One foot in the world, Lucinda Bennett, 2019
Catalogue essay for Double Dribble, SoFA Gallery, Ilam Campus, University of Canterbury
The earth has slit open but the sky is still blue. That’s how we know we’re still on earth, probably. But I once read a book about blue and learned that the colour of any planetary atmosphere viewed against the black of space and illuminated by a sun-like star will also be blue. This could be a landscape on any planet sitting between a hot star and a void.
To call Tyne Gordon’s paintings ‘landscapes’ is something of a misnomer. Have you ever gazed upon a vista like the ones shown in Alley-Oop 1, 2 and 3? A fleshy mound, never a mountain, standing alone upon a flat plain devoid of all life. The mound is ashy purple, it looks bruised and mineral rich, it could be Iceland or Mars or nowhere we have a name for. The world these paintings depict feels arid and alien, as though the atmosphere held no moisture, although really it is because they are painted on board, where paint dries quickly on the surface rather than soaking in and softening. They are brutally flat works, giving just enough texture to pull you into the horizon line, always keeping you at arm’s length, keeping relations alien. There are no figures in the foreground, no bodies to give a sense of scale, to prove we are even looking at a landscape.
It could be that the desire to call these paintings ‘landscapes’ is borne not from their form so much as their immense stillness. They remind me of that saying – if it were not for darkness, how would we know when we stand in the light? – except here it is a stillness that seeks to remind us of its opposite, almost to conjure it. For there is tension within these images, something coiled beneath the crust, magma, water, milk, blood. These are landscapes clenched, preparing for a breach of stillness that would also see an end to the dryness, a rupturing of all that is solid and serene. Perhaps liquid will never crack through the surface, or perhaps we are seeing this place before it is irreparably altered, drowned in water, turned to stone, wreathed in green, pearled with maggots, swollen and aching. Perhaps the stillness we are faced with is the calm before the storm, before an eruption that could end life, or begin it.
Shown alongside these clenched landscapes, paintings such as Enter the swamp (2017) and 1-3-1 Zone (2018) seem to suggest this kind of endgame. More texture than image, these works are built from viscous swells of paint. They are fluid and fecund, closer to chaos and nature, are a primordial soup or bubbling mud, a river of mercury, a galaxy of toothpaste foam spat out and swirling down a drain. They seem to show a liquid world, the kind that you could leave for 13.8 billion years and return to find something like the one we live in.
In describing Gordon’s work, I find myself slipping unthinkingly between language pertaining to the natural world, and language that would describe the body. Both are liable to ooze and crack, to overreach their edges, to transform – and so too are Gordon’s paintings and sculptures. Works such as the Alley-Oop series can just as easily be read as volcanoes as they can vulva, both sites of creation and eruption. In their ambiguity, and with their inability to “respect borders, positions, rules,” these paintings draw us towards the place where meaning collapses, to the place of the abject. Abstracted, they shimmer between the abject and the sublime, both affects that disturb the fragile boundary between subject and object, self and other. At their most abject, they evoke the horror of an open wound, of our body opening itself to the world, leaking, turning the inside out, the (m)other giving birth to the self. At their most sublime, their formlessness feels like boundlessness and affirms the limitations of the self.
We find the abject in the body-horror films of David Cronenberg, where flesh meshes with technology and characters find themselves self-inserting Betamax tapes that come back out looking like bricks of raw flesh. Works like Alley-Oop 2 and Clinger (2018) bring Cronenberg’s oeuvre to mind, encased as they are in fleshy, chewy frames made of soap and silicon (with other works such as 3-4-1 Zone (2018) framed in melted black plastic strings, recalling a tangled cassette tape). These frames are like bodies themselves, rectangles that have grown up around the paintings like fungi, hardening so the image becomes trapped, inseparable from the object.
Weighty and brick-like, these fleshy frames pull Gordon’s paintings into three-dimensional space. They become hybrids, image entangled with object, speaking to her belief that the image is as important as what it is made of. It is this overriding interest in materiality that has driven her to work across both painting and sculpture, crafting her own frames and creating sculptures using found objects that are then transformed through various alchemical processes such as paint, mosaic and composition.
