Hyphen — a place between histories Hyphen

Anna Clabburn (May 1999)

If truth is that which lasts, then art has proved truer than any other human endeavour. What is certain is that pictures and poetry and music are not only marks in time but marks through time, of their own time and ours, not antique or historical, but living as they ever did, exuberantly, untired.

— Jeanette Winterson [1]

Those who choose to be professional artists are destined to be haunted by ghosts of the past. Just as writers are inspired yet dogged by the world’s literary classics, so too visual artists produce work under the perpetual shadow of the imagery and ideas that precede their own time.

It is futile to try and escape history, especially one as richly furnished with tangible evidence as visual art. Felicity Spear is a contemporary artist who understands her place. Positioned with a retrospective view, she overlooks a long millennium. From this distanced vantage point, she constructs painted installations that openly confess their debt to history (classical and modern), yet lie comfortably in the company of art’s many spectres.

In trying to find another voice, Spear acknowledges the contingency of her own creativity. Assuming the role of aesthetic ‘medium’, she calls up spirits from the warm, velvet lit and intimate labyrinths of 17th century Dutch painting and introduces them to the younger hard-edged soul of American and European modernism. The result is a meeting of chiaroscuro charcoal with primary red, a fusion of soft-edged symbols over geometric units from the abstracted grid.

Vermeer’s chequered floor meets Gerhardt Richter’s multiple representations of reality and refracts into three-dimensional distortions of the real, as if through the mystical convex mirror of Van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini Wedding’ — or per speculum in aenigmata (through a glass darkly).

Despite their narrative innuendo, the exact origins of Spear’s art are less important than the abstract components she selects to form her fragments. Her quotations reflect a fascination with pictorial space, its illusionary potential and the dialogue with real space and time. By diffusing simple visual references over a number of geometric forms, she extends her historical gaze directly into the viewer’s physical world, bringing the minutiae of older artistic perspectives into a dynamic present.

We are never quite relaxed in Spear’s environments. On the contrary, her low-lying boxes, attenuated pillars and leaning serial forms are intended to conjure a sense of unease — as if to catch us in a time warp, our bodies folding and bending within an architecture of art historical memory. These objects flow between past and present and back again — defying logical and temporal boundaries. On one level, they invite us in with their smooth monochrome patterns, and yet their cool exteriors warn us away. This sensory paradox is a conscious conceit on the artist’s part. Each piece is calculated, almost mathematically, to create a physical and intellectual tension.

Although an admirer of art’s humanist traditions, Spear does not shy away from the world of contemporary technology. In generating and abstracting her images, digital manipulation provides a ‘third hand’ that facilitates a connection with the reality of reproduction — a phenomenon which she actively critiques. The earlier ‘fossil media’ of the pin-hole camera is a tool she frequently turns to for inspiration. [2] Here, perhaps more so than in the computer’s screen, she finds an unfettered arena of pure expression - a gradual remembering in the resolution of negative and positive, played out in the soft aura of light flowing through the tiny pin-hole.

Spear’s installations ask the viewer to slow down. Their mysterious and monumental presence encourages stillness, and prompts a heightened awareness of the engagement with architectural space, with the senses, with time and the place of memory. Folding into an envelope of art history, each carefully shaped form expresses the artist’s desire to re-invigorate faith in creativity’s missionary zeal. Collapsing past into present, the work performs a calculated mannerism, searching for a dynamism that (we suspect), the artist believes is being overwhelmed in the ‘here and now’.

Calm and reflective with its polished surfaces, Spear’s work is embalmed by an ebullient spring of art’s residual memories.

[1] Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects; Essays on Ecstacy and Effrontery, Random House, London, 1995, prelude.

[2] See Arpad Bak, 'Dead media project: an interview with Bruce Sterling', in CTheory. Theory, Technology and Culture, online magazine, vol.22, no.1-2 — (web address: http://www.ctheory.com/)

© 1999 Anna Clabburn