Clifford Rainey
Sculpture & Drawings
1967 – 1987

2 April – 2 May 1987

23May – 20 June 1987


Paradox, wit, superb craftsmanship and taste make the work of Northern Irish Sculptor Clifford Rainey.  Traveling is a consuming passion for the artist and a necessary means to explore the cross-fertilization of cultures.  Rainey has worked in Iceland, studied in Denmark, traveled extensively in the U.S.A. and Africa but it was a trip to Turkey and Greece in 1974 that is central to his development as an artist.  
    While formal aspects of Greek aesthetics have only indirectly affected the work of some Irish artists (e.g. Patrick Scott) Rainey has responded directly to Greek example by way of archaeological remains.  His themes are decay and time; his materials glass, bronze and marble, their inherent characteristics juxtaposed with are and irony.  
    Harold Osborne writing of Greek aesthetics has drawn our attention to the literary nature of the Greek experience.
“The aesthetic terminology of the ancient was evolved primarily in the context of their theory of public speaking or rhetoric and has been applied in the first place to poetics and secondarily to art.  As will be seen, their conception of art was primarily a literary one.  Ut pictura Piesis; a painting is like a poem.”

This conception of art the Irish share with the Greeks.  Something else we share is the concept of light as dramatic protagonist.  The light in Greece emphasizes form, the Irish light dissipates form and is forever changing.  To quote Seamus Heaney, the poet, writing T P Flanagan, the artist,

“…What invites the eye back again and again is the fetch of water and air, their constant flirtation, their eternal triangle with a moody light.”

The Greek light Rainey has describes as “white light”  - its attraction understandable in an artist whose principle material has been glass.  He has made the material his own and ranks along with the best in the U.K. who use it.  

Among his visits to antique sites has been Ephesus reminding him of Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias,’ the fragment and infinity:

“…My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!  Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare.  The lone and level sands stretch for away.”

He has also incorporated into his work references to the failure of conservation on the Acropolis sanctuary.  The conservationists replaced the original bronze ties, coated in lead to prevent rusting, with iron rods which have since rusted causing damage.  Rainey was quick to see the sculptural possibilities of this destructive and weathering process in his own work.  Rusting metal pins beak the purity of his glass ‘object’ and as on the Acropolis

“…the metal is cracking the glass which is actually there to hold it up in the first place.”

This oxidation of metal and the development over time of a patina of verdigris on surface underlines the concept of metamorphosis that is at the essence of his art making.  The column becomes “St Sebastian or Belfast after Pallaiuolo” broken like a rock rift – a sacred icon which then is replaced by an icon of contemporary international currency – the coke bottle.  The drums of this ‘coke’ column, pierced by rusting arrows, eventually fall and disintegrate and we are back to the fragment and the sands of time – glass as material and idea.  
    Rainey’s work then, in the spirit of ancient Greek precedent, is about ideas rather than superficial appearances.  His interests in antiquity has to do with order and tradition; the past as a way of understanding the future.  The fragment he deploys to bridge time asking the spectator to extend and complete the experience.  A he has said,

    “I don’t think I’ve ever made a piece of work that is actually complete.”

In sculptures such as Erachtheion and its variations Clifford Rainey dealt with abstract forms – the architectural elements of column and plinth.  With St Sebastian he returns to the figure.  This new concern was suggested by his drawings – a continuously on-going activity which often dictates changes of direction.  With St Sebastian Rainey’s art becomes more autobiographical; his sculptures doubly coded.  
    It is almost impossible to flick through any standard history of Renaissance art without turning up a St Sebastian figure; an image of martyrdom and suffering.  For Rainey it is an image from his own past by way of the image bank of art history.  Art history was the main source of experiencing art in Belfast before he was shocked by the ‘live’ contemporary art of London and later America.  Rainey claims he was thinking more about art and the concept of time than politics in this important piece.  The head and shoulders are highly polished and pristine, looking to the future while the rougher rust impregnated body is rooted in the past.  
    Slicing the body and slightly displacing the parts carries over form the way in which an antique column naturally disintegrates with time i.e. along the line of weakness between each column drum.  Slicing is also a practical device for easier casting since to cast a large figurative piece would be very difficult.  Craft serving an idea again.  
    The coke versions of St Sebastian take the seriousness out of it.  The coke bottle is a curiously double coded icon.  It is international but at the same time peculiarly American.  The sensuous female curving of the bottle connects with the entasis or slight bulging of a Greek column.  When shown in David Hendriks Gallery, Dublin, in 1982 Aidean Dunne could see the risks but acknowledge the effects   

