You are surrounded by colour, vivid photographs, vibrant canvases and shiny, copper sculpture. And then, amongst this sea of visual stimulation, there is non colour, pastel and cream working their way in, as arresting as their neighbours for their sheer contrast. Symbols and shapes vie with each other for your attention – some obscured, others arresting, and yet more hidden in plain sight. Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery is pleased to present Arcana, a group show bringing together the works of Gemma Nelson, Martine Poppe and Amy Stephens. Running from 14th of February – 16th of March 2014, the exhibition also draws on the mystic origins of the word ‘arcana’ as a celebration of secrets and mysteries and a reflection upon positive spiritual sensitivity. Imagine the scene: a lonely fair ground waits patiently in the night, the word ‘Baloonride’ [sic], lighting up the surrounding desert darkness like a soft beacon of memories and days gone by. Nearby, a tondo painted in vibrant inks is witness to intricate shapes, a myriad colours and forms blooming across the canvas, stretching out and multiplying to create a psychedelic universe. Hanging in contrast to these bursts of colour are soft, hazy portraits, representational paintings that play on diversity and repetition – the images within them serene, abstracted, floating behind milky veils of paint. While different in style, medium and execution, the works are brought together by a unifying sense of spirituality as well as the notion of the revealed and concealed, of portals and the mystical.
For Gemma Nelson, it is the creation of illusory spaces through intricately constructed and highly detailed paintings that has become her hallmark. Working in Indian ink and mixed media, she weaves together fairytales, female sexuality and the idea of webbing along with drawing on the aesthetics of patterning and totemic tattoos. The busy canvases become home to a wealth of visual information, as figures and forms give way to ever newer shapes, mutating, growing, expanding and condensing in upon themselves like multiplying cells. In Arcana, we are presented with new works, for which Nelson has drawn on ancient cults and rituals, such as those of Baalism and Osirism, as well as the Cargo Cults of Melanesia, in order to create a new mythography through references to sun worship, mimesis of nature, phallic and fertility symbols and intricate patterns. Her works draw on quirky socio-historical practices and stories, such as the rituals of the aforementioned Cargo Cults, and how the detritus that washed ashore from the new world’s colonies was seen as gifts from the gods, or the work Pibloktoq, which refers to the condition of the same name that, most famously, affects Arctic women in the winter months. The condition, which causes the sufferer to tear her clothes off and subsequently run naked in sub-freezing temperatures, is usually harmless and wears off when the patient collapses in exhaustion. Here too the phenomena, just like the Cargo Cults, was believed to be spiritual, and was given Shamanistic attributes. Elsewhere, stories such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s iconic The Yellow Wallpaper further provide fuel for her exploration of patterns, pareidolia and apophenia.
Arcana has seen Martine Poppe explore subjects that are new to her. “My motifs here are all chosen light-heartedly and I'm trying to add a touch of humour to some of my pieces for the show,” she explains. What sets her work apart from her two contemporaries, at least on an aesthetic level, is a sparing use of colour, her muted canvases expressed in milky hues and delicate brush strokes, creating a luminous, floating effect. Working from photographs which she refers to as “serendipitous rather than staged”, Poppe’s paintings have a sense of immediacy to their making, and within them, information and sources are both revealed and concealed, creating a distance between the original subject and finished work through a process she refers to as ‘analogical change’. She builds on her investigation of diaphora, a process of repetition and layering that is characteristic of her work and her ongoing Analogical Change series – of which pieces will also be on display – play with the idea of ‘orthographic satiation’, a phenomenon that, rather like Richter, works with disconnecting from the original source while preserving the meaning. “When I look at paintings, I always think that what they lead to is themselves,” she says. “A painting need not be a portal to something beyond the painting itself.” The image is copied and recopied so many times that, just like looking at Chinese or Japanese characters for a length of time, the lines become disconnected, the image disintegrates, yet the original idea, the concept, remains. “The actual point of making these repetitions is similar to my decision to paint things that did not conform to a single subject group or narrative in the Analogical Change series, only this time I’m being more literal,” says Poppe. “The image degrades and moves towards something less recognisable, yet it remains a series of representational paintings of the same photograph. It quite firmly emphasises the formal considerations in the work, the story of the photograph as subject and object, rather than its content.”
Finally, Amy Stephens presents all new works that have been inspired by a recent residency in the Sultanate of Oman in late 2013. Working in abstraction, Stephens often creates minimalist line drawings and sculptures that invade and interact with the architectural space in which they are installed. Within the context of Arcana, her works respond to the ideas of tradition and myth explored within Nelson’s work, while their play on perspective and abstract nature are at harmony with those of Poppe. Here, we see a line drawing protruding from the gallery wall, metamorphosing the boundaries between the two and three-dimensional. Moved by the many traditional doors painted in an around the city of Muscat, Stephens has created a portal pared right back to a simple elegant copper line. From nearly 100 photographs taken in the Gulf, Stephens has chosen two images that highlight an open and closed doorway respectively. Furthermore, both the abandoned fair ground of Baloonrace and the multicoloured painted locked mountain door from the remote village of Misfat Al-Abreyeen, are images inspired by Aldous Huxley, in particular, his assertion that “there are things known and there are thing unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.” Using a range of fabrics and forms, she invites viewers to question this barrier and its in-between space. In doing so, the association of the door as an everyday object is thrown off kilter, out of context and into a state of flux.
Together, these three female artists create their own arcana, mixing different media – from sculpture and painting to photography and mixed media – just as they mix together mysteries and secrets and visual stimuli. The works, though different, call to each other through their shared reference of cultural idiosyncrasies, mythographies and mythologies, a rich link that binds them all together, yet allows each to float, separate, a portal, both transporting and bringing back to the present.