Artist Robyn Penn’s work reflects on the cold heart of climate change | Sunday Times
Alexandra Dodd, 2019
Robyn Penn’s recent solo exhibition, ‘News from Another World’ confronts some brutal truths through blurry imagery, writes Alexandra Dodd
A bewildering aspect of climate change is that, until your house has burnt down in a runaway fire or you’ve had to evacuate your city due to a flash flood, it remains an abstract projection. The works in News from Another World, Robyn Penn’s recent solo exhibition at Barnard Gallery in Cape Town, delve into the ambient quality of hint, rumour and threat that bespeak the muted emergency of a warming planet. “There is this sense of mystery – of things being not quite tenable, always just a hint of things to come,” says Penn.
Her imagery is at once a departure from and continuation of her enduring fascination with the shifting, endlessly morphing shapes of clouds, which began as studies in the sublime and became increasingly redolent with the subtext of climate-change denial. This series features several ice images in varying media, each exploring different aspects of its substance, properties and behaviour. It is a story about melting ice told in a variety of different registers and modes, ranging from barely audible whisper to thunderous Wagnerian crescendo Yet, even in their most epic registers, the paintings retain a phantasmal quality – documentary blurs into dream.
Penn works from found images – some sourced online; some photographed by a friend, James Kydd, a wildlife guide, on a recent trip to Patagonia – and in the process of painting brings a ghostly, ephemeral quality to the photorealism of the documented ice-scapes. In the cataclysmic tenor, there are two large oil paintings that have emerged from the same photographic image of a glacier “calving” – when huge sheets of ice break off a glacier or ice shelf. Each painting features the same image, reversed, so they are mirror images of one another – capturing an incredible sense of light and depth.”It’s insane. There’s just this ice falling and these massive waves breaking. The scale of it is massive. Almost beyond comprehension. “One painting features an abstracted image of a polar bear suspended in an empty plain of whiteness. It is based on the images of bears in threatened Arctic habitats posted online by Canadian photographer, filmmaker and marine biologist Paul Nicklen. “My desire was to create some kind of filter between the viewer and the photographic image of the bear – to disrupt it in some way,” says Penn.
“Sometimes I convert the original photo into black and white to see it differently or sometimes I specifically choose bad, low-res images. It helps me to see the constituent elements that make up the image, which are like broken brush marks.”
While painting, she constantly has to walk away from the easel – put distance between herself and the evolving image to make visual sense of it. Close-up, her mark-making is abstract.
There is a series of small paintings of individual sheets of crumpled paper – painted in white and aquamarine oil paint on natural linen. Even as they are sheets of crumpled paper, the topographical qualities of plane and fold give them the appearance of icebergs adrift in the polar oceans.
“They are not at all built up as I would usually build up a painting; there’s just that initial layer,” says Penn.
Sharing this lightness of touch is another series of ice sketches within ovoid shapes suspended within the frame, like drops of water on a flat surface. These were inspired by Victorian John Ruskin, who made sketches to accompany his field notes on exploring icy landscapes.
“It was like he’d just grasped the image and that stuck with me,” says Penn. “How do I represent just the vaguest idea of a thing? Think of a world where ice no longer exists. How do you represent something that is no longer there? I’ve had to really resist overworking the canvas. It’s like trying to write a haiku.”
The collection also features a few quirky conceptual provocations, such as a solar-powered figurine of Queen Elizabeth II waving, as well as close-up video footage of the queen’s arm waving.
Through all these shifting modes and methods, Penn’s work reflects on our actual world in which vast territories of ice are quickly turning to liquid.