“He has the nerve, too, to take a hackneyed symbol – the coke bottle – and prise an unforeseen and ironic use out of it.  His work gains from cross-referring, for he swaps and substitutes symbols constantly.”
The coke bottle, although still whimsical took the mere punning of the earlier “palm tree” series much further.  It gained from its natural evolution within a developing body of interrelated ideas.  

Calculation, engineering and structure – as form and armature – characterize work inspired by a visit to Beauvais Cathedral France in 1979.  Rainey makes ‘models’ with a jeweler’s precision.  These ‘models’ were also shown at the Hendriks exhibition referred to above.  They used the principle at work in building an arch and the role of the keystone.  Aiden Dunne in the same review described the atmosphere in the gallery as electric and commented,

“Clifford Rainey is cautious like an archaeologist on a speculative dig.  He taps-taps away until the paradigmatic idea is revealed.  You stand in the midst of his exhibition and look around at fragments of something that was once coherent and complete, until time reduced it.  His work is problematic in the sense that it is unremittingly allusive and fragmentary.  You have to put the pieces together pieces of pieces.”  

One work on show there was ‘Mustique,’ in glass, bronze and Mourne granite.  It sets up twin arches one using an armature support, the other slings a glass keystone as a visual link in tentiaon.  As Aiden Dunne pointed our about these ‘models.’  

“They are delicate and precise and have no problem persuading us that they approach a reality.  They to that extent mimetic.”  

Rainey admores the role and achievement of the individual in the past.  High technology often demands group activity.  In the commissioned project for Sun Life Insurance he combined references to antiquity (Icarus) with the Victorian age of transport and engineering and the achievement of I.K. Brunel.  The project which was never actually built was ambitious.  (Like other such commissions it spanned a range of related works.) It occupied, as a piece of environment art, a site some 75’ long by 20’ wide and was to stand in relation to a new bronze tinted building in Bristal, located near a noisy traffic roundabout.  
    The aim of the work was to transplant another culture (classical antiquity) to a city centre junction – a gesture towards tranquility – but also to pay tribute to a son of Bristol, I.K. Brunel, whom Rainey admires for being a man of his time.  
    The project comprised of there elements on a stepped site; a draped column; a shattered Icarus fallen off a truncated column, encased in a glass cube and an empty but raised plinth partially encased.  For me the most interesting feature of this tripartite work in glass and metal is in the ‘Brunel’ Column or ‘Bristol Column.’ In the ‘Bristol Column’ the column is silver-plated bronze and glass becomes a potent symbol shot through with poignant surrealism.  It is a more sculptural solution to the pop surrealism at work in a piece such as ‘Waiting for the morrow with the knowledge that yesterday has gone’ (1974) where the street furniture has closed itself down for the siesta.  
    One normally associates a column with solidity.  In the ‘Bristol Column’ Rainey subverts this solidity, its very nature, by making it of open steel rods in the way he thinks Brunel would have designed it.  He further brings the structural forces to a point for practical reasons to do with the fact that underground there was to be a car park. On this point the column would swivel.  
    This tribute to Brunel was to be covered with a billowing glass drape (suggested by earlier drawings make of columns at Highgate Cemetery, London.)  The glass box would contain the broken image of Icarus inside and add to the preciousness of the concept.  The whole scheme was to be illuminated at night.  

Cultural concerns were also at work in the Jeddah monument.  In fact he reversed the process at work in Bristol by conceiving the Jeddah monument as something which was already there.  Like Bristol the location for this large portal is a roundabout.  Rainey turns the roundabout into symbol for the confluence of cultures, old and new – the dichotomy of identity at work in Saudia Arabia.  As a developing country Saudia Arabia experiences like other nations the problem associated with accommodating national interest and identity to international trends.  Old Jeddah was fast disappearing while “new” Jeddah was encroaching upon this traffic junction.  
    Rainey insists on visiting the site for any sculptural project on hand and was fascinated by various sand and basalt hills on the site to provide a traffic oasis upon which would rise a huge portal arch – a doorway to the future but of the past, as suggested by a line from Joyce in “Ulysses,”

    “The present is a doorway through which the future becomes the past.”