The resulting works take the form of fountains that do not flow – or more precisely, that no longer flow, for they bear the evidence of having at one point secreted thick, nuclear, blood-like liquid. What once cycled through these fountains, animating them, mimicking the cycles of life, now lies stagnant – both Heavy Breather 1 and 2 (2018) have ceased to breathe at all. But before the water stopped flowing, what were these fountains, where did they belong? They are decorative, domestic objects, best suited to a small garden or foyer. I can imagine one playing on the lawn of a house down a cul-de-sac, the only thing distinguishing that garden from the other identical squares of fenced-off lawn surrounding it. But these have been embellished, carefully mosaicked to become somehow both flamboyantly kitsch and yet eerily organic, with grout like lumpy flesh covered in strange growths. They are domestic objects gone horribly wrong, choked with murky, poisonous-looking liquid.
Shown alongside Gordon’s bodily paintings, these fountains take on alternative meanings. They too can be read as bodies, with water pumping through them like blood circulating through veins. But the water has stopped flowing, rendering the fountains still as corpses. Kristeva takes the corpse as the primary example of the abject for the way it traumatically reminds us of our own materiality. She writes,
…corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These
body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with
difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a
Not taking the form of human bodies, when we stand before these dead fountains, we are not faced with the full horror of our bodies as empty casings, as shells from which our subjectivities have been expelled. We are faced not with a cadaver, but with a signifier of death, something we can understand, react to or accept precisely because it is not the abject – it is an object. The fountain has stopped flowing but the sky is still blue. Rather than signalling a world-ending event, Heavy Breather 1 and 2 read as relics from an ended world, a dystopian future where water has become thickened and toxic, clogging fountains and pipes. These small fountains speak not to a world that has ended in fire and brimstone, but in the poisoning of our environment, presumably at our own hands.
1 Maggie Nelson, Bluets, (USA: Wave Books, 2009), 62.
2 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, (New York: Columbia University Press,
3 Cronenberg, Videodrome. It should be noted that Cronenberg’s films have a long history of criticism that hangs on their depictions of women as abject, and their abjection turning them monstrous (see Barbara Creed, The monstrous-feminine: film, feminism, psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1993)).
4 Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 3.
Shifting Sediments: New Works by Tyne Gordon, Barbara Garrie
Essay for Takahē Magazine, issue 94, December 2018
As the water cycles through Tyne Gordon’s new work Heavy Breather (2018), layers of sediment are deposited in the tiers of the fountain creating new, semi-permanent surfaces within each dish. These layers accumulate over time before eventually breaking up and re-entering the fountain’s circulatory system. The water pump and filter work hard to process the murky fluids, sometimes clogging and choking – an arduous labour that is evoked by the title. Here, water is not purity, not cleanlines, but instead a carrier of other particles. The debris picked up by the coloured water is from Gordon’s careful grouting and mosaic tiling of the repurposed ornamental fountain. Bearing the residues of her process of making, the silty liquid is at once evidence of something new brought into being, whilst also registering as an index of decompostion. In animating these processes of transformation works like Heavy Breather suggest a variety of themes. They might be understood, for example, as reflections on the artist’s practice as it shifts between modes of painting and object-making, or perhaps as more profound ruminations on the ebbs and flows of life and death, and the contingencies of gender and the body.
Gordon’s new works are the result of her time spent working as recipient of the 2018 Olivia Spencer Bower Award. Based in Christchurch, Gordon graduated from the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts with a BFA(Hons) degree in painting in 2015, yet her work has never rested easily within the singular realm of painting. Object-making and an intense interest in materiality are significant aspects of her practice. Reveling in the material qualities of oil and acrylic, her paintings frequently display exhuberant impastos and gestural smears. In works such as Enter the swamp (2017) and 1-3-1 Zone (2018) paint is laid down in thick swirling swathes that crack as they dry, creating pits and fissures. The gooey medium often seeps over the edge of the supports, distorting the lines of their rectilinear form; these painterly surfaces enthusiastically edge toward three-dimensionality. This three-dimensionality is fully realised in Gordon’s sculptural constructions in which found objects are combined and transfigured into strangely compelling compositions. Sweet Flesh Prize (2017), for example, takes the form of an elongated and skeletal plinth that holds a series of ambiguous, stacked ‘things’– what turn out to be a block fashioned out of soap, a glass bowl, and ceramic salt and pepper shakers – all of which are rendered uncanny. But painting remains present. The plinth is coated in thick, lumpy licks of pale green acrylic, and the glass bowl is cloudy with the leftover marks of dirty paint water. This folding together of objecthood and painterly surface is again asserted in Gordon’s use of frames. In Alley-Oop 3 (2018), the small painting of an anonymous landform is encrusted within a misshapen casing the seems to have solidified around it, operating as part of the very landscape that is depicted.
