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Art review: Thresholds at Chichester Cathedral

10 August 2018

Spirituality in the steel: Katy Hounsell-Robert visits ‘Thresholds’ at Chichester Cathedral

Chichester Cathedral

Resting Wing by Diane Maclean, in Chichester Cathedral

Resting Wing by Diane Maclean, in Chichester Cathedral

“WE STAND in life at midnight; we are always on the threshold of a new dawn,” Martin Luther King observed optimistically. Diane Maclean, in her five newly created sculptures at Chichester Cathedral, portrays in stainless steel and, unusually, plastic thresholds that we might encounter to enter a new experience, be it a journey, sanctuary, learning, or maybe a fresh approach to life.

These sculptures can be viewed in passing, but a richer experience is gained by sitting with them for a while or, where three are concerned, walking through or along them.

Road Untravelled, a 30-metre ribbon of gleaming stainless steel, which crosses the grass of the sacred burial ground “In Paradise” within the cloisters, is reminiscent of the labyrinth design on medieval church floors, which enables people in prayer or meditation to follow the twists and turns of a symbolic pilgrimage, hoping to arrive at a greater level of spiritual peace. In the heat of the day, a woman in deep thought was walking slowly, and not in the least self-consciously, following the curves and indentations for some time, and admitted that she found it very calming spiritually.

She then went on to the south-west lawn to walk through each portal of Threshold, composed of three stainless-steel empty doorways, seemingly all joined on one side, but in fact separate. She finally walked into and spent time in Circle of Light, situated in the north transept in front of the high wall displaying paintings of past Bishops.

This work is formed of five steel columns, 1.83 metres high, using a line of existing dark cathedral flagstones to form its own path through. It is strategically lit from concealed spotlighting that gives it a magical quality. A small queue of visitors were waiting to stand in the Circle, perhaps expecting some sort of spiritual awakening.

This is exactly how Maclean sees the purpose of her work: “all sorts of people going through making their own interpretation”.

Circle of Light by Diane Maclean, in Chichester Cathedral

Often in churches a fine piece of art will not be fully appreciated because it is not effectively lit, and one can rarely rely on the sun to flood through a rich stained-glass window to imbue a piece with colour. Making her sculpture visually effective in subdued lighting was something of a threshold to cross for Maclean herself, who had never worked in a cathedral until the curator, Jacquiline Cresswell, invited her to prepare an exhibition for Chichester to harmonise with the surroundings.

She had started out as a portrait-painter, but, after 15 years, influenced by the American artist David Smith and Alexander Calder’s sculptures using agricultural machines in natural open spaces, took a degree in sculpture. After working in stone and wood, she moved away from the human shape and discovered fulfilment in creating large geometric shapes in steel, placed in juxtaposition with natural surroundings.

She says that members of her family worked in art or engineering; so both are in her blood. Initially, she did her own welding and building, but a commission for a large piece at the Arrivals hall at Stansted airport was beyond her skills, and she had to call on the services of Birch engineering, with whom she has worked closely since 1992.

Maclean is a Fellow of the Royal British Society of Sculptors and Professional Member of the Society of Scottish Artists, and has exhibited all over the world. One of her best-known large environmental pieces is Mountain, commissioned by the Natural History Museum in 2005 for a summer exhibition. A huge walk-through installation, six metres high by six metres wide, and 17.5 long, was based on the growth of crystals, and used recordings of stones falling and colliding, and inset images of minerals. This is now in the grounds of Hertfordshire University.

She is unwilling to use paint to colour her pieces, but experiments with materials that reflect natural light. Trinity, a large bright pendant of three concentric circles, hanging high above the Arundel Screen in the nave, seemingly the threshold of the ultimate state of being one with the Almighty, is made of two transparent layers of acrylic, enclosing a thin layer of translucent 3M radiant tape, crinkled to make it multifaceted. Under light, the sculpture reacts, appearing blue and green in darker areas, and red and yellow in lighter.

Perhaps the most decorative piece, and the easiest to to relate to life, is Resting Wing, which suggests pausing on the threshold of taking flight. It lies delicately on a stone tomb in the south aisle, where one can sit near by to view it. It seems like polished copper but is, in fact, composed of laser-cut mirror-polished stainless-steel “feathers” of many different lengths, layered together and dipped in colourless oxide to let the light give a gleaming effect. One visitor wrote that it was “as though an angel had passed by and dropped a wing”.

If possible, Maclean uses natural sounds like water, wind, the human voice, and even bagpipes to accompany her sculptures. At Chichester, she finds the organ music very atmospheric, but more than anything the “aweful” silence enriched by 900 years of worship there.

Entrance is, as usual, free. Ruth Poyner, the Visitor Services Officer, has prepared an excellent illustrated leaflet to introduce the exhibition.

“Thresholds” is at Chichester Cathedral until 30 September.

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