Warren Feeney – 18 September, 2018
Because she works as artist and poet, and describes her practice as exploring ‘mood and quasi-narratives of ethereal creatures wandering in imagined lands,' it might seem reasonable to assume that the titles of her works would illuminate or provide a way of entry. In fact, they complicate their unfathomable nature even further. A title like 'I am not snow today' is there to widen the possibilities of what it could or might not be about, not to promise resolution or reassurance.
I am near the forest, but never in it
4 September - 24 September 2018
I am near the forest, but never in it is the first solo, and most comprehensive exhibition of Saskia Bunce-Rath’s tapestries—if that is the right description for her materials and processes—that I have seen to date. A post-graduate from the University Of Canterbury School Of Fine Arts every experience with her work in group exhibitions has been genuinely unforgettable. I am near the forest, but never in it is not just an appropriate title for this current exhibition, it is also an apt metaphor for an encounter with the charm and inexplicably tangible unrealities of Bunce-Rath’s imagery and its making.
Because she works as artist and poet, and describes her practice as exploring ‘mood and quasi-narratives of ethereal creatures wandering in imagined lands,’ it might seem reasonable to assume that the titles of her works would illuminate or provide a way of entry. In fact, they complicate their unfathomable nature even further. A title like I am not snow today is there to widen the possibilities of what it could or might not be about, not to promise resolution or reassurance.
One important measure of her capricious powers of invention was finding that, as a gallery visitor, I was desperately seeking certainty through some relevant art historical ancestry, but only able to settle for helpful, but limited context. Bill Hammond’s paintings from his Jungle Jangle Morning period in the early 2000s, and their anthropomorphic take on human behaviour and its clandestine conversations seemed a promising candidate. His paintings can often be an all-encompassing experience because of their scale, drawing us into his primeval dreamscapes.
Yet, although Bunce-Rath’s tapestries may share something with Hammond’s surreal and timeless landscapes, the response to her work is qualified by the scale of her images. The intimacy of their experience as objects for contemplation is quite unlike Hammond’s paintings, more frequently capable of soliciting a responsive and inclusive ‘Alice in Wonderland down the rabbit hole’ encounter. Tapestries by Bunce-Rath like Fading Empire, which is only 15 x 10 cm, demarcate a quite difference response to image-making and its experience and outcomes.
Neither is her work ‘naïve’ in the anticipated traditions of an artist like Henri Rousseau. His subjects tend to be alone rather than in conversation with one another, while even a solitary figure in a tapestry like Bunce-Rath’s I am often waiting on the rocks, is in the company of an implicated friend, and the creatures in Through glassy eyes and I turn him into my shadow seem to be old acquaintances, returning to the assurances and burdens of their complex relationships.
There is also a taken-as-given innocence in I am near the forest, but never in it that further complicates its ambiguities. I am often waiting on the rocks, The bone dogs, or I turn him into shadows all have their realisation in a kind of strange fusion of My Little Pony, Stanley Kubrick/Jack Nicholson’s The Shining and Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Starry Night. The Dutch Post-Impressionist’s rendering of the animation of the natural world and universe may be the closest and most appropriate comparison with Bunce-Rath’s painterly, expressive tapestries, being just as surprising in their range and intensity of colour. Visually loud in Through glassy eyes and genuinely scary in The bone dogs, its darkness and glaring light announce a ritual by fire that no one else seems welcome to attend.
Is there a connection between Bunce-Rath’s practice and contemporary tapestry, textiles and crochet in Aotearoa New Zealand? Again, she looks like the outsider. Definitely not Kate Wells. The closest model for comparison is most likely Jacqueline Greenbank’s crochet barbeque grills and sandwich trays from around 2005, but it is more a kindred spirit than a choice of subjects or materials, a perversely coy and knowing distancing of following the rules. Yet, if this also sounds like a purposeful detachment from content, I am near the forest, but never in it, doesn’t do irony. Rather, it is this immensely strange and far more generous creature.