To go through the gate into Wendy Earle’s wooded valley is to step into a parallel universe as surprising and yet convincing as any created by Philip Pullman. But his worlds can only be entered in imagination. The enchantment of Earle’s world is that you can walk through it, see it, hear it, smell it and get its mud on your boots.
It is in many ways a whimsical world, with an undercurrent of the sinister. Along the steep track, against the rock face, hang clusters of velvety-black birdboxes - or are they ossuaries? Look up into the trees, and you will spot strange caterpillars and arthropods as big as lobsters clinging to the bark. Turn a corner, and lying in wait along a stream bank is a row of dog-kennels. By which I mean they are kennels which are also dogs - or at least some kind of creatures full of alien life.
There are signs of more human occupation, too. Shamanistic masks stare down at you from the gloom, little naked clay women dangle from cords strung across the water, and by a marshy pool a conclave of totemic spears, elaborately painted and adorned with hair or antlers, dangle from the branches. They stir in the breeze, leaving you with the impression that your arrival frightened off the members of some prehistoric tribe in the act of hanging up their offerings to the god of hunting.
There is in fact a votive quality to much of Earle’s work; it honours both the spirits of wild places and the ancestors who worshipped them. Enter, for instance, a shed near the house and you will find yourself in a gallery of bird-shrines, lit from within. Later and larger versions in the surrounding trees have interiors of gold leaf which glow without illumination. Across their exteriors flit silhouettes of flying birds, like cloud-shadows. Birds are an ancient symbol of the soul.
Even pieces which are indoors point to the outdoors; they are a world away from the precious High Art that is insulated in the synthetic, protective environment of museums. Earle’s sculptures and installations are intended to live in symbiosis with a natural setting. Real bluetits complete her birdboxes by nesting in them; the sandcastle-sized, crenellated keeps are colonised by ivy. Even the human faces or forms have something elemental about them, some quality of the ancient Cambrian rock that underlies the grassy hilltops of their west Wales habitat. In that sense her oeuvre is reminiscent of Henry Moore and Elisabeth Frink - except that it does not take itself quite so seriously.
This lack of self-importance is partly to do with Wendy Earle’s choice of media. She works in neither marble nor bronze, but plywood and ceramic - the latter a material which suggests intimate, domestic, almost playful processes: kneading, mixing, moulding, baking. The texture of ceramic brings the sculptures close to living things; it is porous and breathing, like flesh, and one feels without consciously thinking about it that it has been worked by fingers rather than with metal tools. It reminds us that the name Adam - the first man, whom Jahweh moulded from clay and breathed life into - comes from the Hebrew word for ‘earth’. Her plywood shrines too, for all their lightness, are of the earth: terracotta and glittering mica and malachite and gold leaf. All her work could carry the motto “There is another world, but it is this one”.