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New Sculpture by

Ghyslaine and Sylvain Staelens





FOREST AMULETUM New Sculpture by Ghyslaine and Sylvain Staelens


FOREST AMULETUM By Randall Morris For me silence has always had its own music. I love films that open with a warm sweep of silence, orchestral in itself before the intensity of any kind of action begins. We think when things are peaceful in our lives they are then silent. They aren’t. Silence is only real in Nature when it is attached to a place that has lost its sense of time. When Ghyslaine and Sylvain Staelens put their sculptures outside, for a brief time, before the work travels to the noise of civilization, they are silent in the breeze, insect calls and bird cries. The thick atmosphere of an ancient church perhaps disturbed only by the flutter of wings of a pigeon in the apse. The quietude of an earth that holds its dead to its bosom as if they were sleepers. That awed hush just before a warm rainstorm. I see their sculptures this way as three dimensional pauses in time. That moment when time catches up with itself. Follow that quiet camera into their studio…The silence is outside. Inside there is the noise of music and human voices. This is the place where the pieces are born and finished and the hush waits outside, hugging the house to itself in a long slow unseen fugue. The sculptures of Ghyslaine and Sylvain Staelens are not afraid of darkness and light. Like their makers they have seen a fair share of both. They move in mist and chiaroscuro and clarity with impunity. They are expressionistic yet they hold up elegantly under the most critical scrutiny. They are mythical, they are not whimsical. They are consciously created inhabitants of a dangerous forest. In dappled sunlight they blend with dust motes, honeycolored light and the slow talk of old trees. They can be forceful, they can be meditative, they are always enigmatic. The Staelens moved to Jailhac in Auvergnes in 2002. They were drawn to the materials found on the land. They needed and loved the huge quiet, and always in this place there had been the grand and brooding presences of the forest and the volcanoes, both providing influence, materials and colors in their crushed and powdered stones. There are less than forty people living in the village. And many cows. The house had been in Sylvain’s family from his great-grandparents and so there was a personal history also felt in this isolated location.. Close to the house/studio is the Notre Dame de Claviers Chapel, built before 1109 from the same volcanic stone as used in their sculptures. In it is a crucifix and fourteen stone stations of the cross, some of them carved by a nineteenth century hermit named Francois Lesmarie. You can see it from their windows. It was definitely a formative influence. There was also a very famous carving of a Virgin in the chapel, later removed to another location. But the robed influence of that dark figure has never left Jailhac or the imaginations of the Staelens. She is one of their muses. Nearbye is the Bois de Jailhac. The Staelens call it “the forest”. There is a difference between influence and appropriation in an artists’ contact with the world. Primitivism was always a war between these two ideas. The Staelens live in the contemporary world, a world made smaller by the Internet and the relative ease of travel. Non-Western countries like Mexico where they travelled and Africa where Ghyslains’ family 3 < FOREST AMULETUM

spent much time have always been in their radar but as artistic inspiration and touchstones rather than formal or material sources. If you are a certain kind of artist, or poet, or musician the permission to make the work that is truly your own is given by the power of all your aesthetic experience. A Mayan ruin does not make one want to create a ball court so much as it triggers a desire to tap into a creative force and source that excites one to creative action. Formalism and materials may coincide with others but for it to be timeless it must be original and not stolen. I do not respect when religion or spirituality is appropriated in art for its imagined sensationalistic impact. Art is fluid, it can steal shadows and souls on its own. The seemingly unregulated field of what is erroneously called â&#x20AC;&#x2DC;outsider artâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; is filled with people who consciously attempt to emulate the lives of Non-Western peoples or their religions whether it be Santeria or the misinterpretations of Vodou. But even more so they attempt to emulate what they think is the freedom of the insane and the alienated, without acknowledging that for those artists who are the sources it is rarely so simple. You cannot second guess the primal experience. This also is really just another current manifestation of primitivism. The Staelens do not steal. Their work may draw from some of the same creative pools as other artists but they are not attempts to appropriate that magic. They have made their own. and they have made it long enough now that there is a body of work that has its own unique references and parameters. The work is drawn from the immediate sonorous presence of the countryside they live in and the ghosts and mysteries of those who have passed through this place bringing them into the present. Yes it is animistic, but it is an animism of immediacy. It is the power the ceramist knows when creating sculpture from the very landscape it reflects. Alchemical beginnings. Earth, air, water and fire. Stone, plants, dust, clay, cloth, lava and stone infused with life. All art making has the potential of being a magical process both within the mainstream and outside the mainstream. Art made within the mainstream for the most part answers to or follows a conscious agenda responding to art history or an art historical discourse. Whether reacting for or against this history, the art is geared to an art world. It is art that is often about itself and answering questions about its own place in a long discourse. The end is often a rationalization of its means rather than a justification. Art made outside the mainstream follows a radically different intentionality because it has little or no relationship whatsoever to the art world discourse by its maker. Formal similarities are more often than/then not a complete coincidence. This art is almost always being made for some utilitarian or homeopathic reason. Often the process of making it has taken a supreme importance over the result. The art is not the piece. The art is the making of the piece. The art is the fusion of the artist with the piece as it comes into being. Because of this the process is often to some degree visionary. It heals, or endangers, or becomes a story. It is part of a path its maker takes through life. It canArtist be personal, even solipsistic, or /to it can serve as a communityâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s beacon. It never fully disconnects Title, yearfrom life. Its goal in inception was not a mainstream discourse. medium size If we fully grasp this we can see that the world of non-mainstream art is huge in scope in M FOREST AMULETUM > 4

