In this series, I wanted to explore this hidden world at the edges of direct human experience, observation and influence. At one end of the scale we are reliably informed of the existence of sub-atomic particles, molecular, cellular and microscopic processes. At the other end we grasp to comprehend cosmic scale, the multiverse and infinity. We live in a narrow band within this spectrum and turn to physics, mathematics, chemistry and biology to explain the nature of things.
At an everyday level, reproduction, crystallisation, combustion and decay are some examples of processes that create and destroy. I am also interested in the concept of entropy when defined as a ‘gradual fall into a state of chaos or disorder’. Scientists tell us this is the natural tendency of all systems in the universe.'
Paul Screach, through his painting process, has endeavoured to mirror and capture the hidden nature of things. As the paint is poured onto the canvas and pools, new pathways are formed and connections are made. Scale plays an interesting role in Screach's work. Large expansive works that lead us outside the canvas edge into empty space - asking us to consider what surrounds us that we cannot see, what lies unseen in the invisible spaces. These paintings are shown next to smaller intimate works exploding with organic shifting shapes. There is a sense of looking through a microscope at a living cell or through a telescope to the inner world of an exploding star. Alongside Paul Screach's work you can view Prue MacDougall's current work Leaf/Let.
A 1901 postcard using a pūwharetāiko, muttonbird scrub leaf, has inspired a new series of works for Prue MacDougall. Integrating seamlessly, MacDougall’s whimsical imagery embeds directly into the leaf sending a visual message out to the world literally and metaphorically. This concept allows her to connect her obsession with the natural world, intaglio print making and folklore together.
The natural world has been a source of inspiration for artists since time immemorial. For MacDougall it is a running thread that links together her earliest work to this current series. Each leaf holds a conversation with the ecology of place and people of place. Whether it is imagery reimagined from Migrating Birds or Anchor Me, MacDougall explores themes of journeying, both physically across the world and chronologically through time, and the effect such journeying has on one’s sense of identity.
Working directly on the leaf MacDougall deliberately explores the ephemerality of the natural world and exposes us to the fragility of nature in a rapidly changing environment. The delicate, detailed imagery melds deep in the veins and creases of the oval leaf. Her selection and placement of image to leaf is thoughtfully considered, revealing a sense of deep care and respect for nature.
MacDougall loves old stuff with a history — flea markets are her favourite haunt for hidden gems and inspirations. She also appreciates all things handmade passed down from generation to generation. Hence her interest piqued on discovering the 1901 ‘postcard’ on a recent trip to Stewart Island.
Utilising tree leaves as a writing material has been around for centuries. India and Southeast Asia recorded Buddhist scriptures, law, biographical information, and Sanskrit literature on leaves as early as 500 BC. Locally Māori originally used pūwharetāiko leaves to wrap food or carry a poultice for wounds. Early European settlers noted the quality of the leathery muttonbird scrub leaf, adopting them for note paper.
The humble postcard has a practical origin dating back to the 1860’s. A professor of Economics from Vienna, Austria pointed out that the time and effort involved in writing a letter was out of proportion to the size of the message sent. He suggested that a more practical and cheaper method should be implemented for shorter, more efficient communications. Hence the postcard was invented. By the turn of the 20th century postcards became a craze. Tourists visiting the coastal areas of the lower South Island where the rigorous pūwharetāiko tree thrives, wrote on the leaf, attached a stamp and posted them from Paterson Inlet Post Office on Stewart Island to addresses on the mainland and abroad. According to NZ Geographic the NZ postal system did not appreciate this innovative medium. A 1906 circular advised that “the transmission of tree-leaves posted loose and bearing written communications to the United Kingdom or to countries in transit through the United Kingdom is forbidden”. In 1912, the ban was upgraded to include “any address”, then finally in 1915: “Loose tree-leaves are prohibited, and if posted, are to be sent to the Dead Letter Office for disposal.” You may not wish to test NZ Post current regulations by posting an original artwork by MacDougall, although it is tempting to see if the Dead Letter Office still exists!
MacDougall’s imagery fits snugly on the muttonbird leaf, providing us with more than a short message traditionally associated with a postcard. It is more a journey of discovery and delight, little gems of humour intermingle with more serious tones of the urgency. The need to consider trees as essential to our sense of well-being and to our feelings of rootedness. A celebration of the wonder that lies in our everyday experience. Legends and mythologies are full of trees that comprehend and articulate the meaning of existence and MacDougall’s work is imbued with it here. Hopefully, visitors will leave the exhibition with a renewed sense of appreciation for both the beauty and complexity of these indispensable living organisms. Words by Fiona Cable.
There's an interesting conversation to be had between these two bodies of work. MacDougall's decayed pressed leaves with their transparent veins - channels once filled with water and minerals, transporting life. These mirror the uninhibited unpredictable marks left by Screach's painted cellular universe. Nature, decay, entropy, life ... we invite you to come and enjoy the connections.