Structuring Absence: Sculpture of Sarah Lindley

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SARAH LINDLEY'S STATELY CERAMIC SCULPTURES catch the viewer by surprise: the unmistakable elegant lines and scrolling details of a 17th century Dutch cabinet-on-stand frame empty spaces where, if Dutch paintings are any guide, an array of collectibles or shelves neatly stacked with folded linens should be housed. Even more surprisingly, the sculptures themselves are made from clay instead of wood. Lindley's series, Poppenhuis: Rendering Domestic Display exhibited at the Jane Hartsook Gallery at Greenwich House Pottery, playfully dissects the ideas of function and usefulness in these sculptures, which turn display cabinets into objects to be displayed in their own right.

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The sculptures are inspired by an obscure and little-studied genre of Dutch furniture: the cabinet house, or poppenhuis, exquisite doll's houses that were appointed with all the comforts and luxuries of a real Amsterdam townhouse. These poppenhuis were not children's toys; in fact, they are more akin to the wunderkammers and cabinets of curiosity of the era in both costliness and seriousness. (1) Several wealthy Dutch women commissioned and furnished them, in some cases spending nearly as much money designing and decorating their miniature homes as they did on the houses they lived in: Petronella Oortman (1656-1716) spent an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 guilders on her poppenhuis, almost enough to purchase a real home in Amsterdam circa 1670. (2) Petronella de la Court (1624-1707) invited artisans who had made fine decorative objects for her family's home to replicate their efforts in miniature for her poppenhuis. (3) As a result, the surviving cabinet house provides a valuable three-dimensional interpretation of elite Dutch interiors during this period of material and artistic abundance. Just as there is a strong temptation to read Dutch paintings as historical guides to real Dutch interiors of the 17th century, the poppenhuis offer tantalising three-dimensional views of the domestic worlds of the burghers living in the major cities of the Netherlands at the height of its prosperity and influence. (4)

Lindley's Poppenhuis sculptures add to the growing body of contemporary ceramic work that interprets decorative arts traditions to achieve a narrative end. In 1990, Photographer Cindy Sherman adapted patterns and forms from the Manufacture Royale de Sevres for her limited edition porcelain self-portrait Madame de Pompadour (nee Poisson). The designs she used were based on examples originally commissioned by the influential mistress of Louis XV. Charles Krafft's iconic 'Delftware' hand grenades and machine guns (part of his Porcelain War Museum project) attempt to visually disarm an object of destruction by refashioning it with the harmless look of a collectible and the warmth of a non-threatening domestic object. (5) These are but two well-known examples of contemporary artists mining ceramic history to find the right visual language to tell their stories.

Lindley's work stems from a nuanced and complex exercise in historical interpretation, using the cabinet form as a reference point rather than a more immediately recognisable surface pattern or functional pottery form. Surprisingly for a ceramic project inspired by 17th century Dutch decorative arts, the colours blue and white are nowhere to be found; nor are there any thrown functional ceramic forms, tiles or tulips. The sculptures are stripped bare of cliches, yet their distinctively baroque silhouettes situate them in time and place. This approach allows Lindley to tether her work to an existing decorative arts tradition without slavishly mimicking any particular technique, or using literal visual quotations from a specific period or genre. As a result, the viewers are given clues, but are freer to interpret the pieces, and their effect is thus more complex and intriguing. Lindley's method of rendering these cabinet houses is both conceptually and materially surprising: confronted with a densely patterned source object full of colour and tiny intricate objects, Lindley recreates only the bones of the houses, leaving the viewer to imagine some phantom interior, or to appreciate the design of the poppenhuis itself and read the grammar of its design absent of any content. …