Earth + Water + Fire
by Hannah Serrano
The Virginian-Pilot 12/11/07

Where mathematical functions manifest in nature – plates of baked earth fitted perfectly across a cracked desert, towers of spiraling coral rising out of a deep seabed, a flock of birds moving with exact efficiency like a single organism, rings of memory recorded within a tree trunk – this is where May Britton’s sculptures reside.

“It’s almost like organic Modernism,” she described it, when I spoke with her at Lorrie Saunders’ ArtGallery.

“Some things have a ‘wow’ factor, and some things are more subtle,” added Saunders, speaking about Britton’s nuanced works of sculpted clay, bronze and wax, which fill her Historic Ghent gallery space. “These works grow on you and develop as you look at them and live with them.

“Like Andy Goldsworthy meets Manuel Neri, she noted succinctly.”

And a touch of mid-career Brancusi, I would add.

Britton, the first-generation American child of Filipino immigrant parents, is well aware of her placement in art history. After growing up in Arlington, VA, studying business administration, returning to university to study art after more than a decade in the work force, raising a 12-year-old son, and cultivating her well-honed talent over 17 years as a working artist, Britton is certainly also well aware of her place in the world. Her years of study, work and travel arise subconsciously in the intelligent, well-edited exhibition, titled Dirt.

With Goldsworthy, Britton shares philosophical ideals about site-specificity and land art. Though fit for any private home, exhibition space, or public site, many of her sculptures are particular to this area. For instance, the amoeboid shapes of her Organic Forms: 13 Modules are based on a cross-section pattern from the remains of a cedar tree trunk that Britton collected near the Hermitage after a violent storm. Her mobile, Flock, is also made from local materials – locust pods fallen around the Hague in the midst of autumn. Strung from copper wire, the pods create an ornate curtain of burnt red-black that appears as a flock of blackbirds suspended in mid-flight.

“It’s nice to have a piece that’s transient. These are going to degrade eventually, and you’ll just have the wire. We have this need to memorialize things, and that’s what this art is there for – to keep something tangible, said Britton, describing the same ideas of inertia and transformation that Goldsworthy and the land environmental artists investigated in their temporal-based works. The mobile, though fragile-looking, is actually quite durable and was able to withstand the exhibition’s crowded opening thanks to careful, intricate construction.

“It took me a long time to figure out how to do it. I made three prototypes just to decide what the structure was going to be, and I finally came up with this one. I was trying to come up with the simplest, most efficient pattern with the most visual impact. Each one of these modules [on which the cascading patterns are based] is five locust pods. It’s a very simple mathematical solution.”

The stratified patterns in her sculptures Ripple, Coral Sea and Echo, are also based on visually impactful mathematical solutions.

“These structural layers are called coiling. It’s an ancient Japanese technique in which you build up layer upon layer. I liken it to layers in earth strata, or layers in the structures of biological units. Inside you can see all my fingerprints as I pull up each layer. It’s not that I wanted the inside to look that way necessarily; it happened while I was building.”

In this, Britton’s work inherits from Neri a painterly quality – her fingerprints are literally evidence of the artist’s hand.

“[Sculpture is] tactile, immediate,” she explains. “With painting or any other [medium] you’ve got some kind of tool between you and the material. With sculpture, as soon as you touch it, something happens. It’s very physical, almost therapeutic.”

That painterly quality continues into the figures that make up Britton’s Continuum series, in which she builds tall, fragmented, columnar figures.

“This series is called Continuum because I was trying to connect the whole idea of human and nature, and structure and form. Ancient Greek sculpture is stacked like this.”

The evolution suggested in this series is visibly carried over into several Greek-like torsos, and into a trio of attenuated, copper leaf-coated figures, titled Alchemy, Liquid, and Copper Figure, which seem to echo the great modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s transitional period between early Rodin-like sculpture and his later works of polished abstraction.

Not only does Britton draw out the character of the environment as well as the physical and philosophical implications of the earth elements in historical sculpture, Britton also successfully maintains the integrity of the medium.

“Even with figurative pieces, I leave a lot of material, so you still have the imperfections and the quality of the clay. Cycle Simulation is the extreme of that – the nature of the clay has taken over.”

Cycle Simulation, a meticulously designed and made work and the stand out piece of the show, Britton draws inspiration from Sedona, the Grand Canyon, and the California desert. The realism is enhanced by imprints of “raindrops” created by a Pollock-like process of splattering water on the clay canvas before drying. As well, Britton incorporated subtle nuances in color from baked red to rust to toasted brown, by varying the degree to which the clay was mixed, the amount of iron oxide added, and the amount of heat applied.

“Rather than cutting out every single piece, I poured a slab of wet clay and force-dried it with fans so that it would crack. It’s not as simple as it looks. If you look under each piece, it’s coded.

“I knew that a lot of it would be somewhat random, and I think that’s beautiful. If I had tried to copy cracked earth exactly, it wouldn’t be the same. And I knew I had to take that chance. The play is a really careful balance.”