I first came across Claudia Wegner’s art work several years ago when I visited her home and studio in rural Perthshire. Claudia’s partner, the wood sculptor Nigel Ross, in the course of making his large, outdoor sculptural works, had amassed a vast pile of discarded off-cuts. Claudia had begun to use these large and unwieldy chunks of oak and elm as the starting point for a new series of paintings. These she treated as randomly shaped ‘canvases’ onto which she directly painted her complex and often disturbing figurative and narrative works.
The idea of an artist achieving a paradoxical notion of ‘freedom through constraint’ is not new; Claudia, in the spirit of the true artist who is compelled to create irrespective of circumstance, used these ‘found’ shapes and forms to guide the course of her work. In one, entitled ‘’ a female form is defined by the chance edges of the timber. Her breasts - on which two poppy motifs have been transposed – bleed and this blood drops like a painful red milk into an upturned helmet. Like a woody palimpsest a repeated text –also painted in blood red – reads ‘Do not abuse the red poppy’. The words are a warning, perhaps, against drug abuse or the futility of war. It is a shocking and arresting image, uncomfortable and uncompromising. Such images find their roots deep in the northern European tradition of image making which stretches back to the work of Grünewald, Dürer and nearer our own time to the German Expressionists, some of whom, such as Eric Heckel, used wood as a medium (in the form of the wood-cut) as a means of expression. Claudia Wegner is steeped in this tradition and her art historical allusions are deliberate and profound. As an Austrian, who grew up in the southern province of Carinthia and was trained at the Berlin Kunstakademie her frame of reference is undisputable and genuine.
Parallel to her career as a professional fine artist Claudia has also pursued a parallel career in mycology and her membership of Deutsche Gesellschaft für Mykologie, Österreichische Mykologische Gesellschaft and Journées Européennes du Cortinaire attests to this passion and to the growing consensus – both in the UK and internationally – of her expertise. Claudia had always kept these two areas of her life separate until recently when she was struck by the idea of combining them. This idea has developed into an exhibition on the theme of Medical Mushrooms which was held at the The University of Dundee in 2009. Claudia has explained: “I have always kept these two parts of my life separate but I brought them together to create a series of large paintings around some of the most important medicinal fungi. The paintings should express my feelings for and show the complexity of the world of fungi. I hope to share my passion for these wonders of nature of which the beauty and benefits are often neglected.”
Claudia worked on a series of large paintings and ceramics which introduce her interest in such species as Trametes versicolor, Auricularia auricula-judae, Tremella mesenterica, Grifola frondosa and Pleurotus ostreatus. These species of fungi – all of which are visually intriguing and have immensely interesting formal properties – are also, additionally, important because of their medicinal properties. Much work on this subject has been done by Professor John Smith of The University of Strathclyde who, in collaboration with Neil Rowan and Richard Sullivan published, in 2002, Medicinal Mushrooms. This important, ground-breaking study aimed both at the specialist and the lay-person has acted as an invaluable source of information and inspiration in Claudia’s painting.
One of these works is a triptych depicting Trametes versicolor. In Medicinal Mushrooms Smith et. al. have explained that “…the multicoloured cap resembles a ‘turkey tail’ and occurs as overlapping clusters on dead logs in most parts of the world. This is not an edible fungus but hot water extracts have been used in traditional Chinese medicine from historical times for a wide range of ailments…Modern studies have produced two extremely important compounds, PSK or ‘Krestin’, a water-soluble protein-bound polysaccharide-peptide both derived from mycelial cultures of the fungus. PSK has been shown to act directly on tumour cells (cytostatic and cytotoxic) as well as indirectly in the host to boost cellular immunity…”
In her painting, Claudia attempts to show a number of aspects of the fungus. Importantly, however, her approach should not be confused with botanical illustration. While the later is just that, i.e. illustrative, Claudia’s method differs in that it is inherently interpretive. Claudia combines a number of elements in a composite work which shows differing aspects of the fungus simultaneously. Although Trametes versicolor is recognisable and botanically identifiable, she has also shown a number of different fruiting bodies, with the intention of depicting the variety of the fungus’ colour and form. The colours of trametes range from brown and black through to much more vivid blues, fringed with yellow.
Additionally the fungus is found in large multiple clusters as well as in smaller, isolated units. As a scientist, Claudia has examined the species at a microscopic level. When fungal spores germinate, they develop into microscopic, cylindrical, elongated structures with cross walls: the hyphae. In most cases the hyphae join up and form very fine filaments, the mycelium, a felt-like web of varying density. These numerous and diffuse mycelial threads are distributed within the substrate, i.e. soil or wood, from which they are able to extract nutrients and carbohydrates. Claudia’s painting shows both the mycelium and the fungus’ spore vessels, depicted as complex and intriguing structures which remain, by definition, hidden to the human eye.
In a British culture with an avowed ‘fungi-phobia’ there can seem little doubt that Claudia’s technically brilliant and artistically sensitive work will arouse interest in what to most people remains an obscure and vaguely threatening subject. By showing the beauty and the potential utility of these plants and their potentially benign import for humanity – and thus demonstrating the very real fusion of art and science – Claudia’s art work is deserving of a wider and appreciative audience.
All images courtesy of redegggallery.com