Giving a First Hand Account
by Dr. Warren Feeney
To assume that the paintings of Irene Ferguson and Emma Pratt are figurative, detailing the artists’ experiences of the world is as accurate as it is misleading. In her attention to the small detail of the narratives and allegories that inhabit Ferguson’s imagery, she frequently gives due attention to familiar traditions of painting from Western art, yet the curious cut-and-paste realization of these images seem to be as much about respecting the art and culture of Europe as it is about drawing attention to the art of painting as the supreme act of deception.
And although there may be a stillness and underlying order to the townscapes of Emma Pratt’s paintings, there is also a pervasive sense that she is an artist simultaneously setting out to deface or take apart an iconography that seems almost too precise, too composed and somehow not quite at home. And Pratt’s images seem better for the implication of such a desire – a wish for more, or something else just about to take place on the surface of the picture plane.
Witness might better be described as an exhibition of figurative paintings that deals with the nature of our experiences of the world as it questions the very act of painting as a means to encapsulate the tasks and principles it represents. It is no coincidence that both Ferguson and Pratt seem conscious of their role as artists and makers of figurative images, a tradition in the fine arts informed by well-known conventions predominant from the Renaissance to the late 19th century. Yet, references to social realism, 19th century landscape painting, classicism, formalism or expressionism, also recognize the value of such conventions as a means to disassemble and reconfigure images in ways that appear relevant and pertinent to their own experience. Are the paintings of Ferguson and Pratt a witness to humanity’s experience in a global community in the 21st century, offering a sincere and first-hand account of such? Yes, but they offer even more.
Ferguson and Pratt make works that shift and fluctuate, giving consideration to the context of all possibilities. If Ferguson’s imagery is a composite of references that take in snapshots of the sublime, literature, cinema, painting and photography, Pratt’s art is assembled from an iconography that seems both nostalgic and actual – as much about the ephemeral nature of memory as it is about the here-and-now, even to the point of the presence of paint as substance on the surface of the picture plane.
In Witness, certainty and suspicion occupy the same spaces. Ferguson draws together subjects, objects, values and beliefs through time and space, resolving all their differences of opinion, yet she equally observes that she sees herself constantly wanting to… ‘be some other place.’ Pratt’s paintings of Seville – the work of an expatriate from New Zealand now resident in Spain – are described by her as ‘personal travel maps’ yet they are also work by an artist who is living abroad – and by choice recognizes that she is an outsider.
How to make sense of this assemblage of distances, beliefs and encounters? It is a question that both artists direct back towards the gallery audience. Ferguson’s art is a celebration, (even a eulogy), to painting as deception – an unreality of our experience of the world. In Dorothy Falls, her pastiche of an idyllic pastoral landscape, her attention to detail, the treatment of light, and collage of contemporary and historical references, could all be part of a long-lost parable or peculiarly modern fairy tale. And in making the question of this painting’s intention a subject for debate, Ferguson turns the viewer’s attention, self-consciously back upon them. Implicitly, we are required to occupy the same stage as the figures that inhabit her paintings. Ferguson’s subject becomes how to read, decode and make sense of a narrative that is overtly oblique. She also notes that it is not just the content of her work that is important, but also the physicality of her paintings, occupying the gallery space, maintaining a ‘presence… but also [being] not of this world’:
I like that moment when as a viewer you stand in front of a painting. Perhaps it’s the spot where the artist stood and you see the abstract nature of the paint and feel the physical act of mark making that has made this image. The paint will assist the image to hover between the real and the abstract.
Pratt’s imagery is no less demanding; digital images, videos and photographs, all coalesce to seek out and locate a place that might seem like home. This is an idyllic and elusive world. Pratt observes:
My work has its basis predominantly in landscape with, at times, other images which help portray my mythologies and cosmologies. Images have been sourced from stills uploaded online from webcams, video stills, quick shots out of a car window, old photograph albums, all catching the fleeting, the changing, the expanding and the eternal. I trace the existence of many worlds or ways of seeing: a nostalgic past, where “home” is, [a series of] shadowy pasts where I was not, and an ever increasing, global present.
Ferguson and Pratt are in good company. Their consideration of painting as a conduit for ‘ways of seeing’ has its own close association with Spain, a country where Pratt has lived since 2000 and both artists worked together.1 Diego Velázquez’s painting of the Madrid Place and court of King Philip IV of Spain, Las Meninas is a work that also addresses essential questions about painting’s representation of the world and the viewer’s relationship with a work of art. Famously, as Velázquez looks out at the viewer in this work, his audience becomes aware that they are both looking, and being looked at, similarly confronting themselves as the potential subject of the painting.
