On earth there is no heaven, but there are pieces of it
(quote by Jules Renard, French writer, 1864-1910)
Barbara Sorensen’s sculpture celebrates the earth’s terrain by replicating its processes, characteristics, and imagery. Her work inherently captures an underlying characteristic of our time: as we are depleting the world’s natural resources, we are concurrently and ironically recognizing that technology has neither the solutions nor the means to solve universal problems. Instead we are beginning again to cherish and sanctify the very natural resources we are rapidly destroying. By learning the language and visual vocabulary of the earth’s geology and processes, through her work Sorensen’s work metaphorically reminds us of the globe’s wild, natural beauty, and brings it to our visual consciousness.
Early humans discovered the useful properties of clay in prehistoric times, and one of the earliest artifacts ever uncovered is a drinking vessel made of sun-dried clay. Sorensen’s original work was a series of clay vessels that gradually increased in scale and surface complexity. It has reached its current culmination in the series of sculptural works inspired by her 2005 travels through the landscapes of Australia and New Zealand. Her visual vocabulary emphasizes and replicates the formations caused by volcanic movements under the earth’s crust and the varying surfaces resulting from millennia of its shifting, cleaving, and overlapping, as its elements were eroded by gravity, wind, ice, and water.
Sorensen’s clay, floating, Boats were inspired by her boat journey through the dramatic Milford fjords with their sheer, rugged cliff faces on New Zealand’s South Island. On passing through the narrow fjords, one is surrounded by steep, almost vertical rock faces originally formed by glacial gorging. The mountains appear as stark pyramids of stone rising directly out of the water to almost 4,000 feet. In her clay series, Sorensen inverted the rocky triangular formations, creating large clay vessels. Their exteriors are made of overlapping layers of scored clay with the surfaces scarred by small rocks and rubble, while their smooth interiors replicate the curves of each ones exterior form. Hung from the ceiling in groups, they float through the air overhead like silent barges awaiting Phlegyas to ferry souls across the river Styx.
Lying against the wall, Sorensen’s seven, severe, vertical, Canyons represent the artist’s impressions of the limestone rock formations she observed on the western shores of New Zealand’s Panakaiki Region.The eroded and rough ridges formed through centuries of both water crashing against their faces and rain cascading down. Rising out of the sea, these austere, misshapen, isosceles forms stand in a rhythmic line. In Sorensen’s representation, the tiny space of wall below each form separates the vertical mountains from their mirror-images forming visual reflections in the air.
The second in her Foothills series, this rock-hard, clay installation is reminiscent of aerial views of the mountainous coastal region and foothills near Queenstown, New Zealand. Resting on a flat surface like bas-relief “pillows”, the deeply cut indentations on each section’s surface resemble crevices and fissures of igneous rock.To achieve this, Sorensen embeds stones into the clay before firing, after which they fuse to the surface like natural encrustations, and rock-laden landscapes, its surface character formed through volcanic eruptions. Seen from the side, each segment of the installation displays layers of compacted clay, with small droplets of material extruded by the dense compression of the material.
The body repeats the landscape.
They are the source of each other and create each other
(Meridel Le Sueur, writer, 1900 – 1996)
For a number of years Sorensen has explored the theme of Goddesses in both clay and cast bronze, creating increasingly monumental free-standing works. Inevitably invoking the mythological Greek goddess Gaia (Known in Roman mythology as Terra), whose name derived from the Greek word for “land”. Known as Mother Earth, Gaia represents the feminine, sensual side of the physical earth. She was believed to have given birth to the gods of the sea (Pontus), the sky (Uranus) and the Mountains (Ourea). Sorensen’s latest series of Goddesses, at nine feet the tallest of the entire series, also suggest Sirens, mythological sea-nymphs who through their songs so enchanted sailors that they drowned attempting to reach their bewitching sounds. Rising vertically from the ground in bronze cast from layers of clay, the artist’s Goddesses appear both primal and classical. They appear to rise out of the earth actively, creating an energetic tension against the initial vertical line of their lower legs through the twisting and stretching upward of their upper bodies. The beautiful, feminine graceful torque of their hips and waists plays against their chests which face forward and seem to strain against what appear to be banded arms at their apex. Their material and sculpted character appear as visual examples of a description by the English poet, Lord Byron (1788 – 1824):
What an antithetical mind! – tenderness, roughness – delicacy, coarseness –sentiment, sensuality – soaring and groveling, dirt and deity – all mixed up in that one compound of inspired clay.
Sorensen’s two newest series, Dwellings and Wind represent a significant departure from her usual use of clay and cast bronze. Instead for the first time the sculptor explores new materials including aluminum, wire, resin and rope; yet the works still reference organic forms. The Dwellings negate the opaque quality of the clay vessels, replacing it with open structures, formed like honeycombed cocoons. Instead of having the irregular, crystalline “spines” covered by a material that obscures the interiors, in each they are left uncovered and transparent like tumbleweeds carried by the wind to their present location. The forms’ openings are rounded inward and whether standing vertically or horizontally, they resemble fishing nets to capture and hold underwater life, while still permitting water, nutrients, and sunlight to flow through them. Their large scale allows humans to crouch and remain inside like sea creatures that have been captured and protected.
The elements implied by the movement and placement of the Dwellings are captured in the sculptor’s Wind series. The one hundred and eleven forms, all mounted on a nine by twelve foot wall, spiral out towards the viewer whose eyes are drawn down deeply inside the center of each. The interior form is created by conically arranged wire structures; its outside is ringed with rope that is then covered with white resin. Each form originates with a small circumference at the bottom and increases towards its open summit like active tornadoes. This analogy is reinforced by the surface of each on which small individual strands of rope escape from their center. They are visibly frozen in the resin like debris that has been gathered and held by the moving tunnel of wind’s powerful velocity as it circles across the landscape. Of varying heights, the visual manifestations of formidable and often destructive wind bend, bow, and sway in assorted directions, reinforcing our perception of the installations active vitality and power.
Along with her ongoing series of monotypes and Puzzle boxes, also inspired by her travels and hikes through various landscapes, Sorensen continues to explore new materials and manifestations of visualizing landscape.
Barbara Bloemink, Former Curator Museum of Arts and Design