comparison to that art of the mainstream. It is made in some form by every culture of the world, some of whom don’t even think of it as being art but instead as how life is lived, it is not differentiated from the act of living. Someone else has called it art. It can be medicine, it can be self-therapy, it can be a way of controlling the chaos of the world, it can be magic, or power, good, evil, or morally neutral. It can record history of the community, the world or the self. It can be an amulet. In fact very often it is an amulet. The Staelens, Ghyslaine and Sylvain are amulet makers. There are no laws or rules for this kind of art. There are art historians who say what it isn’t but rarely do they say what it is. It is an art of process. And it is important to understand that it is the process of making it that keeps on in touch, in balance, in sync with one’s world whether of the self or the community one is part of. In the case of the Staelens it is a sympathetic magic as well. Working with, touching, placing, changing the objects of Nature brings you closer to Nature. It is not the doll that is magic in a sympathetic magic ceremony, it is the act of fabricating the doll and the ceremony of driving in the nail that makes it magic or that makes it art or that makes it both. Some are content to merely gaze at the land, to absorb its line and heat and mood and absorb it abstractly. For others there is a hunger to somehow merge with it, by handling it, by using it, by gathering materials, by making art from it the artist absorbs the landscape into him or herself. In this sense the Staelens have merged with the Auvergne. They are charged with the essence of its provincial history even as they translate that essentialism to the pieces springing from their fingertips. This French rural countryside is very catholic, folk Catholic. There is always a war going on between good and evil in Folk Catholicism. Wherever there is this battle between good and evil there are arbiters for both sides as well as those who are morally neutral and can participate in either. Some call it healing. Some call it witchcraft. Wherever you have a vernacular population that still uses midwives and herbs someone will refer to it as witchery. The word witch is of course misleading. She is very much a historical forest presence from anywhere in the world. It’s only logical because in the wilderness are found all the natural elements of healing and shamanistic experience. The sculptures of the Staelens are of the forest and the volcanic mountains. It is as if they are amassed from a whirlwind of inchoate scatter, and coalesce as the population of a mystical timeless population. They are warriors and gypsies, healers and witches, totems and guardians exposing the roots, metals , herbs and volcanic stones that make up their amuletic souls. I find the way they work and what they make to be an amazingly poetic concept. I understand the feeling completely, this desire to merge with place. We are diasporic historic beings. To look at ruins, or a forest or a desert and not to feel the essence of what has and what might have gone before there is impossible to me. Every forest is different. Every forest is a summation of what has moved through it. It has interacted from the beginning, willingly or unwillingly, with members of our species. I think of Native-Americans who basically treated the forests and wild lands as massive gardens. I think of all the potential characters that have lived in the forest, as hunters, as maroons, some of them in solitude, some of them 5 < FOREST AMULETUM

