3 Nov. 2012

Mining the Source of Modernity / HOSHINO Futoshi

The paintings of Shonah Trescott always make us aware of the “history” behind them. To introduce her recent works presented in “Drawn into the Light,” her second solo exhibition in Japan (Ando Gallery, 2012), I would like briefly comment on her first solo exhibition “Mankind, Nature, Myth” (Ando Gallery, 2010).

At a first glance, one may have the impression that the painting of Trescott is simple and realistic, since it represents the natural landscape without human intervention; at the same time, one may feel that the landscape is “artificial” in some respect. This equivocal impression derives from her style of painting: Specifically, her subjects and compositions look like those of late eighteenth century landscape painting, but her brush-strokes and color values remind us of those developed by abstract painters in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Shonah Trescott does not simply follow the realistic style; rather, she also “quotes” it from earlier landscape paintings and then combines it with her modern brush-strokes. Trescott’s subject is landscape, in so far as it is one in the history of art.

Trescott finds herself as a “painter.” This statement does not mean that she blindly paints what she wants or intellectually disposes material in order to create a pictorial sphere on canvas. She is a painter who has a rigid and original style, one that pays careful attention to the historical and geographical context of contemporary “painting.”

Her unique style is made possible by a meticulous respect for painting as a medium, including its historical and geopolitical context, and its technical aspects. To use her own word, Trescott’s entire body of work could be called “research,” that is, research on landscape as a genre of painting; on the historical and geographical distance between Europe, where such paintings originated, and Australia, her birthplace; on her perspective of herself as a painter, and on the painting technique that enables us to visualize such a diversified quest.

I began with a brief review of Trescott’s past works, since her latest creations may be a surprise to the viewers who have just discovered them. These new creations comprise photographs, silk-screens, and paintings. To classify them as “multimedia” would be to not look carefully enough at her procedure, namely, what I called “research.” It is the Arctic on which she has focused as a new subject of research.

Shonah Trescott stayed in Ny-Ålesund for a month in the spring of 2012. Ny-Ålesund, one of the northernmost settlements in the world, is located on the Svalbard archipelago, Norway, and is known as an international base for investigators. Without any formal artist in residence program, Trescott was allowed to stay in this village to conduct her research.

Trescott has been strongly interested not only in the natural conditions but also in the history of Ny-Ålesund. Although it had once flourished as a coal-mining region in the first half of the twentieth century, the mining was stopped in the 1960s because of a mining disaster that killed 21 people. It then became a sort of “ghost-town”; however, as I mentioned above, it now serves as an international base that welcomes researchers from all over the world. Therefore, Ny-Ålesund is not simply a polar village with a severe natural environment; it also is a village with a complex history.

Trescott tried to “mine” its geographical and historical layers through artistic creation. Multiple media, such as painting, photography, and silk-screens, are tools for quarrying these accumulated layers and presenting them as essential subjects for artwork, in which one can see both past and present, light and shadow, and nature and civilization.

In her paintings, Shonah Trescott describes Ny-Ålesund in two ways: one is found in the series What Lies Beneath, where the characteristic brush-strokes and color values of her landscape paintings are evident, and the other appears in the series Black Carbon, painted in monochrome. The paintings 79 degrees North and Upon Clouded Hills can be coupled, for they are contrasted with each other, in that both of them are of the same size, the former in brilliant color and the latter in monochrome. These paintings offer two faces of Ny-Ålesund. For example, the blue sky and dark clouds, the beautiful landscape and severe environment, and so on. Created in the short term, the latest series of Trescott’s paintings are quite stylistically varied, including so-called “realistic” ones, like the landscape paintings of the eighteenth century, to “non-figurative” ones, like abstract paintings.

This rhythm of two contrasting styles can be found in her series of photographs as well; titled Remembrance of Things Past, it is presented in Japan for the first time. In this work, Trescott displays color and monochrome photographs alternatively. Some of them share subjects, such as trains, cottages, or mountains, photographed in different styles. As for Kyoto Protocol, a series of silk-screens, it does not convey such a contrast but does have a tension created by the texts (extract from the Kyoto Protocol in English) and images (disquieting landscapes in black) within it.

As I have mentioned, the work of Trescott, especially her most recent, consists in what I called “research.” Consequently, the works are presented as multimedia, some of which are just beginning to emerge. For example, And Then One Day is a photographic creation that represents someone in a cottage with a lamp; this series is not as varied at the others; it may be developed in the future. Thus, Trescott focuses on Ny-Ålesund to uncover its complex layers, the natural and cultural, that are intertwined in the manifold.

Trescott’s attitude toward coal mining reminds us of the ninth edition of Manifesta, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art, whose theme was “The Deep of the Modern.” It was held in Genk, the former mining region in the Province of Limburg, Belgium. Cuauhtémoc Medina, the leading curator of Manifesta 9, focused on the substructure of modern civilization, namely, the providers of natural resources, such as coal; for this reason, Genk was chosen as the venue of Manifesta 9. One of its distinctive features is that the curatorial team presented the documents, images, and movies that tell vividly of the history of Genk, as well as artworks, most of which are allegorically tied to the coal industry. It is the accurate and careful research by curators and artists that made it possible to revitalize the defunct mine as a venue of art exhibition.

Such a coincidence is suggestive of the research by Shonah Trescott in the same period: She seeks to show the destiny of the mining regions on which our civilization depends through the creation of art. As I have mentioned, Ny-Ålesund as well as Genk, has its specific history, so research must carefully focus on its cultural background, as well as its natural conditions. The research by Trescott has achieved this objective with regard to the complex intertwining of the different layers of the natural and the cultural; she “mines” the source of modernity through a coal-mining region, a provider of its substructure—the natural resource.