Sheldon Museum of Art Main Content



  • Sarah Charlesworth, Candle.

Selected by Ryan Dee
Senior Web Designer/Developer
University Communication and Information Technology Services

Iconic is the word that sticks for me when thinking about Sarah Charlesworth’s photograph Candle. What I had in mind, though, wasn’t a lazy substitute for descriptors like signature or definitive. Charlesworth’s image resists the easy categorization and recognizability of works by some of her Pictures Generation contemporaries, like Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits in costume, or Barbara Kruger’s black-and-white photography captioned by white-on-red Futura or Helvetica type.

Instead, Candle reminds me of a religious icon, the kind painted by Eastern Orthodox Christians. Charlesworth’s photographed subject appears similarly flat, floating without a discernible horizon line and framed by a solid field of red like an icon’s riza, a single sheet of decorative metal covering all but the painted portion of the icon to protect it from the smoke of burning candles and incense. Our eyes are drawn to the contrast of the black wick and white flame in the upper center of the composition, the latter resembling the ozhivki, or bleach highlights of traditional painted icons.

So if Candle is iconic, what can be said of its iconography? Charlesworth described her Neverland series, to which this print belongs, as an exploration of the “boundaries between image and symbol,” but she didn’t prescribe meaning to her objects. Instead, she preferred to let “whatever power, whatever affect they have, work on its own.”* I’m fascinated by this ambiguity, how we can bring our own meaning to a piece, like a sort of spirituality.

Peter Pan author J. M. Barrie described Neverland as “always more or less an island,” a different locus in each child’s mind.Here, Charlesworth captures the enigmatic candle-as-timepiece in a state of arrested development, surrounded by a sea of red, its flame never extinguished.


† J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan (100th Anniversary Edition), New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003.