Solo show and residency at Grays Wharf, Penryn
23 OCT – 01 NOV 2020
‘Nature is not all greens and browns’
by Louisa Lee, November 2020
Walking into Kitty Hillier’s recent exhibition is an immersive experience. The smell of damp earth permeates Grays Wharf as found objects from the Cornish landscape sit aside sculpted clay pots on the floor where rainwater is decanted from one to the other. Utilising the large window which looks onto the gallery from the street, Hillier has created a live, living, breathing and evolving canvas. By adjusting, moving and shifting elements of the exhibition, the usual sacred space of the white cube is disturbed by subtle, self-regulating interventions performed by the artist.
This is the first time that Hillier has brought together painting, sculptural objects, performance, paintings, and wall reliefs in one exhibition. Under the Surface reflects Hillier’s numerous interests, past and present, and maybe even future. Following principles of Gaia theory, where everything and everyone are somehow connected, Hillier extends this idea into her practice. She is fascinated by the communication between plants and fungi and the knowledge that although plants do not have brains or ‘consciousness’ in a human sense, they are aware of changes to their environment.
Other influences such as Hillier’s background – growing up in the Somerset countryside, surrounded by a landscape shaped by myths, legend and monolithic standing stones – are present in her paintings and sculpture. Her childhood home was lined with paintings and prints by her great grandfather, the surrealist painter Tristram Hillier. His paintings of empty beaches, abandoned boats, and deserted landscapes form ambiguous dreamlike juxtapositions. Heavy in signification but also open-ended in reading, they are steeped in place but are also effectively ‘landscapes of the mind’. Equally Kitty Hillier’s paintings and sculptural objects exemplify a transient space which is neither past nor future. Informed by the Cornish landscape but infiltrated with fantasy, folklore, and the esoteric, sea creatures from the deep and prehistoric monsters haunt her work.
Yet landscape and the objects which surround her are not passive or benign backdrops for events to take place. Instead Hillier’s environment is referenced as a constantly changing and unfixed entity of which our bodies are an extension. She is also fascinated with how natural shapes inform design. The shape of a boat, she describes, is an ancient biomimetic design based on the seed/ leaf shape, equally the universal shape of a seed is found everywhere – a leaf, petal, eye, lip, ear, vagina, boat, cave, flame, fish, slug. Hillier’s current studio is situated in a working boatyard in Penryn, within touching distance of boats upon stilts, often positioned upside down with their hulls exposed. When the tide rises high enough that it comes over the edge of the harbour and towards the artist’s studio, the shapes and forms of the boats are reflected over the yard.
Reminding us that the colours which we find in nature are ‘not all greens and browns’, Hillier incorporates the acid greens, electric blues, sharp yellows and phosphorescence from the nature surrounding her studio. As much as form is borrowed from nature, so is colour.
This is exemplified in the large-scale work, We Are All Solitaries (2016), where bolder hues of black, coral pop from the canvas, overlapping in amorphous shapes. On the right-hand side of this painting a Blue Chalkstick succulent plant with fleshy finger-like stalks is dug into the surface of the painting. The plant offers a recognisable form amongst other more abstract elements. This interplay characterises Hillier’s work; seemingly tranquil, the colours and textures ‘work’, they are calming, reflective, harmonious. Yet there is also a sense of tension in these large-scale paintings as formal elements reference littoral zones of the ocean, microscopic particles, and planetary systems.
Hillier’s approach to painting has informed her more recent sculptural clay objects. Arranged in the middle of the gallery, or grouped around the edges of the space, in Under the Surface, these objects act as both decorative and functional. Although borrowing from traditional pottery techniques, they resemble three dimensional drawings in clay in iridescent, shell-like glazes, or earthy oxidised tones. Sitting amongst found objects – driftwood, twigs, twine, tree trunks – the arrangement of these works suggest that these sculptures may have drifted ashore or, like mushrooms, sprouted from the forest-floor. There is no hierarchy of importance to found or manufactured object, rather a reminder that man and nature both spring out of the planet. Sculptural shapes resembling pebbles and urchins are reminiscent of Barbara Hepworth’s mother and child works: smooth pebble like mounds with gentle indentations and inclines resembling carved stone.
Equally the works which sit around the edge of the space recall the artist Louise Bourgeois’ Personages: delicately carved wooden sculptures which stand-in for lost people or presences. Hillier, however, hand builds her sculptural works in layers that are pinched together, often following patterns found in nature and the slow formation of structures over time – rock formations, sediment, carapaces formed of layers of calcium carbonate.
Under the Surface reminds us that we’re in the environment rather than just walking around or looking at it from afar. Or as the writer and activist Rebecca Solnit writes, ‘Walking… is how the body measures itself against the earth.’ Indeed, Hillier’s knowledge of these landscapes and mythologies is shaped from daily wanderings along clifftops, beaches and woodlands; walking is a form of research and gathering but it is also an intuitive and meditative practice. By making the space at Grays Wharf into an adaptive and moving organism, Under the Surface reminds us that nature is not a remote fantasy, a backdrop, passive to our actions. It is all over us, it is in us, it is through us. It is us.
Louisa Lee is a writer, editor and postdoctoral researcher at the Paul Mellon Centre www.louisa-lee.co.uk
“How little we know about the soil, dust, algae, lichen, seaweed, gut, seabed, moon, tide, grasses and fungi. I’m interested in the idea that re-connecting and gaining a better understanding of nature is the key for imagining a better future world in which science, art and a heightened awareness of environmentalism intersect to create a new symbiosis.“Kitty Hillier
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