in bands, and understand that this is some of the essence that the Staelens tap into. This magic is not the magic of a grimoire or an alchemical tract. The occult orders that were the basis of secret societies have no place in this art. This is the funk of everyday need. This magic is shamanistic. Not made by shamans. It is messy and poison and elixir, childbirth and healing the sick, drawing animals in for the hunt, crops, animal husbandry, love and war. This is a magic borne from the rhythms of existence, still alive wherever folkways still determine behavior. “When we arrived in Auvergne we were so surrounded by Catholicism we absorbed the crucifixion, religious souls, and with time, years in Auvergne we begin to form characters in harmony with the forest and the volcanos, hunters, sentinels, sentries, horsemen, mysterious people, tough, fighting for their survival. All our sculptures are connected to each other from the very beginning when we started.” The art for them was a huge manifestation of self-healing as well. They fled Paris with the conviction that to remain there would be an ultimate act of self-destruction. Their jobs were unfulfilling and fed the dissipation. The cycle was “dark-drugs-Metro-work-metro-drugssleep.” Again and again. But they saw the self-destruction and acted. Art became a way to survive with dignity. They were hungry for the empty fullness of Nature and they made the break. In auvergne the silence and isolation was its own form of artistic and mystical fulfillment. The earliest pieces were abstract. Simplified shapes. Offerings and symbolic sacrifices they imagined could be found hanging after rites in the forest. They made structures to hang these offerings and then the natural progression was to populate this world. The figures were in a sense protecting their own primal forests; bristly and dangerous, fierce in a nurturing way. Their neighbors were devout Catholics who regarded them with some degree of suspicion though some also saw the beauty and respected the amount of work and work ethic that goes into making these pieces. It has relaxed a bit over time but there is still a slight feeling of fear, of caution. The pieces contain many elements of folk witchcraft, including the tying of materials and the driving in of nails which many do not realize is just as European a practice as it is African. Driving a nail creates a binding force, an emphasis. The power is in the act of driving it in, its presence later a reminder of that pact or decision. The neighbors now help the Staelens find materials for the works. There is a purpose, a goal. To remind people that under the gloss of life are the real guts of life, exposed to the air ”….banged up, full of faults….but worthy and genuine”. People have the means to do good and the sculptures are messengers of this ability, grounded literally in their appearances and materials. They are grounded also in local Place. Their presence is historical, a Western transcendence of individuals working together rather than the non-western cycle of propitiating ancestors. The artists feel that if this desire, this need for “dignity, Artistself-respect and respect for others” is to be seen as mystical then yes certainly they are Title, mystics. yearBut they are spiritual not religious, not bound to any organized religion. They have amedium deep respect for those world wide objects of faith but they blame religion for the confusion and size pain in the world. M FOREST AMULETUM > 6

Life is to be lived in the present, not in the mind-numbing pursuit of a better life after death. Their work helps keep them in a vital present, not drones in the mainstream beehive. Again, the process of making the work itself becomes a spiritual path of self-healing and by doing this calling they affect and help heal the world. There is much to be said about this concept of inner and outer. A dramatic example, though culturally different, can be seen in the Vodun figures of Benin and Togo. The pieces are an explosion of materials from blood to wood to iron and cloth. They are mysterious inside this patination. Color gives them meaning. the guts are on the outside. Inside and outside have become reversed. Suzanne Preston Blier has written a wonderful paragraph about this in her book African Vodun1 where she quotes M.M.Bakhtin’s observation on the grotesque in European folk art. She says: Bakhtin argues that the primacy and potency of the grotesque lie in its association with ideas of displeasure, disequilibrium, and change. He says: "The grotesque body…is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed….Thus the artistic logic of the grotesque image ignores the closed, smooth, impenetrable surface of the bodies, and retains only its excrescences ( sprouts, buds) and orifices, only that which leads beyond the body’s limited spaces or into the body’s depths." She goes on to say: “Through its emphasis on themes of exterior and interior, surface and depth, containment and exclusion, covering and exposure, separation and fusion, tension and release, control and ambiguity, the work conveys the image of an inverted body, one in which internal elements are exaggerated and internal and external spaces have been interpenetrated.” The Staelens take this even further by regarding the sculptures as aggressive protectors who not only provide amuletic coverage, but serve as observers and quantifiers of those humans who come in contact with them. “Our sculptures are guards. They protect us from our excesses, require us to have a life of discipline…” They note that the sculptures sort out their guests, that those who are not comfortable with the pieces tend not to be comfortable with the Staelens either. They attribute this to the fact that some cannot take that look at the inner self without discomfort. It can be seen that the Staelens work then is a perfect extension of what Bakhtin and Blier are talking about. This does not mean they are not beautiful in their fierce power. The bodies are open with all mystical parts exposed. They are filled with sacred spaces in which chaos has been controlled by the artists and woven into some kind of savage order. Of course this reflects a transference, a translation of the reclamation of their own lives into those of the artists’ exacting senses of process. Their internal heartsongs are translated into the feral protectionism of the pieces. As the population of this world intensifies and grows those birthing the pieces do as well. As any parent knows, the art of protection is a dangerous art, indeed. NY Feb 22, 2015


