Paradise Lost | Barnard Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa
31 January – 28 February 2017
Solo exhibition. Curated by Alastair Whitton
Spaces of uncertainty, of unknowing, are very often acutely uncomfortable spaces to occupy. Despite being essential moments of tension which pervade the human psyche, continuous realities of our engagement with the world around us, they are nonetheless spaces which we actively resist and avoid. Yet they are undeniably spaces of potential, and it is our response to uncertainty that dictates whether this potential is generative or destructive. The paradox of this potential occupies a central role in the work of Robyn Penn. From within an ongoing preoccupation with the crisis of climate change, Penn ruminates upon the ways in which human beings endeavour to conquer uncertainty through an attempted mastery or order of the world, and the devastating environmental consequences these attempts hold.
As one of the most difficult variables to measure and predict within the science of climate change, the cloud has become a consistent and charged symbol within Penn’s oeuvre. Functioning as a visual metonym for an uncertainty that is both global and personal, universal and particular, the cloud also directly references the realities of climate change. Reappearing like a strange phantom in uncanny stillness, Penn’s clouds are weighty with an undeniable sense of foreboding and disquiet, a nebulousness that is psychological as well as physical. Penn’s repetition of the cloud visually recalls the methods of Surrealist painter René Magritte; while her affinity with 18thcentury Romanticism is evident in her desire to, through this repetition, both resist chaos and relinquish herself to the sublime processes of transformation and dissolution.
These meditative renderings of the cloud across media thus explore the opposing feelings of intense anxiety and acute wonder that characterise the sublime, drawing particular inspiration from Romantic painters Caspar David Friedrich and Francisco Goya. Penn alludes at times to fleshy corpulence in her renderings of pink toned, painterly clouds in oils; at others she responds to the cloud’s inherent mutability and intangibility in dizzyingly complex mark making. In doing so, Penn demonstrates a remarkable versatility while establishing a series of powerful dichotomies: phenomenological and corporeal, sensorial and cerebral, tangible and intangible. Ultimately, the power of Penn’s work lies in the tension she achieves between relinquishment and resistance to uncertainty and entropy, and the way in which she situates this tension as a “quiet form of protest art” (Penn) in response to climate change denialism. It is arresting in its refusal to look away, its obsessive observance – a process similar to cloud gazing which is both fevered and contemplative, played out in the working and reworking of image and surface. This reworking and repetition, in which Penn moves further and further towards abstraction, embeds her imagery and practice in an ambiguity that is formal as well as temporal, both unnerving and beguiling.