23 Sandra Cardew


Born Detroit, 1947 / BFA, MFA Wayne State University, Detroit / Lives in Royal Oak, Michigan

Sandra Cardew’s strange figurative works emerge fully formed from a place that is both totally familiar yet completely unknowable. At their core is a profound command of gesture that is heart-wrenching, but impossible to stop looking at. That these gestures emanate from hybrid anthropomorphic figures so otherworldly that even the artist can’t explain where they come from, just adds to their disorienting qualities. At times it seems that the only thing stopping the pieces exploding from the power of the contradictory emotions they invoke is the suture-like stitching that literally and metaphorically holds the oddly-collaged parts together.

While Cardew’s work may be too laden with hidden meanings and possibilities to be reduced to autobiography, it does contain notable autobiographical content. This appears in the obvious sense of relating to incidents and concerns in her life, but also less directly through displaying traces of her personal trajectory. As a child in a family where art was not considered a potential career, Cardew studied ballet, and learned needlecraft from her mother. After training to be a nurse, and starting a young family, she felt an overwhelming need to return to her dance practice, and consequently taught, performed and choreographed work over an intense, and exhilarating, 10 year period. This passage of her life came to an abrupt and emotionally devastating end due to the onset of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Subsequently she directed her creative energies into the less physically demanding world of visual art, pursuing first a late-life BFA and later an MFA. In works such as The Surrogate, Bird Mother #10, Ex #14, Star Dancer and Rejection it is possible to see recurring themes such as memory, loss, the limits and failure of the body, childhood, the dancer’s sense of flight and use of gesture, and the nurse/mother’s desire to heal.

A constant undercurrent in Cardew’s work is the human collective unconscious and its interaction with an animist sense of the supernatural. Her personal talisman is the bird, which she features regularly in her work, exploring its vulnerability, and suggesting associations between flight and dance. Often the bird is paired with a stronger protective partner, or itself takes on the role of the protector (see, for example, the Bird Mother Series). Other recurring anthropomorphic animal figures in her work are not always so directly recognizable, but often seem to contain elements of the horse, the rabbit, and the deer. Cardew stresses that her process is intuitive and spontaneous rather than narrative-driven and conscious, and hence she may know instinctively when a direction feels right or wrong, but not know exactly where it is coming from, or heading. In this way she leaves room for her own and/or the viewer’s unconscious in the work.

More complex “stage-like” works such as Myth of Sisyphus, or Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hour Glass (inspired by painter and writer Bruno Schultz’s novel of the same name) show Cardew’s background in theater design. As well as allowing the interaction between groups of characters, they also allow for recurring elements, such as the ladder, the rope, the pulley and the wheel. There is a palpable sense of both precariousness and inescapability in many of these tableaux, as typified by No Exit (inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous play of that name.)

Cardew considers herself a liminal figure, sitting on the boundary between an art world she doesn’t feel totally part of, and a traditional family life disconnected from the themes of her art practice. Fiber arts such as stitching, sewing, and embroidery perhaps form a bridge between the two. For a long while she felt awkward bringing these domestic aspects of her life into her art, but in recent years she has made them an integral part of her work, using the sewing together of disparate parts as a metaphor for healing, and extending the processes beyond their traditional use. For example, in the recent piece, Woman with Spirit Doll, she uses embroidery (or, strictly speaking, the reverse of the embroidered cloth) to represent faces with an almost paint-like expressiveness. Like much of Cardew’s work, it is a piece that both staggers fellow artists, and connects powerfully with people who may never have engaged with art on such a meaningful level before.

Steve Panton, May 2015


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