Blier, Suzanne Preston. African Vodun: Art, Psychology and Power. London: University of Chicago Press Ltd, 1995.




Personnage, 2013 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 38.5 x 17 x 12 inches / 97.8 x 43.2 x 30.5 cm GSS 23 FOREST AMULETUM > 10


Guerrier, 2015 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 51.57 x 15.75 x 9.84 inches / 131 x 40 x 25 cm GSS 47 FOREST AMULETUM > 12

Personnage, 2015 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 66 x 21 x 14 inches / 167.6 x 53.3 x 35.6 cm GSS 43



Totem, 2015 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 73 x 25 x 11 inches / 185.4 x 63.5 x 27.9 cm GSS 44




Princess, 2014 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 34 x 15.5 x 8 inches / 86.4 x 39.4 x 20.3 cm GSS 31 FOREST AMULETUM > 18

Personnage Indien, 2015 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 64 x 16 x 10 inches / 162.6 x 40.6 x 25.4 cm GSS 42 19 < FOREST AMULETUM



Personnage Totem, 2014 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 44 x 22 x 10 inches / 111.8 x 55.9 x 25.4 cm GSS 32 FOREST AMULETUM > 22

Personnage, 2015 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 69 x 19 x 11 inches / 175.3 x 48.3 x 27.9 cm GSS 41




Le Chasseur, 2015 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 42.52 x 12.99 x 7.09 inches / 108 x 33 x 18 cm GSS 46 FOREST AMULETUM > 26

Personnage, 2015 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 65.75 x 18.9 x 9.45 inches / 167 x 48 x 24 cm GSS 45




TĂŞte Noire, 2015 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 45 x 16 x 10 inches / 114.3 x 40.6 x 25.4 cm GSS 48 FOREST AMULETUM > 30

Cavalier, 2015 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 26.5 x 29 x 14 inches / 67.3 x 73.7 x 35.6 cm GSS 36



Cavalier, 2015 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 35 x 47 x 13 inches / 88.9 x 119.4 x 33 cm GSS 37



Cavalier, 2015 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 42 x 42 x 23 inches / 106.7 x 106.7 x 58.4 cm GSS 38



Cavalier, 2015 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 29 x 28 x 10 inches / 73.7 x 71.1 x 25.4 cm GSS 39



Cavalier, 2015 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 26 x 29 x 11 inches / 66 x 73.7 x 27.9 cm GSS 40




Personnage Violet, 2014 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 33 x 14.5 x 9 inches / 83.8 x 36.8 x 22.9 cm GSS 33 FOREST AMULETUM > 42

Totem , 2015 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 66 x 29 x 17 inches / 167.6 x 73.7 x 43.2 cm GSS 49



Totem , 2015 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 73 x 25 x 11 inches / 185.4 x 63.5 x 27.9 cm GSS 44




Personnage Soleil, 2014 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 42 x 20 x 9.5 inches / 106.7 x 50.8 x 24.1 cm GSS 30 FOREST AMULETUM > 48


Petit Personnage Rouge, 2015 Wood, metal, cloth, found objects 42 x 13 x 10 inches / 106.7 x 33 x 25.4 cm GSS 50 FOREST AMULETUM > 50


Copyright Š 2015 CAVIN-MORRIS GALLERY Cavin-Morris Gallery 210 Eleventh Ave, Ste. 201 New York, NY 10001 t. 212 226 3768 Catalogue design: Marissa Levien & Sam Richardson Photography: Jurate Veceraite FOREST AMULETUM > 52

Forest Amuletum- New Sculptures by Ghyslaine and Sylvain Staelens  
Forest Amuletum- New Sculptures by Ghyslaine and Sylvain Staelens  

This catalog documents an exciting exhibition of new sculptures by Ghyslaine and Sylvain Staelens with an essay by Randall Morris