With the result that when new Jeddah completely surrounded this mound there would be a reference at least to an earlier culture.        

The post and lintel arch (32’) is made of local undressed granite into which is fixed vertically an international style glass box a la Mies Van der Rohe.  At night the interior lighting displays the geometrical grid of the steel supporting struts reflecting the Islamic love for pattern.  Rainey, who read the Koran while Jeddah clearly wanted to induce something of a spiritual quality about the site, to create an air of calm adist noise and traffic.  Oversized steps, deliberately worn back to ape time and sue, lead to the sculpted glass doorway making it look smaller from a distance.  The visitor can see himself reflected in the glass or look through it to the future.  Standing stones placed around this traffic sanctuary when seen from above, face Mecca complete the iconography.  

Both Bristol and the Jeddah commissions were large scale, the sculptural commission for Queen’s University Library was small scale and of limited budget.  Here Rainey wanted to use slabs of stone with a horizontal emphasis rather than vertical as at Jeddah and slice one of them open to revail knowledge as the written word but also as visual communication.  The idea recalls Michelangelo’s belief that a block of marble already contained the form and it was his task as sculptor merely to release it.  
    These stones as resurrection of knowledge are polished along the faces of the slice which bear markings on their surface.  On one plane markings are inlaid in cast iron and their image is etched on the other plane.  The Celtic continuous journey as a graphic device or quest, a recurring symbol with the artist, is used together with other simple linear motifs while in reverse on the largest cast iron incision Rainey quotes the first line of an opening quatrain of Michael Longley’s poem “Sulpicia,”

“Round this particular date I have drawn a circle For Mars, dressed myself up for him, dressed to kill; When I let my hair down I am a sheaf of wheat And I bring in the harvest without cutting it.”

The geometrical references in this poem ‘lay our,’ ‘tangent,’ ‘circle’ and ‘circumference’ and their tactile markings would easily attract Rainey’s sense of mathematical ordering, setting and tracing.  
    The same principle of impermanence or art as deterioration as in the Erachthion series is at work here.  Rainey deliberately chose cast iron as a material which will eventually erode away but in the meantime stain the granite – art as destruction of knowledge; word as vulnerable revealed truth.  
    The project was wrought with difficulties and as located presently on the lawn at Queen’s University, Belfast, not fully realised.  The artist had intended that these stones should have occupied a sunken earth pit offering only a glimpse to the approaching seeker of knowledge, a fort circle in which the slabs would be almost hidden by vegetation.       

In 1974/5 Rainey traveled in Africa and St Sebastian reflects something of that journey through the idea of fetish, it clear contains.  But Africa was to produce more direct examples of influence in his ‘Masai Series’ a tribute to that beautiful but threatened people.  The most notable features of these tall and statuesque warriors are the legs which in turn symbolise their existence, their nomadic life-style.  Rainey here too was playing with time.  While archaeologists seek to reveal the past, governments want to change the past.  In this case restrict the movement of this African tribe.  Rainey anticipates their unfortunate future if people get their way and provides a glass, vulnerable monument to that future when they are resurrected by anthropologists.  He inverts the future with regard to the past.  There is something of the hunter’s trophy about these very elegant but pathetic studies in glass – the fragility of the material being much more appropriate and expressive then bronze.  

The moral concern of animal skins used in the fashion industry sparked off a series of drawings using a cheetah in a number of different images.  Rainey is best when he simplifies and removes extraneous compositional details as when a cheetah’s spots drain down into a column: an imperial surrealism of the double coding of confrontation or when a female nude puts her hand on the hunting and hunted animal’s skin.  
    The ultimate irony of these highly detailed studies of the cheetah is that they were made from a taxidermists in Nairobi since after six months in Africa he had failed to catch a single glimpse of the great creature in the open bush.  Yet the naturalism and sensuous bulk of the big cat is perfectly caught.  
    Early drawings recorded phototropic development of plant forms and studies of dancers in movement.  By the mid 1970’s Rainey had acquired a graphic ability second to none and comparable only to Colin Harrison.  Reviewing an exhibition of his work in 1977 Dorothy Walker could comment about a double portrait of “Joan Chatterly and Roy Willliams”

“…he achieves an intensely dense black, built up in a layer after layer of pencil in a virtuoso performance which goes from the lightest, most delicate line drawing to this impressive planer denseness.  This virtuosity is used to make a spare, flat statement in the Egyptian manner, where the blank white pauses of the paper itself read as sharply as the precise black drawing.”   

