22 May - 15 June 2014
Golden skies look down upon arid, futuristic landscapes. Earthy tones of taupe and beige hint at dry, barren hillsides, adorned with lonely trees. Elsewhere, pale, rolling hills are framed by intense, blue skies. There is something lonely and otherworldly about these landscapes. They exude a sense of loss – of action long gone, or yet to be, and we travel in time, both backwards and forwards. In Scenario, running at The Art Cabin from 22 May – 15 June, what we are presented with are, in fact, Henrietta Simson’s evocative re-imaginations of the world as depicted in the works of the great Renaissance masters. However, rather than focusing on the subject, she plucks out the often-overlooked background, that strange pseudo-space in so many paintings that is a world unto itself. In doing so, she seeks to examine our relationship with perspective and how it has evolved and changed in the past 500 years as part of history’s ongoing political and ecological narratives.
It was upon looking at Renaissance paintings that Simson found herself intrigued by their combination of “peculiar spatial constructions” and material quality. “The backgrounds seemed like glimpses into a different world, not necessarily connected to the main subject,” she explains. In works such as Piero della Francesca’s The Nativity, she was drawn to the independent nature of these backgrounds, seemingly unhindered by the narrative of the main story in the foreground. “They somehow didn’t resemble ‘real’ spaces, but, rather, were experimental,” Simson says. “These were parts of the picture in which artists could perhaps be freer than they could with the main figures, which they would have had very strict instructions for from their patrons. I remember looking at The Conversion of St Hubert by The Master of the Life of the Virgin and being really taken aback by the strange triple space that was occurring in it - the gold sky which is like a very flat vertical backdrop, and then below this funny amazing piece of aerial perspective like an island sealed off by gold above and the foreground narrative landscape below.” Simson was fascinated by the strange nature of these backgrounds, painted at a time when artists were supposed to have been depicting pictorial space with as realistic a perspective as possible. “The more I looked at these paintings, the more they looked like a fusion of previous convention and experimentation rather than constructions of what might be called 'real' space,” she says.
Simson takes these Renaissance works as her starting point, removing the main narrative, or subject and honing in on the backgrounds themselves.
They are then expanded until they fill the frame, vast landscapes empty of human habitation and form. Through their expansion, they become simplified, and through this simplification, they take on a barren aspect, filled with a sense or mourning or loss. These landscapes, so intrinsically rooted in the past, also take on a neutrality that could place them at any point in the future – markers of a post-apocalyptic time yet to come. “It is important to me that these landscapes are empty,” says the artist. “This provides the possibility of a recontextualisation - for them to appear (or reappear) as contemporary spaces. They have become the main event rather than the framing device.” She maintains the material continuum of the originals by using similar materials, working with gesso, for example, and using gold leaf, yet this is where their link to the past stops.
For Simson, it is the perspective paradigm that lies at the heart of her practice, and the technologies of image-making. Within the history of Western art, she argues, perspective has been abstracted and flattened into two-dimensional spaces. Maps and grids, constantly refined over the ages, are society’s attempt at commanding the space around it, both a “complete domination and control of the visual realm” as well as a driving force in exploration and colonization. “Whether through photographic technologies or film (and other technologies that construct a two-dimensional space as an effective equivalent for how we see the world), what we have created is a distance between the viewer and the viewed: the latter is trapped in a perspective grid.” It is this which Simson equates with Western culture and political dominion. “Today, visual technologies continue to be developed as a driver for warfare,” she says, “but these early spaces are so important in their connection to the material, which is more about empathy between viewer and the viewed, rather than perspective and distance. Without the glossy and idealized technologies we are presented with today, these paintings establish a connection that unites the artwork and the viewer in a physical space – in the present.”
The exhibition will present a series of Simson’s paintings alongside clay hill sculptures to create a dialogue between the two- and the three-dimensional, immersing the viewer within the pictorial space. “It is by returning to these beautiful early spaces that we can see a physicality attached to the visual that reconnects us with space through imagination and body,” says Simson, “not just through glossy screens and high-definition images which are too perfect, too immaterial and unobtainable.”