And if Ferguson and Pratt are artists whose practice belongs to – and is separated from – grand traditions of European art, the paintings in Witness are equally a part of – and distanced from – New Zealand’s art history. Pratt is an expatriate New Zealander and former artist-in-residence in San Lucar de Barrameda. She met Ferguson in 2008 in Seville when she was the recent recipient of the Adam Portrait Award in New Zealand. Both artists acknowledge a cultural distance that continues to look their way just as it did for expatriate artists throughout the twentieth century. Ferguson currently lives in Melbourne and misses the contact with Spanish art and its traditions, while Pratt –as a longstanding resident in Seville – acknowledges that she misses the landscape of New Zealand. It’s a sentiment perfectly summarized almost 100 years ago by Frances Hodgkins as she reflected on her departure from the place of her birth:
Perhaps I ought to have been content with what was a very interesting life, but I felt I was only groping; that I had not realized myself.2
Working between countries, connecting via the internet to discuss their painting with one another, there is a degree of both intimacy and distance in such a relationship. Pratt assembles images of a place somewhere far away, consistently on the edge of realization, erasure and reconfiguration. Ferguson’s art seems to draw from all four corners of the globe, virtual and otherwise. Yet, both make works that are as specific as they are representative of a state of flux and permutation – A first-hand account, if you like, of paying witness to a poignant, tangible and ultimately transitory experience of being.
Dr. Warren Feeney
1 Pratt has resided and worked in Spain since 2006. Ferguson visited and worked with her in 2008, and also acknowledges an admiration for artists such as Velazquez, Goya and Murillo.
2 Gordon H. Brown, Traditions and Departures: New Zealand Painting 1900-1920, Wellington: Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, 1972, p. 21.
WITNESS by Emma Pratt and Irene Ferguson
Hastings City Art Gallery.
1 September 2012 – 11 November 2012
‘The expanding artistic toolbox now includes such seductive digital media that painting seems to have lost its prominence in public exhibition programs. It is fair to say however, that audience desire has never waned. Notable paintings have reached unimagined prices at auction, initiating a reassessment of ‘art as good investment’ in our strapped economic times. In recent shows at Hastings City Art Gallery, visitors have exclaimed on more than one occasion “But where are the paintings”?
It gives me great pleasure then, to bring two consummate painters, flagrantly exposing the most extraordinary facility with the medium to your attention. Despite now living abroad, Irene Ferguson in Australia and Emma Pratt in Spain, are our very own. These wonderful New Zealanders follow the footsteps of a tradition of great women painters, Frances Hodgkins, Rita Angus, Doris Lusk, Lois White, Louise Henderson and proudly take painting into the 21st Century.
Emma and Irene reference and use new media in their painting practice. Both articulate the influence of photography, now made instantly accessible in digital format.
Irene has been constructing photographic imagery in collage to depict the here and now, as well as reference the history of art. She constructs paintings that draw attention to the superficiality of images while exploring our multi layered experience of space and time.
Emma also is interested in an altered sense of time and space. She sees her paintings as personal maps. They are images constructed of people echoes, movement of foliage and the addition of a bird larger than life, suggestive of its sound. These elements are indicated by isolated colour and paint on the move in what appears to be a landscape ‘snapshot’, overtaken by organic paint. The overgrown vacant lot she visits in Seville now depicted in her painting, takes her and us back across time and place to a New Zealand wilderness that allowed for exploring and hut building.
These two artists now share their lives, thoughts and inspiration with each other through mediated technology, photography, the internet, the phone and they support each other in their combined experience as New Zealand artists abroad. It is important that we support them too. The old adage of “you don’t know what you have got until it’s gone” affects us all, however when it poignantly surfaces in the work of an artist abroad, it makes us re-think where we are, and why they left. Perhaps by publicly celebrating theses wonderful painters, we may lure them back to the shores of Aotearoa one day.’
-Maree Mills, Director Hastings City Art Gallery
“Carl Theodore Sørensen watched children playing on construction sites with sand, bricks, and tree stumps, and proposed in 1931 a new kind of playground – skrammelejepads, or “junk playground” – of old cars, packing crates, and timber so children could build their own places. He saw “nicely designed” play equipment and hopscotch lines painted on asphalt as evidence of adults’ profound misunderstanding of children’s play.
The first ever adventure playground built in 1943, in Emdrup, just north of Copenhagen, was a flat, open area of dirt sunk below the level of the surrounding land and bounded by berms covered with dense, thorny shrubs; entry was through a small wooden building on the corner. The whole created a frame for activity and for messy constructions. The dense boundary provided privacy and shielded the children’s work from view. Photographs from the 1940s show an open space with piles of bricks, old boards…
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