“Head” (1986), a deeply autobiographical work, nearly ten years later technically extends the same means to tap a more personal source.  

It is, however, the two commissioned portrait drawings owned by the Ulster Museum that are perhaps best known to an Irish audience.  These are the sculptor F.E. McWilliams and the painter William Scott.  
    Clifford Rainey is never content just to make a ‘straight’ portrait.  In the drawing of William Scott, Rainey is concerned again with inversion and subversion.  The subject, Scott, is physically small in height but big in reputation.  In this portrait study of the older painter Rainey takes one of Scott’s typical works, increases it in scale and turns it into a negative version of the original.  Scott is split between the canvas and Lough Erne in the background.  The traditional foreground is subverted by the simple means of “Egyptian” feet in profile.  
    In the F.E. McWilliams drawing the viewer is expected to complete the picture – the fragment at work again – with only the head and right hand being completed as traditional points of focus in portraiture.    

There has always been a distinction between the commissioned formal portrait drawing and drawings where Rainey explores ideas and feelings which find expression eventually through sculptural form.  In the last few years drawings as thinking process was running far ahead of possible sculptural outlets and resulted in a series which were far freer than anything hitherto produced.  
    In the past Rainey had produced beautifully wrought but tightly controlled ‘academic’ drawings, now he had broken the classical composition and moved more towards the primitive.  Not that this was merely a formal reawakening to a looser style but coincided with a period of personal stress and something of a mid-life crises.  In an earlier drawing, Falling (1978) Rainey compares himself to Michelangelo and his achievement at a similar age.  And rightly falls off his own block.  
    In Michelangelo’s “David,” the raised left hand is in keeping with the medieval notion of the left side of the body being open and vulnerable to evil, and for six months Rainey drew only with his left hand as a form of liberation.  The hand increasingly became almost obsessive as man’s mark – his legacy and achievement.
    The results were to be seen at recent exhibitions in Belfast and Dublin and New York in 1986.  
      In some drawings the Celtic spiral journey becomes an irritable colon syndrome of personal stress.  Man gets trapped in an idea on an island.  
    The work in these shows was exploratory work in progress – not a searching for deep  roots.  Some of the work drew upon Cu Chulainn from a society where one could be both a warrior and a poet without serious contradiction – respect for nature but disregard for life.  But other cultures share that phenomenon.  It was a voyage of discovery – of travel.  Rainey’s roots are not necessarily in the Celtic tradition and he ahs approached it in the same way as he had approached finding out about the Masai or the North American Indian.  It is a search for marks and symbols as a cross-cultural experience; something more to find our about.  
    In the same exhibition while the drawings were a clear point of departure as were the related steel ‘cut out’ drawings the ‘Virgin’ continued Rainey’s fascination with time and duality.  The installation’s glass virgin is an androgynous figure between childhood and maturity – a symbol of innocence fixed in timeless glass.  Rainey was inspired by lines from Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet,”

“The beauty of the Virgin, a being that has not yet achieved anything, is motherhood that beings to sense itself and to prepare, anxious and yearning.”

He reflects upon the idea that something can be wonderful because nothing has happened yet.  The glass bowl or font of water to which the figure gazes completes the zen-like experience.  
    A bowl when first in use is merely a functional object but when dug up from the past becomes something else; it offers the traces of the society that produced it.  All too often nowadays if someone makes a bowl it goes straight into a museum collection bypassing the cultural use for it, becoming instantly an art object.  Rainey’s bowl has been buried a long time before excavation from a layered archaeological site.  
    In his new work Clifford Rainey is burning back the remains of an old site – wood scorched to black earth – to start again.  This exhibition is a timely taking of stock for this Northern Irish artist.  


Liam Kelly is a lecturer in Art and Design,
History/Theory, Faculty of Art and
Design, University of Ulster at Belfast and
A Vice-President of the International
Association of Art Critics.  
He is currently preparing a book on art in