Fusion - Reviewed
Group show: Jenny Tomlin, Julius Margan, Lara Gilks, Hannah Rose Arnold
Studio 541, Auckland
1 - 11 November 2018
Reviewed by Catharina van Bohemen for PhotoForum
Studio 541’s most recent exhibition Fusion opened in Mount Eden in November for a fleeting fortnight.
Fusion: ‘the state of being united or blended’ is what led gallery director, Sonja Gardien, to select the four artists in the exhibition: Jenny Tomlin, Julius Margan, Lara Gilks, and Hannah Rose Arnold, from over thirty submissions.
What they have loosely in common is a connection with the natural world, particularly water. Jenny Tomlin’s rivers are sites of accommodation between nature and our attempts to control it, and in Julius Margan’s Untitled a glistening slab of concrete, and the pale light of a distant harbour, makes us raise our eyes to the sky.
Margan and Tomlin also notice trees. They may be silent, overlooked, or defiant sentinels in our urban landscape, or they may prop up some of our more tenuous structures as in Tomlin’s Tether where the tree looks like the reassuring hand of an ancient god. These more ‘senior’ artists have well-established practices distinguished by a subtle self-effacement. Lara Gilks and Hannah Rose Arnold ‘use’ the sea or the lake as metaphors for the unconscious, and the woman’s body, to suggest a more visceral and personal connection to the seductive qualities of water.
The heft of the exhibition are 13 works by Jenny Tomlin for whom photography is ‘an expression of what I feel about the landscape.’[i] Her images offer a curious, encompassing, and sometimes comedic gaze at what she sees as she moves around Auckland. She is ‘always on the lookout for cracks’: the continual movement between the natural world and what we do to it. Her titles often subvert an apparently simple word and suggest another anarchic possibility. Thus, Garden is a tangle of bare-branched, dew-shimmering trees bursting beyond their boundaries – a rusty-roofed wood shed, a wooden fence – in search of other trees. Grass grows over a bicycle and a forgotten bucket, and ferns are invading the lawn. Time passes; growth continues. In Lion in the Window an enormous stuffed lion tries to escape from an apartment in search of his Margaret Mahy meadow, and SPY-C is the possibility-rich graffito sprayed on the base of a phoenix palm which looks for all the world like an interrogating bird.
The Eastern Interceptor, Swollen, and Strain, black and white images of portentous beauty, are examples of disturbance and accommodation in our landscape. The Eastern Interceptor is a 19km reinforced concrete trunk sewer, originally built in 1962 to carry Auckland’s wastewater from Okahu Bay to the Mangere Waste Water Treatment Plant. It has come to the end of its operational life, but Tomlin’s exquisitely balanced image of trees, water and sky shows it thrusting through leaves and water like the barrel of a gun. Swollen is an artful swirl of oily water trapped by stakes and sausage-shaped booms designed to contain passing detritus, and Strain, with its suggestion of ache and groan, shows us that even as we try to contain nature, it always finds its own way.
Julius Margan’s black and white Untitled is from a series of images of solitary trees around Auckland whose growth seems to have little to do with their surrounding environment. Untitled has the quality of Dutch landscape painting – two thirds of the image is a brooding sky; from the lower third a slender tree reaches towards it. The tree grows on a grassy strip between a harbour and distant city and a rain slicked concrete rectangle – a netball court? – so the openness of the sky is reflected on the concrete’s gleaming surface and the water beyond. The tree’s delicacy and height is contrasted by a low flimsy carport (with car) to the right of the image which locates place as firmly in Aotearoa, rather than chilly north, although the atmosphere of Untitled has a golden age sense of containment and apparent serenity.
Lara Gilks’s two works, Flourish and Surface explore childhood memories of times spent at Diamond Lake in Central Otago when it iced over. She ‘loved the winter environment and the exhilaration of being on the ice’[ii] but was also always frightened of falling, especially round the edges where flowers grew. Flourish and Surface have an Ophelia-like quality: ‘larded with sweet flowers/ Which bewept to the grave did go.’ They are both of young women either submerged or rising out of water. Their faces are partially obscured: in Flourish the ambiguous red flowers stain the girl’s face, although the stain may be blood, and in Surface she is either clutching or even being strangled by rosemary or lavender and roses. These are seductive but discomfiting images because you’re not sure whether these young women have died shockingly and are at peace, or only seem to be.
Hannah Rose Arnold’s Midnight is a 16m film made using a camera from the 1950s which, she has said, offered her greater artistic possibility than digital photography: not only a different quality of light, but also ‘the antique film process was a way of processing my ideas in a physical manner.’[iii] It’s also of a young woman (at the water’s edge, rather than in it) performing a series of rituals in which she rubs damp dark sand over her body, and bends, bows, and embraces herself as the sea beckons and retreats. She doesn’t actually get wet, but as you watch the girl’s carefully sculpted movements – a kind of salute to the sea – you feel the water’s compelling pull.
Studio 541 was established in 2015 by Sonja Gardien, who both curates and teaches photographic practice. Her aim of encouraging emerging and established artists has resulted in thought-provoking shows in the sympathetic space of an old brick building in Mt Eden: cultural essays in countries as diverse as Cambodia and Palestine, work from artists participating in the Auckland Festivals of Photography, and meditations on themes such as ‘Obscurity’, ‘Volition’, and ‘Contemplations.’ ‘Fusion’ is its satisfying eighteenth exhibition.
Catharina van Bohemen is a regular contributor to ArtZone. She also writes about art and artists for children, most recently in Annual, edited by Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris, and the School Journal.
[i] Artist Statement, Nov 2018
[ii] Artist Statement, Nov 2018
[iii] Email, Nov 20 2018
Gallery images (l to r): Lara Gilks, Flourish; Hannah Rose Arnold, Midnight; Lara Gilks, Surface