Infinite Folds by Barbara Chase-Riboud @ Serpentine North

This is the first UK solo exhibition of American artist, novelist and poet Barbara Chase-Riboud. Born in 1939 in Philadelphia Chase-Riboud now lives and works in Paris. She’s most famous for her sculptures. The exhibition also includes half a dozen works on paper but these are eclipsed by the size, presence and elegance of her big metal-and-fabric sculptures.

Early experiments

Chase-Riboud is a good example of the kind of artist who, when starting out, experiments widely, copying and incorporating elements from contemporaries and predecessors, before they work their way through to a new look and feel, an innovation of their own, and then really hunker down on it, making it their brand, exploring all its ramifications. Francis Bacon worked his way through early experiments to stumble across blurred images of screaming men in claustrophobic spaces and spent the rest of his career mining and exploring this discovery.

And so this beautifully laid out exhibition at the Serpentine North Gallery kicks off with three or four early works, which are biggish sculptures, made of gnarly, clotted metal arranged in skeletal, organic shapes, displaying the influence of Giacometti and other post-war Modernist sculptors.

Walking Angel by Barbara Chase-Riboud (1962) © Barbara Chase-Riboud

These are interesting but are totally eclipsed by the style of work which made her name and dominate her output. In these, cascades of wool, rope, braided fabrics and silk tumble to the ground from eerily sculpted, angular metal forms. Very roughly, and from a distance, they could be taken as lush curtains tumbling down from metallic pelmets.

Installation view of ‘Infinite Folds’ by Barbara Chase-Riboud @ Serpentine North (photo by the author)

It’s only as you approach that you begin to get a number of very strong sense impressions. First of all there’s the dysjunction between the hard cold metal pelmet and the flowing cascading wool and skeins and silk and braid which tumbles from them. Something very powerful and impossible to put into words is happening.

The pelmet

You can consider each of the two elements in isolation, though your attention is torn between them. At the top is the cold metal, itself distorted and twisted into shapes which suggest folds of fabric but somehow angular, forbidding, almost threatening. As you move through the exhibition you see her working through variations and experiments with different shapes and scales and patterns of the ‘pelmet’.

Installation view of ‘Infinite Folds’ by Barbara Chase-Riboud @ Serpentine North (photo by the author)

Clearly, in this example, the metal element takes up more than half the sculpture, is more than merely a ‘pelmet’, is a haunting collocation of fragments and slivers, open to any number of interpretations.

The fabric

The second element, of course, is the cascades of fabric I’ve mentioned. You can see how these are made of long skeins of wool, some punctuated by knots, intermingled with heavily braided and plaited material.

Like the metal ‘pelmets’ I found myself responding to these in different ways. Some looked really soft and welcoming. I could imagine nestling down among the very soft and comfy-looking fabric of the first, black, example, above. Whereas the golden cascades look a bit more ‘formal’ and subtly off-putting. They reminded me of the braids and tassels you get at old-style theatres, which often have plush curtains not only on the stage but sometimes above doors into the main part of the theatre, and the feeling of red plush theatre seats which are sometimes lined with decorated binding.

So I found something ‘theatrical’ in a lot of the works, but other visitors might see and feel something completely different. Whatever the connotations it evokes for you, they have an immensely sensual impression on the mind. You really really want to reach out and touch them, to compare the feel of the stiff cold metal and then the yielding and sensual strands and skeins.

‘Numero Rouge’ by Barbara Chase-Riboud (2021) © Barbara Chase-Riboud (photo by the author)

Colour

There’s black ones and golden ones and bright red ones and chrome ones.

Installation view of ‘Infinite Folds’ by Barbara Chase-Riboud @ Serpentine North (photo by the author)

There are copious wall labels which assign different works to different periods and projects, some with very literary or philosophical or political aims. For example, the red one, two above, titled ‘Numero Rouge’, refers to the way that Chase-Riboud ‘was captivated by the use of the colour in the art and architecture of Beijing’s Forbidden City where architectural features such as roofs and columns are constructed of red tiles or lacquered in red respectively’.

There is also a political, Black Lives Matter thread running through the exhibition, with Chase-Riboud – herself an African American woman – referencing Black icons such as Malcolm X and Josephine Baker. In another sequence she commemorated Sarah Baartman, the Khoikoi woman from southern Africa who was demeaningly put on display in London and Paris in the nineteenth century, under the name of the ‘Hottentot Venus’

But I found the works themselves so powerful that I tended to lose track of which work was meant to be carrying which meaning and just enjoyed studying the ‘formal’ aspects of the sculptures, enjoying them as clever, inventive themes and variations – with the fundamental principle or idea of the dramatic contrast between warm fabric and cold metal running throughout, providing a kind of unifying metaphor.

Installation view of ‘Infinite Folds’ by Barbara Chase-Riboud @ Serpentine North (photo by the author)

Cleopatra

The Serpentine North Gallery consists of a square corridor which runs round two inner rectangular spaces. The main corridor space has smooth white plaster walls. The cut-through spaces have been left with the rough brickwork exposed. One of these cut-throughs contained more looming black ‘pelmet’ works of the standard design.

Installation view of Infinite Folds by Barbara Chase-Riboud @ Serpentine North © Barbara Chase-Riboud 2022. Photo © Jo Underhill, courtesy Serpentine

But the other one houses several pieces which were notable departures from the pelmet motif.

Chase-Riboud has travelled widely, maybe more so than most American artists who tend to be quite parochial (after all, they’ve got a whole continent on their doorstep). And so she has taken inspiration from a wide variety of cultures and traditions. In China she visited the Han Dynasty burial tomb which contained the bodies of Prince Liu Sheng and Princess Dou Wan. Both bodies are encased in traditional burial suits made from delicate jade plaques sewn together with gold wire.

These were the inspiration for a series of works looking distinctively different from the pelmet sculptures. Here Chase-Riboud created works assembled from thousands of bronze squares, intricately sewn together with bronze wire. The series is named after Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.

‘Cleopatra’s Bed’ by Barbara Chase-Riboud (1997) © Barbara Chase-Riboud (photo by the author)

These have an explicitly feminist aim which I’ll quote in full:

Chase-Riboud evokes the power, energy and desire associated with Cleopatra through objects that seemingly could be found either in her long-lost tomb or within the contents of her home. [The Cleopatra series is part of] Chase-Riboud’s interest in exploring ‘power as wielded by women’.

Another series of works refer to the goddess Shakti, the female consort of the god Shiva, ‘who is said to represent cosmic energy, fertility and female creativity… [in which Chase-Riboud explores] the the interconnectedness of the poetic, spiritual and sexual experience.’ Bearing that in mind, I wondered what this striking piece represents.

Installation view of ‘Infinite Folds’ by Barbara Chase-Riboud @ Serpentine North

Promotional video

Chase-Riboud the writer

Alongside her work as a sculptor, Chase-Riboud has published volumes of poetry, historical fiction and a memoir.

1974 From Memphis & Peking (poetry)
1979 Sally Hemings (novel)
1986 Valide: A Novel of the Harem
1987 Portrait of a Nude Woman as Cleopatra (poetry)
1989 Echo of Lions (novel)
1994 The President’s Daughter (novel)
2003 Hottentot Venus (novel)
2014 Every Time a Knot is Undone, a God is Released (poetry)
2022 The Great Mrs. Elias (novel)
2022 I Always Knew: A Memoir (based on letters she wrote to her mother, Vivian Mae Chase, between 1957 and 1991)


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