Water Level, 2013. Bronze and steel, 148 cm. high. Photo: Morrow Scot-Brown

Sarah Maloney: A New Image of Landscape

For the last 10 years, Halifax artist Sarah Maloney has been pushing her work toward a sculptural version of landscape. This may seem like an unusual move since the very idea of “landscape” is an intellectual construct, a way of seeing premised on an image rather than a way of being, and hence almost the anti­thesis of sculpture. Sculptures are objects—of the world, not a way of framing it. And yet, some recent sculpture has merged Minimalist and conceptual approaches with the staged image-making that Douglas Crimp described as “Pictures” art back in 1977. Structural as well as conceptual, Crimp’s stagings represented other pictures, not things. Translated into three dimensions in the ’80s and ’90s, this notion allowed sculptors to exploit the multiple layers of content and context built into certain images and to use historical accretions and associations as additional materials. In such an intellectual context, perhaps Maloney’s sculptural landscapes are not so difficult to understand.

She trained at Central Technical School in Toronto, in a program that focused on traditional techniques of sculpture—modeling, carving, and casting. Drawing, unsurprisingly, served as a foundation, and in addition to sculpture, she studied painting and printmaking. She then entered the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, a stronghold of conceptual art, where the critical environment pushed her to look at her work as a vehicle for ideas and research; meanwhile her solid technique ensured that she could convey those ideas in a convincing manner. Primarily working in metal, she used welding processes to create sculptures that referred to the human body—determinedly feminist pieces that presaged her mature work.

While studying for her Master’s degree at the University of Windsor, Maloney became pregnant and had to adjust her working methods. Unwilling to continue her exposure to the fumes and dust involved with metal, she began to work in fiber, applying the knitting, sewing, embroidery, and other so-called “domestic arts” skills that she learned as a child from her grandmother. She also started to create wax objects to be cast in bronze, which could be done at a foundry. These strategies became a defining aspect of her practice, and she has continued to combine casting, welding, and woodworking with needlework.

Installation view of “Habitat,” with (foreground) Collapse, 2009. Antique fainting couch, bronze, and fabric, 74 x 66 x 194 cm. Photo: Pierre LeBlanc, courtesy Grenfell Campus Art Gallery

Around 2005, Maloney began a series of botanical studies exploring visual correspondences between plant forms and human organs. She worked on both embroidered panels and bronze sculptures, using custom-refurbished antique furniture as bases. The commercial patterns of the upholstery, the forms of the bronzes, and the decorative style of the furniture combined to create complex sculptures that suggest a physical merging of the body with wood and plants—a distant echo, in a way, of Bernini’s Daphne as she turns into a laurel tree. The bronzes all depict female anatomical parts: lungs and ovaries are presented on somewhat fussy side chairs, while milk ducts are displayed on an upholstered plinth, higher than the average height of a woman.

Concurrently with this series, Maloney was also working on Skin (2003–12), a life-size representation of a headless human skin, hand-constructed from more than 400,000 glass beads. This empty, flayed carcass, which took nine years to complete, references an écorché—the academic representation of a figure without skin—though here the emphasis is on the skin itself rather than the musculature. Suspended on a fabricated plastic hanger, this compelling object reinterprets classical subjects while responding to a more immediate inspiration—Jana Sterbak’s Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic. (The two works were exhibited together in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia exhibition “Skin: The Seduction of Surface,” 2012.) After Skin, Maloney moved on from the human figure, concentrating instead on research into the role of flowering plants in Western culture and imagination.

Skin, 2003–12. Glass beads, nylon thread, and acrylic armature, 42 x 23 x 170 cm. Photo: Morrow Scot-Brown

Collapse takes its starting point from the Dutch tulip mania of the late 1630s, an economic crisis that many economists regard as the first speculative bubble. Created during the mortgage and banking collapse that began in 2008, it features sculpted tulips and paisley fabric—mainstays of the Western domestic sphere with origins in the Near East, in a part of the former Ottoman Empire that still plays a key role in today’s global politics and economic interests. Combining a paisley-covered fainting couch with a swath of tulips (that appear to bend in a strong wind), the complex image that Maloney composes in Collapse encapsulates the ever-precarious nature of economic security.

A residency at Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park led to Reflection Suite. Bronze versions of three lady slipper orchids native to Atlantic Canada are built into elegant vanity tables designed and constructed by Maloney. Orchids, associated with Venus in Western mythology, act as stand-ins for the goddess of love and beauty, presented, as she is so often represented in art history, as the focus of a vanitas allegory.

Reflection Suite, 2011. Bronze, maple, birch, aspen, mirror, and embroidered cotton on fabric, dimensions variable. Photo: Pierre LeBlanc, Courtesy Grenfell Campus Art Gallery

Collapse and Reflection Suite share some of the subjects and modes of still-life painting, reconsidered in terms of how certain media and subjects have been gendered and relegated historically to the category of “women’s work.” While they use furniture as structural and conceptual supports, Water Level and First Flowers step fully into sculpture as landscape. In the freestanding Water Level, bronze flowers and tall steel roots create an environment that envelops the viewer. Anyone who has ever looked down at water lilies from a boat will recognize the tangled root systems that Maloney has adapted into standing supports. The subtle whites, reds, and greens of the flowers, achieved through various patinas, recall Monet’s monumental paintings at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. In First Flowers, a series of blossoming magnolia branches grow off the wall. The landscape tradition cited here is more Japanese than Western, with a pristine wall surface standing in for paper.

Whether referencing gardens or art history, Maloney shears off the heroic baggage that often accompanies grandiose approaches to landscape in which image is more important than reality. Her work follows a decidedly more intimate and prosaic arc. Her awareness of and insistence on the validity of the domestic sphere make gardens a logical part of her approach to landscape. What is a garden if not an attempt to domesticate the wilderness? A garden, at least a flower garden, is also, like art, the product of leisure, of time freed from the tasks of survival. Maloney’s work reflects her interest in how women have worked over time, particularly how they have worked in nature, which has also led her to explore the lives of early female botanists and artists.

Reflection: Yellow Ladyslipper (detail), 2009–10. Birch, bronze, and mirror, 162 x 36 x 31 cm. Photo: Morrow Scot-Brown

Maloney’s newest work features the carnivorous pitcher plant, a common bog-dweller in eastern North America that lives by consuming insects trapped inside its vessel-like body. These are not classically beautiful plants, unlike the orchids, tulips, lilies, and magnolias that preceded them, and Maloney does not portray their flowering stages at all, concentrating instead on their bodies. Arrayed on the floor in the same clumped arrangement that one would find in a bog, these disturbingly anthropomorphic small bronzes immerse viewers in an image of a usually overlooked landscape.

Landscape, as a species of garden, cannot exist without human intervention and consumption. Like art, landscape is a human construct, a way to carve out a clearing in the world, to create and depict spaces that make sense to us in the midst of a vast, meaningless (because it is beyond human meaning) world. Landscape has long served as a way of symbolically overcoming the world, of owning or claiming it. Maloney’s references to gardens, domestic decorative work, and human vanity take a different approach to the world, one historically and traditionally associated with women—the work of accommodating and cooperating to survive. Such work tends to be necessary work, consisting of mundane tasks that make thickets into gardens to create meaningful spaces both useful and beautiful.

Ray Cronin is a writer based in Nova Scotia.