Mark Dedrie, an artist in motion by Robin d'Arcy Shillcock
The first things you notice when confronted by work of Belgian sculptor Mark Dedrie (1962) are the stylized shapes and their highly polished finish.
Although working within the tradition in which colour is omitted in favour of form, his approach is not so much classical an literal as turning a refined distillation of visual reality into a sculptural statement. He transforms a world of colour and movement into a world of presences, of volumes and elegant lines, and manages weightlessness in heavy bronze. This results in tactile, visually attractive sculptures. There aren’t too many sculptors who know how to stylize animal shapes well, and even fewer that seek the degree of refinement Dedrie is striving for. It results in soft and sensual surfaces that underline the exquisite grace of birds like ducks and long-legged waders. There are honestly merely a few I can name. François Pompon (France 1855-1933) worked on Rodin’s marble sculptures before becoming one of the greatest animal sculptors of the modern era. His work instigated what I call the Movement of Form, comprising the sculptors who preferred to distance themselves from Animaliers like Barye and Fremiet who focused on the anecdotal Battle of the Titans: Gorilla abducts fair maiden (a Beauty and the Beast theme which eventually led to the making of King Kong), Panther devours snake etc. In the work of Adrian Sorrel (UK 1932) and Claude Lhoste (France 1929) we find a comparable exploration of fluidity of shape and line as may be found in Dedrie’s work. The Frenchman however moves across a wider range of subjects, not so surprising when his age is considered. From the vast number of artists presented in the catalogues of the annual exhibition Birds in Art held for over twenty-five years at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, USA, I manage to sift a few whose work compares with that of Mark Dedrie. Emily Parlman (USA 1927), Burt Brent (USA1938), a plastic surgeon, comfortable in the domain of precision and smoothness; Charles Almond (USA1938), Geoffrey Dashwood (UK1947) and Ross Matteson (USA1957). Matteson comes closest to Dedrie but the birds he executes are sharper, and less warm. In his search for the sensual shape and line Dedrie is nearer to sculptors working in wood, like Hank Tyler (USA 1944) and Dutchman Jaap Deelder (1952), who prefer polishing the surface to such a degree that the underlying grain underpins the sculpture. Fine artists never come dropping out of the blue sky. Dedrie too, is a product of various currents, impressions and influences. Some of these cannot be retraced, while others can only be suspected. Undoubtedly the years he spent at an art foundry worked upon him to great effect; these were the formative years. We are however, dealing with a self-made artist here, attempting to produce sculptures that show not only his abilities and vision but also convey his empathy for birds.
Birds symbolize freedom, Dedrie tells us. It seems evident that in his recent works symbolism is disappearing. The symbolic, androgenic humanoid figures have been replaced by birds and other animals, immediately recognizable subject matter that requires searching for deeper meaning. And yet, in spite of all we know about birdlife, these creatures remain elusive and mysterious and, for 21st century man, enduring transmitters of symbolic meaning. And consider this: of all creatures in the animal kingdom birds are closest to the angels! Mark Dedrie looks at birds with empathy. He does more than just look. He studies the live bird as well as the mounted specimen, observing attitude and proportion; he also uses photographs in trying to obtain an insight into their nature. He reflects on their character, sees them in his dreams and imagination. All he can get on species like a mandarin duck or a curlew filters through the different layers of eye and brain, before he can begin to sculpt. Working in plastiline or wax to roughly life-size, he shapes every part of a bird’s body with his hands and fingers, like in an endless caress. With each new project he immerses himself in misery as he tries to capture that which is so unattainable in these creatures, their purity and lightness of being. He believes that by greatly simplifying his subjects he can best convey their état d’esprit. Birds never really co-operate, either. Sure, each species has that typical outline that, when reproduced, says “owl” or “crow”, but there is rather more to a bird than that —there’s personality, the tell-tale posture and characteristic behaviour. To complicate things more, all projecting parts such as bills and legs tend stick out, causing problems in the design. Such small, jutting shapes tend to detract from and even rupture the sculpture’s unity. Dedrie’s pieces, in spite of the extremes of simplification he goes to, give us enough to recognize individual species, such as mandarin duck, curlew, little owl, beautiful perching kingfisher. And impressive swan. His swan has an overwhelming presence. The man that decided to buy it during the time Mark and I sauntered around the gallery has acquired an eye-catcher. It is a typical Dedrie and yet it is different. More exuberant, majestic. A tour de force, made with the intention to impress. According to Icelandic sagas swans flew to the moon after the breeding season; Dedrie’s swan has magical, lunar quality. In his own way he represents the anatomy of a swan, but lets go of anatomical reality in the wings, possibly to avoid a stiff heraldic pose. In suggesting ‘movement’ in the wings he appears to have been inspired by photographs of flying birds, their wings blurred into unexpected shapes. Attempting to suggest movement in a bronze is often a difficult problem to solve. Dedrie approaches it from what may be called a modern ... Read More