition is interesting because it highlights not only different views, but reminds that an ongoing dialogue does exist between people, religions, science.
If there is anything I have taken from the exhibition, it’s that difference and vulnerability can potentially be a beautiful arena for growth, learning and acceptance.