Sarah Rayner: distance of a whisper

“Walking, in particular drifting, or strolling, is already – with the speed culture of our time – a kind of resistance...a very immediate method for unfolding stories.” – Francis Alÿs

Sarah Rayner

distance of a whisper, 2023 

The exhibition distance of a whisper by Sarah Rayner is a series of unfolding stories...a significant and exquisite body of work that honours the resilience of Australian native plants and the slow methodical resistance of the process of the handmade. Rayner’s enduring and distinctive sculptural vocabulary introduces the viewer to a world of fragility and strength, extraordinary beauty and menace, empathy and care.
distance of a whisper is Sarah Rayner’s first solo exhibition at Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert in Sydney. The fifty-eight unique and extraordinary hand carved porcelain forms have been created over the past 12 months in her studio at Wootha, South East Queensland, surrounded by the magnificence of Australian bush and native plants. Rayner principally draws her inspiration from this environment. However, in 2022 Sarah was awarded two residencies, one at Bundanon NSW and a one-month residency exploring Kunanyi, Tasmania, and these localities have also influenced the works for this exhibition. The hybrid carved forms exhibited here are inspired by Rayner’s observation of the reproductive organs of native plants and the cyclic metamorphosis that leads to the creation of the most exquisite fruits and seedpods as end-products. Sarah carefully observes and collects these specimens from her walks in bushland - the walking and collecting being a working methodology that feeds her imagination in the studio. There, she begins to select, scrutinise, draw and dissect, cutting away external casings to reveal sumptuous and sensuous interiors that have been concealed and protected until their moment of discharge and rejuvenation. Every detail of a fold, a crevice, a mark, or the soft velvet interior surfaces that have been hidden within gnarly exterior cases, is open for her scrutiny and interpretation, resulting in compelling hybrid forms that at once seem familiar yet alien.
The mastery of Sarah Rayner’s sculptural works is seen in the ingenuity of construction in porcelain and the poetic logic of each exquisite form. Rayner describes her practice as driven by process, describing the slow repetitive process of rolling, pinching, carving, and mark making as meditative and her relationship with materials as intimate. It is the care of the fragile, the visceral vigilance of process that imbues these works with a beauty that alludes to the ephemeral, a moment in time. The cool white bonelike pods are polished in accent through the application of terra sigillata to create a subtle sheen and the shadow of each sculptural form licks at the wall or podium to gently differentiate its presence.
Rayner has used entomological pins to reference museological display, piercing the flesh of the form with exactitude and sometimes directly pinning specimens to the wall as display. The introduction of thorns into these new sculptural works announces or ushers in an uneasy sense of foreboding, creating a duality within the forms of beauty and peril. The peril is not entirely speculative. Rayner utilises the thorn of the Honey Locust tree, a native to North America that spreads rapidly from seed and without maintenance threatens Australian native vegetation. The dark thorns in one work protrude from the fleshy white interior of an outer form based on the Tuckeroo (Cupaniopsis anarcardiodes). However on closer inspection, it could be said that the soft outer form is parting to reveal a menacing interior, an interior capable of a resistance for protection. The entomology pins and thorns reference museological display but Rayner suggests they also speak of control – of human intervention and the precarious relationship of the natural world.


The arrangement and grouping of each sculpture in the gallery space becomes a conversation between forms; some lie near each other, almost touching, and others elegantly arch to form alliances with their counterpart. They are grouped to line the gallery walls like calligraphic forms, which echo the beauty of a Persian text with pauses and commas. Each work has its own distinctive bonelike form and each has been carefully constructed, polished, and carved to appear at times bursting with an exuberant lifeforce. It is the exquisite detail of every aspect of making, from construction to surface embellishment, to the arrangement in the gallery that Rayner has mastered over her thirty years of artistic practice. Her slow and deliberate resistance to what Francis Alÿs calls the “speed culture of our time” is evident in both her methodology of walking, gathering, and care for the environment and in the exquisite detail of a studio labour where time, critical examination and, reflection is given in abundance to every form.


Over the past 30 years Sarah Rayner has developed a distinctive and mature sculptural vocabulary that positions her as a highly respected and significant artist. The glass front of the Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert forms a wall of visibility and protection for these exquisite works. Entering from the busy streets of Sydney one is struck by the quiet and resolute beauty of these fragile forms that appear to gently whisper their intent in this vitrine of protection and care and Rayner is the conduit that connects these worlds.


Text By: Anne-Maree Reaney


Anne–Maree Reaney is an artist, curator, and writer of contemporary art, based in Brisbane, Australia, formerly Dean of the College of Art and Creative Enterprises, Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates.


I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which I live and make, the Turrbal and Jagera people.