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Reflections on Painting with Weather
Essay by Miriam McGarry / Exhibition by Catherine Woo
Photography: Raef Sawford
Painting with Weather is an exploration of natural forces, collaboration with environment, and realisation of ‘process as practice’. Catherine Woo dances between disorder and control to co-create her striking and raw plates.
From the street outside the gallery, visitors can glimpse through a peephole in the tissue-paper lined windows, into the studio space filled with pots, jars, and technical apparatus. Woo’s exhibition Painting with Weather is co-informed by process and resolved ‘product’. This is partly elucidated within the exhibition through the display of Woo’s technical drawings, but the viewer cannot fully comprehend the extent of her method without viewing the adjacent studio where the artist has been working since January.
Woo’s practice is a combination of labour, accident, experiment, surprise, and orchestration- a meeting between control and natural forces. The artist interacts with natural phenomena to create her luminescent and highly tactile weathered surfaces. Painting with Weather does not attempt to achieve a representation or recreation of the weather, and nature writer Robert Macfarlane describes the impossibility of articulating environmental elements,
Natural forces- wild energies- often have the capacity to frustrate representation. Our most precise descriptive language, mathematics, cannot fully account for or predict the flow of water down a stream, or the movements of a glacier or the turbulent rush of wind across uplands. Such actions behave in ways that are chaotic: they operate according to feedback systems of unresolvable delicacy and intricacy
Instead, Woo explores the intra-active collaboration between artist and environment. The process is elemental in a literal sense, as rainwater from outside the gallery is redirected into the studio space, and captured by Woo’s equipment. Through this plumbing intervention into the studio, her practice re-subjects the viewer to the wildness just outside of the gallery walls, and reminds us of societies increasingly distant relationship with the physicality of environmental elements.
Woo channels environmental forces into the studio, and then agitates or de-activates these natural processes on aluminum plates. In this process, Woo is both present and absent. Her practice is part witness/observer to the weather inside her studio, and part as intervener in natural energies. Using the shishi odoshi (a Japanese device used to scare deer with a sudden influx of water), Woo creates miniature floods on her canvas landscapes, but relinquishes control over the effects her deluge will create. This lack of control enhances and enables the collaborative partnership between artist and weather, which Woo describes as an ‘orchestration of unpredictability’ (Interview with the artist).
The relationship between art and science is similarly collaborative and co-constitutive in Woo’s practice. In some respects, the artist takes on a role of apothecary- mixing up solutions: oxides, pigment, sand, and silica. Curator Polly Dance described Woo’s almost ‘ritualistic’ process of changing into her studio outfit, and a peek through the window reveals a well-worn pair of Blundstone boots. However, at the same time, Woo’s practice is informed by a scientific rigor. There is a precision in the way she speaks of her practice, the technical apparatus used, and the experimental methodology she employs. The scientific process of experimentation facilitates opportunities for surprise outcomes, beautiful discrepancies, and accidental divergences.
Woo’s scientific process is documented through notebook extracts pinned to the wall of the gallery Foyer Space, which explicate the methodology behind the striking works. The aluminum plates are coated with calcium carbonate, pigment, and glass beads. Through the display of her notebooks as part of the resolved exhibition, Woo begins to disclose how her process and product are co-dependent and co-constrictive.
The works themselves are striking in the gallery space. They are familiar through the recognisable natural patterns (tide marks on the sand, time worn formations of rocks, drying pools of water, mould or moss growth), but expressed through a foreign canvas. Macfarlane explains this familiarity of natural forms,
…nature also specialises in order and repetition. The fractal habits of certain landscapes, their tendencies to replicate their forms at different scales and in different contexts these can lend a mystical sense of organisation to a place, as though it has been build out of a single repeating unit.
While not a representation of environment, Woo’s canvases convey this dual sense of scale. They are at once vast landscapes, as well as intricate geological and botanical details. Painting with Weather can almost be divided into two series, which are indirect and abstracted impressions of tidal flats and inland salt lakes. The silvery water ways and iron oxide droughts are binary sites of extreme presence and absence of water, rendered on canvas through stimulation and deactivation: flooding and evaporation.
Throughout Painting with Weather Woo has been in studio residence, and has installed an evolving exhibition in Constance Gallery. Over the month duration, the artist introduced new works to the gallery, and experimented with the display of her studies and large-scale canvases. This evolution is reflective of the dynamic relationship between artist and environment, and the process driven practice of Woo. In the second fortnight of the exhibition, Woo installed several larger pieces directly onto the gallery wall, which increased their arresting presence in the space and amplified the relationship between the smaller studies and the final works.
A study suggests a sketch or draft, but that is true of these works on insofar as they are explorative and preparatory. A shelf on the studio wall supports pieces still in development, and this structural device is mimicked in the display of finished pieces in the Main Space of the gallery next door. Woo has installed a temporary plank along one side of the wall, and in this architectural echo, the artist brings some of the studio into Constance. In the gallery, they sit above and below the shelf on the wall, which acts here like a tide line for the watermarks is supports. The studies capture an intimate quality of the larger aluminum canvases, and hint at the experimental and scientific methods informing Woo’s practice.
Catherine Woo’s work is ‘weathered’, but here the natural processes are stimulated, orchestrated, and in responsive partnership with natural forces. Her metallic artworks aren’t rusted by neglect and time, but are stimulated and experimented upon to achieve a trace of the environmental past, in the gallery present.
Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places, 2007, Grant Books, London, p. 246