Review of Towards Strangeness by Ina Arraoui

Posted by Fiona Cable on

Towards Strangeness is a group show of five established print artists: Prue MacDougall, Kyla Cresswell, Nan Mulder, Kathryn Madill, and Catherine Macdonald. Collectively, these works encapsulate feelings of solitude, reverence, and awe for our natural environment, exploring our relationship to these elements both externally and within.

Nan Mulder

The title of the exhibition was inspired by a stunning suite of images of the same name created by Dutch artist Nan Mulder in response to her residency at Wharepuke Studios in Kerikeri in 2019. These impressively large mezzotints depict the lush, dense vegetation of the sub-tropical gardens on site. Exotic plants; aloes, bird of paradise and banana leaves, fill the frame from all sides so that the viewer can’t help but feel they are inside the garden, peering through the foliage, curious about what lies hidden beneath those leaves. In Towards Strangeness III (2020), the plants seem larger than life as the viewer stares up through the underside of the leaf, illuminated by the light above with a bluish tinge, giving the feel of a moonlit encounter. 

In contrast to Mulder’s verdant landscapes heaving with life, the wild, dramatic skies and dark hills in Madill’s work are desolate, sparse, and almost bleak. The figures that dwell in this remote terrain stand in quiet juxtaposition to each other. In The Wayside I, a young boy stares inquisitively back at the viewer, while an old, bearded man, turns with head bowed and eyes closed as if in deep contemplation. These images bring to mind those communities living on the fringes of society, both physically and socially isolated, evoking early settlers or alternative communities. They recall the poems of James K Baxter, which contrast the wildness of the New Zealand landscape with the fleeting burst of human life. Seclusion can give rise to psychological battles with sometimes unnerving and slightly sinister undertones. In The Reckoning (2018) human and spirit like figures stand in single file behind a woman sitting quietly at her desk, perhaps reflecting on her own thoughts and actions to be judged, possibly by the folk that dwell beside her, or within the darkness of her being.

Prue MacDougall

In MacDougall’s work nature is often superimposed and imbued with human traits and qualities having an ancient, mythical prescence. Terra (2021) alludes to mother earth, depicting stark, leafless trees that rise from the profile of the female face submerged beneath the surface, while in Hanami (2021) the same profile is in full bloom with luminous cherry blossoms. This quiet contemplation of the passage of time as cyclical from season to season, osculating between abundance to scarcity, is part of nature which our human experience is explicitly intertwined and not separate from.

Kyla Cresswell

The constant ebb and flow in nature is also evident in Cresswell’s landscapes. The title of her series Lull (2021) suggests the temporality of the calm that surrounds the islands and that there have been, and inevitably will be again, rough, and choppy seas. Similarly, Empty Passage (2020) implies an absence of something familiar. The very depiction of islands conjures up isolation, historically used to quarantine sick or undesirable citizens. Her snow-covered landscapes speak to the sense of quiet and calm seen in other works throughout in the exhibition.

The idea of solitude is explored by MacDonald through the human form, engaged in quiet, contemplative, and solitary activities, taking time out to reflect, be alone with one’s thoughts. Whether walking or sitting, their isolation is further emphasised by the space around them, devoid of detail. Each figure appears as a black silhouette which seem to vibrate as they move withing the landscape, the blackness having a depth and movement inviting us to explore the abyss of our thoughts.

It’s impossible not to consider this exhibition within the context of the pandemic, which has forced us to confront and grapple with feelings of disconnect and separation. However, for many, it has brought us in closer proximity to nature, incorporating it into our daily rituals, engaging with this brutal and mysterious force capable of both immense suffering and beauty. 

Thanks to Ina Arraoui,

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