The Intervals Between The Stars: The geometry and chaos of Isla Chaney

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October 19, 2012 by Jake Cantona

So easy to look at, so hard to define[1]

All I know, said Seamus Heaney, beginning a poem about making, is a door into the dark.[2]  Heaney uses the extended metaphor of the smithy as a way of exploring the act of making, and it is a phrase that (along with much else) that comes again to mind each time I find myself outside the door of the ramshackle building, tucked into the corner of a yard at the back of a rundown estate, that is Isla Chaney’s workshop.

Chaney works, in the spaces and gaps that life allows, in the spaces and gaps that clay and light and air define. Her sculpture proceeds from an intensely personal vision, that of the maker who must make in order to satisfy their own inner prompting. As she says ‘if I don’t do anything for a while, I start to get itchy’. Satisfying that itch, calming that daimon, brings into being abstract pieces whose use of form, of shape and light create objects that apprehend the viewer and force them to define exactly what it is they see.

Coils of hollow clay are shaped like displaced femurs and tibias, building up into structures of internal chaos, held in check by formal borders, straight lines amputating the progress of a limb in order to make the piece cohere. These rectilinear forms are, to my mind, the best of her work, geometrically satisfying and emotionally startling, subconsciously echoing a line of poetry I’ve had in my head for years – “it’s space that makes the intervals between the stars so great[3]”. These forms appear to have been made from cubes of light infilled with arcs of clay; the precision of the cut-off defining the object, the apparently random nature of the intersections held in place at borders by invisible gates of air.

Cross-sections of natural forms might be the first thought: a slice of coral or a hawthorn hedge in winter perhaps. A pathologist’s extraction from a vital organ, held for inquest. More metaphysically, a map of the human heart, wild lines across a space that can be folded down to nestle in a pocket. Or for the human heart, as it stumbles through the intangible patterns and rhythms of interpersonal relationships, unable to retrace its path. A web, a metaphor for our time, where everything can be had at the click of a mouse except for crafted pieces such as this, slipped and wedded together through hours of patient labour.

So by oblong and rectangle she lays claim to the interior, modeling the synaptic grace of thought. And as you look you see, and as you see, you think. The shapes are mirrors, compelling enquiry. I see two figures dancing, a waltz or flamenco, the patterns that they trace repeated upon themselves in the coils of clay, as if Eadweard Muybridge had overlaid transparencies of his action series photographs one on top of another in a three-dimensional space.

And in no fixed order my mind leaps, from wanting to question the maker about her intentions, about what all this means to her, to all sorts of odd connections in my mind, to the anti-psychology of R.D. Laing,  lines of Shakespeare drift by, floating up from the past. I wonder if she knows of the principle of the Klein bottle, a one-sided three-dimensional object. Inevitably for me this leads to Russell Hoban’s Amaryllis Night and Day. Mobius strips, coral reefs, and back again to the untraceable poet and the light, the stars and the intervals between.

This work, for me, then is alternately a focus for reflection, for meditation even, but that reflection leads on to the rush of associations of the kind outlined above. It stimulates.


I don’t know.

Perhaps it’s the imagined geometry, appealing to my inner autistic, order and form asserting their control over the organic spread of clay – a Shakespearean clod of wayward marl. Perhaps it’s the recognition of the power of someone else’s vision, and the sense of wonder it can bring. I have no idea what Van Morrison is singing about on most of Astral Weeks, but bloody hell it works.

I can come back again and again to this work in the same way I can go back to Hoban’s novels or Jackie Leven’s music and find new things to enjoy and old things that I’ve known for years, know by heart, that still hold for me that essential wonder, things that can effect, as a psychologist might say, the vitalizing transaction. This is same, this work sings to me in a tongue I know, but cannot understand.

You might read all of the above as pretentious whimsy, you might not see what I see there, but in the end this piece is about my individual response to a body of work that, entirely unexpectedly, caught my attention from its flight and held it still, and engaged both my fathomable reasoning and the irrational depths that lurk below.

All we can ask of any work of art is that it evokes response. I can’t be indifferent about this work, but neither can I explain the mechanics of why that should be. That, in itself, is the nature of the joy I hold in this beguilement[4].

[1] Bob Dylan, ‘Sara’

[2]  ‘The Forge’, first collected in ‘Door into the Dark’, Faber, 1969.

[3] I’ve always thought of this as being by Emily Dickinson, but I’m damned if I can find it now.

[4] Isla Chaney’s studio is open during Dorset Art Weeks. Details can be found here:




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