Landscape has been the ostensible subject of much of Gordon’s work. Undulating masses of hills that rise and fall, petrified outcrops, churning seas and gusting winds are suggested in her intimate abstractions. Never too overt, the landscapes are just legible as such, constantly dissolving into colour and form, and then reappearing momentarily before dissipating again. In this sense, Gordon’s paintings are felt as landscapes in perpetual motion. In 2016 the artist travelled to Iceland to undertake a period of research, during which time she immersed herself in this new terrain, producing a number of sketches, small sculptures and field recordings. She was drawn to Iceland for its palpably ‘alive’ geology, a place that, with some similarities to New Zealand, is known for its volcanic and geothermal activity, and where the unpredictable forces that shape the land are abundantly visible. The landmasses presented in the sequence of three Alley-Oop (2018) paintings directly reference the volcanic landscape of Iceland – its lava flow craters and conical peaks – but more oblique allusions to this restless environment can also be discerned in the gloopy paint and sticky grout that Gordon deploys; materials that, we might venture, masquerade as the bubbling ooze of mudpools or the molten magma that resides beneath the earth’s crust. Rather than concerning herself with depicting specific places however, Gordon’s works seem more occupied with finding a vocubulary to convey the experience or atmosphere of the landscape. Indeed, it is important to note that for Gordon, landscape resonantes not as something contained that can be easily viewed and apprehended but as a space in flux, always in a process of coming-into-being.
In the body of these tumultuous landscapes is mirrored the instability of the human body, but not in a way that is sentimental or relies on vague structural synergies. Instead, the substances of the land – its soil, rocks and water formations – signify a changeability, the possibility – or perhaps inevitability – of transformation. While the blood-like liquid and visceral protrusions of works such as Heavy Breather and Double Tripple (2018) might on one hand allude to a rather obvious corporeality, they also speak of the body as a site of difference. Gordon’s work is informed by a feminist politics and implicit in her practice is an interest in social mechanisms of gender construction. In the same way that her approach to landscape undoes the myth of the land as something solid and permanent (a fallacy that we are perhaps becoming more acutely aware of), so too her work reveals the fluid, shifting nature of gender and identity.
It is through the emphatic materiality of Gordon’s work that these shifts are reflected. In choosing to exploit substances that exemplify a kind of liminality, appearing to exist on the very boundary between different states of matter, she points to the problematic desire to categorise gender and the dubious cultural sedimentations in which an essentialised understanding of gender has been normalised. The boundary itself becomes a much more important zone of interrogation. Water, for example, is a potent motif in Gordon’s work. Water is a substance that we know well for its potential to change states, variously taking the form of a liquid, steam or ice. When combined with other materials it can also take on the condition of viscosity, becoming a sort of intermediary substance, enlivened in its own alterity.
And so, the silty liquid and sticky dregs that run through and cover the surfaces of works like Heavy Breather call to attention the vibrant possibilities that unfold as limiting boundaries are exceeded. But they also acknowledge the baggage we carry with us. Sara Ahmed has written that: ‘what sticks “shows us” where the object has travelled through what it has gathered on its surface, gatherings that become part of the object and call into question its integrity as an object’. In carrying such residues, objects like Heavy Breather might be understood as bearing witness to difficult, perhaps uncomfortable narratives. They may, like us, be marked by the cultural imprints of histories and past experiences. But Gordon’s work,in her unsettling and shifting of these sediments, suggests a process of dispersal and reshaping in which the boundaries that have constrained gender might be challenged and undone.
1 Sara Ahmed, Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004), 91.
MACROCOSM AND MICROCOSM, Andrew Paul Wood, 2016
The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings …
Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni” (1817)
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
T. S. Eliot, “The Wasteland” (1922)
Tyne Gordon’s work holds a liminal position between two quite contradictory philosophical positions. On the one hand her elaborate miniature constructions of soap, glass, marble, clay, bone, modelling plastic and paint resemble the aesthetics of avant-garde modernism filtered through Julia Kristeva’s abjection in the way Janine Antoni’s Gnaw works did, or a more tranquil take on the work of Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger. On the other, the ambiguous scaling in Gordon’s paintings, often inspired by these objects, result in something more fantastical and Sublime; the dramatic, crystalline landscape of Caspar David Friedrich’s Sea of Ice (1823/24), or the faceted alpine utopia envisioned by German architect Bruno Taut in the late 1910s. The ambiguity, the lack of anchorage in reality, but undeniable aura of authenticity, keeps the viewer puzzling.
