Pungo River Grass, Fantasy Garden #51
By Stoney Conley
The sculpture Pungo River Grass, Fantasy Garden #51 by Sarah Westlake (b. 1928 – 2003) greets the visitor to O’Neill Library. Westlake was a Boston area artist who exhibited widely in the seventies and eighties. The sculpture was a gift to the McMullen Museum of Art after an exhibition in 2004 that examined her drawings and sculptures created between 1984 and 2002. During this period her idea of form shifted fluidly from two-dimensional to three-dimensional works and back again. Westlake’s work synthesizes the flat space of Japanese prints and painted screens with a sensuously decorative element, as seen in the works of Henry Matisse, all within a structured geometric order.
The Fantasy Garden series was inspired by visits to the Generalife gardens of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. Westlake developed a series of drawings depicting structured geometric spaces, referencing architectural forms, and curvilinear lines that suggest an array of natural forms, the arc of a fountain spray or the stem of a flower.
Westlake simultaneously made a series of sculptures that bring to mind Japanese folding screens. The earliest pieces had folding panels painted with similar geometric and natural forms that she used in her drawings. As the series progressed the folding panels fractured into broken planes. Paul’s Palace, Fantasy Garden #31, reads like a semi-transparent folding screen, but also as a construction of gestures captured in wood, plaster, and paint within a geometric space.
Both Paul’s Palace and Pungo River Grass were collaborations with cabinetmaker Harry Jones, who recalls the piece as inspired by a trip to the Pungo River estuary in North Carolina. Pungo River Grass, Fantasy Garden #51 has lost the room divider function of the Japanese screen. The painted planar wood forms are reduced geometry merged with organic form. These are interspersed among linear steel elements, resulting in a rhythmic composition that captures the movement of the marsh grass, or the arch of a fountain spray. The geometric planar forms are reminiscent of screen panels that have dissolved and left traces of their former structure. From one view, the tall planar shapes are covered with richly colored curving areas that echo the steel linear arches. As one views the other side, the forms appear as dark silhouettes, emphasizing the structure of the piece, and also approximating the Pungo River view of tree and grass forms silhouetted with the sunlight behind them. The linear curving metal rods recall the butterfly flower (Gaura Lindeimeri) that grew in Westlake’s Vineyard Garden, and whose tiny white blossoms grow at the top of a tall stem. The tall, thin-stemmed butterfly flower sways with the breeze and echoes the arch of the spouting water in the artist’s garden’s fountain. The spray in the Generalife garden’s fountains might have been an inspiration for her garden, as well as for the linear elements of the Pungo River Grass sculpture.
The complexity of the shifting elements in Westlake’s work holds the viewer in “aesthetic arrest.”1 Like a haiku, a traditional Japanese short poem with a rhythmic division of syllables that are thought to more nearly capture reality if they contain no center, Westlake’s art evokes an impression of nature within a defined structure.
Stoney Conley is chief curator of the McMullen Museum of Art and an adjunct assistant professor of painting in the Fine Arts Department.
[1. Joseph Campbell, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture Lecture, referencing James Joyce’s discussion of aesthetic vision within the novel Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man (1916). ]
Also see the exhibition catalogue; Sarah Westlake: Drawing <—> Sculpture, McMullen Museum of Art, 2004 (Bapst Library N6537.W383A4 2004), and exhibition website which has several images of her artwork.