Rita Wobbe, Drifting VIII, 2004, mixed media, 30cm x 30cm image courtesy the Origin Gallery

fugue : [from Latin, fuga, a flight]. A polyphonic composition, developed from a given theme or themes, according to strict contrapuntal rules. The theme is first given out by one voice or part, and then, while that pursues its way, it is repeated by another at an interval of a fifth or fourth, and so on, until all the parts have answered one by one, continuing their several melodies and interweaving them in one complex progressive whole, in which the theme is often lost and reappears. 1

The title of Rita Wobbe’s latest show, Flight from Reality, develops sequentially on from her exhibition, Fugue, which showed last year in the Garter Lane Gallery in Waterford; flight and fugue both originate from the latin word for flight; fuga. And it is interesting to consider the musical term fugue when examining the paintings in Flight from Reality, because the idea of themes which return throughout the work, surfacing and resurfacing and being echoed in different tones and colours, is explained very clearly by this definition. Wobbe is a process-based artist, and the paintings develop visual and conceptual ideas sequentially, through a series of formal and conceptual enquiries. The varying experiments taking place with the physical application of paint, and the focused exploration of related ideas is very much like the development of a signature tune throughout an unfolding musical composition.

As well as referencing the title of her previous exhibition, Flight from Reality presumably describes the state of religious escapism imagined as part of the experience had by monks living at Skellig Michael. This is the landscape which inspired Wobbe during her recent residency in Cill Rialaig: Skellig Michael is a small landmass, known as ‘the RockÕ. An ancient monastery, founded in the seventh or eighth century, sits atop a ledge on the island. To reach it, one must travel from the Kerry mainland by boat for around an hour and climb up approximately 640 stone steps. The steps were placed there by monks, who were willing to live in this inhospitable and inaccessible place to experience the kind of peace which perhaps can only be found when thus removed from everything else. How was survival possible in this place, and why was it desirable?

Skellig Michael, image held here

The Spiral Pathway sequence of paintings by Wobbe is based on her experience of climbing those ancient steps to the huts on the Rock. The journey of ascendence implied by the stairs is a metaphor for religious pathways which lead upwards, in accordance with ideas of enlightenment. In Wobbe’s use of paint, however, the journey becomes physical as well as spiritual. The surfaces of her paintings are visceral, with all the evidence of physical process deliberately preserved in their eventual appearance. It is possible to see where she has laid rectangles of copper on the surface of the canvas, painted up around and over them, and then stripped them away. It is possible to see where she has scored into the layers of paint, varnish, and sand, to make marks. Paint drying, shrinking, stretching, cracking, being built up, being pulled away, is all shown here, and can be read as a reference to the physical effects of weather and time on the actual terrain which inspired the work. Yet it could also relate to human effort; the squares and rectangles imply buildings or human construction, and not the organic forms inherent to ideas of the land. In an earlier interview, Wobbe discussed how the exploration of forms in her work involves playing with the circle, representing “the countless forms in nature…movement, growth, decay," 2 and the square, representing “the product of human effort." 3

Rita Wobbe, image taken from: Spiral Pathway Series, 2004, mixed media, 50cm x 50cm image courtesy the Origin Gallery

As well as this physical way of working referencing both physical effort and spiritual aspiration, the play with surface and texture also experiments with what is within and what is without; the work simultaneously reflects the external landscape in its use of colour, and the interior space of reflection and meditation sought by religious people in this particular place for centuries. The colours are moss, rock, turf, slate, earth, mud, ocean, salt, pebble, rainy sky, lichen, and algae; the textures are cracked walls, wind-swept waters, dried puddles, dug earth furrows, torn sod, and bricks that have just been laid. There are whites here that can only be compared to the crumbling plasterwork of old farm buildings, and blues that exist only on cold Atlantic waters. The sensitive response to the natural palette of the landscape evident in this work is impressive, and though the works initially seem grey, they unfold under scrutiny to reveal surprisingly rich varieties of colour. But it would be a mistake to see the work only in terms of abstract landscape painting. The press release for the exhibition discusses a “contemplative state of mind experienced in such timeless surroundings," 4 in relation to the Drifting series, and it is clear that the work is intended to reflect more than merely the colours or shapes in the surrounding landscape.

In the second room of the gallery, there is an installation of paintings entitled Unspoken, which perhaps best represents the tension explored between spiritual and physical aspects of existence throughout the show. Twelve square canvases have been painted and arranged in three formations of four squares, so that they appear almost like a row of windows. The entire surface of each of the paintings has been considered, including the sides and corners, and each has been treated in a very physical manner, so that it is highly tactile and almost scuptural in the way it rises up from the wall behind it. The colours are deep reddish browns, speaking of tomb, womb, temple, and cave. The surfaces are alternately leathery and flesh-like, sandy and smooth. There is no clear narration here; but plenty of suggestions inhabit the twelve canvases. Dark spaces trace the outlines of entrances or caves; squares and rectangles reference structure and buildings; surfaces talk of different types of touch and recall the body’s sensory experience.

On one of the canvases in this installation, there is a texture reminsicent of honeycomb. To consider bees and the carefully organised, geometric forms which they use to house what is gathered from nature is a useful hint for reading Wobbe’s work. Like bees, Wobbe approaches the messy chaos of the rugged Kerry landscape with an urge to reorganise what is found there into new forms. She turns what she finds into highly patterned and structured expressions which question our physical and spiritual relationship to the land. In this type of engagement with the landscape it is hard to imagine that she really is on a Flight from Reality ; her work seems rather to be a Fugue; a series of images that play again and again on the themes of stone stairways, turning waves, a landscape that refutes the usual laws for human survival and the relationship between spiritual experience and material hardship.

Felicity Ford is an artist and writer based at the moment in Killiney;she is currently involved with the installation of her sound-works in the end-of-year DLIADT graduation showcase, and is working with arts-and-theatre collective Spacecraft on their current production, Bleeding the System.

1. Definition taken from http://www.everything2.com

2. Rita Wobbe, interviewed by Annette Moloney; http://www.artistsireland.com

3. Ibid.

4. Press Release for Flight from Reality