The sculptures allude to dolls house-sized versions of monumental ultra-modernist biomorphic abstraction – Jean Arp, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth – resting on marble (a broken offcast), glass (a broken bottle neck), or modelling clay plinths. They draw us in with their perfect little forms and the absurdity of the materials. They look a little as though they belong in a Wunderkammer. Hard and obdurate stone and glass is counterpointed against biological bone and soft, malleable soap. Unlike with modernist abstractions, these humble mundanities haven’t been severed from the domestic human realm. They trigger memories of experiences through their familiarity the way a Joseph Beuys installation does. Nor should being cute be considered an aesthetic sin, nor their apparent playful feminist mockery of Freudian phallic symbolism.
The paintings distil the formal qualities of these little assemblages into an altogether loftier and more Platonically idea realm. There is a bravura to them, sometimes astonishingly delicate forms captured in a single long stroke of brush charged with oil or acrylic or thick, coral-growth impasto thrusting sculpturally into the viewer’s space. They are sketches of a concept, but fully fleshed-out artefacts rendered with hard won technical skill.
The paintings are visual koans pointing to a purer form of consciousness or else hinting at a surreal, visionary Symbolist landscape co-existing with us in a dimension beyond human perception. The Sublime can never be completely mediated by culture, sometimes you just have to take it on instinct and faith, however this is a postmodern sublimity, nature has been eclipsed by culture. A form reminiscent of a monolith of ice or an imaginary range of glacial mountains may recall the alpine paintings of Romanticists like Alexandre Calame or Caspar Wolf, or the early landscapes of Adolf Hölzel condensed to a key element. A mountain becomes something you can slip in your pocket or mould out of your mashed potatoes like that scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
But the other side of the Sublime’s coin is the Unheimlich – the uncanny, the creeping terror that we experience when the comfortably familiar begins to disobey the accustomed assumptions about its nature. That same finger of ice might be a pillar from some eldritch Lovecraftian city in Antarctica. A dark cloud hovering close to the invisible ground in the white void of the painterly plain (a Taoist paradox of simultaneously being and nothing) acquires an indistinct sinister personality and takes off into the dream worlds of Odilon Redon, Alfred Kubin, and Goya. The Pathetic Fallacy is in full play, investing the substance of the forms with a distinct life force and even awareness.
Gordon’s work is two thirds what you feel and one third what you see. It pulls you in, traps you, and when it lets you go, it keeps following you around.
Top art award-winner keen to sculpt her own career path, The Press, Warren Feeney, 2017.
Amazon Painters in Wellington, EyeContact, Chloe Cull, 2015.
AMAZONS; Expeditionary Force, Exhibition Catalogue, Jamie Hanton, 2015.
"In a trio of small oil on board paintings, each with a single focal point, Tyne Gordon signals a shift from her earlier representations of landscape which captured wider scenes with numerous foci. The singularity of the Iceberg, Geyser and Cloud, lifted from their subdued backgrounds become strange portraits: studies in their own particular elemental make-up, as well as the atmospheric processes that affect them. The treatment of these natural phenomena is one of curious reverence; in scale, these monumental subjects become miniature. This mistranslation in size is one of the reasons these works are so intriguing- the down-scaling means the subject becomes almost arbitrary. Instead, in Iceberg II and Frozen Geyser the materiality of the paint is at the very forefront of the work- the paint becomes the subject. Indeed, snow and ice speak to slow accumulation and quick reduction; processes that can easily be related to Gordon's carefully considered layering and deft application in paint. Frozen Geyser IIIfeatures a variety of different impasto effects from the vein-like ripples leading into the base of the geyser to the ragged shards covering the entirety of the geyser like hoarfrost on a tree."
They Ghosted Up The River, Exhibition Catelouge, Keir Leslie, 2015.
"Gordon's Croon smeared a low key greyish blur across the gallery walls. One passage moved at waist height, the other at shoulder height. Gordon worked directly onto the gallery walls, and Simon Morris' Black Water Colour Painting 2015 formed an obvious point of reference. Morris' icy rationalism marched around the gallery in a logical progression, but Croon moved in retrograde ways, the paint scudding along like a cloud in a skittery breeze."