Salon 91, Cape Town
17.09.2014 – 11.10.2014
The exhibition ‘Distance’, at Salon 91, showcases the works of two promising Cape Town artists, Kirsten Lilford and Sarah Biggs – both former UCT Michaelis graduates. On the opening night I was asked to review the show. This seemed challenging as I perhaps experience a lack of distance from one of the artists involved. Kirsten Lilford and I have been friends since high school and my family photographs have often provided raw materials for her work. Images of my husband and father are presented in this particular show. Sarah Biggs, on the other hand, I have only been exposed to via her final year work at Michaelis. After meeting with her recently for coffee and a chat I found a closer understanding of her work and concerns.
The works of both artists share a close proximity through their use of photographs as a point of departure. Lilford discovers her photographs in photo albums of family and friends. She locates her work in imagery of the family and recorded imagery of leisure activities – events that she herself has experienced. The photographs that Sarah Biggs selects to work from are images that are distant from her experiences. She describes her process for this show as a kind of imagining of the experiences of her geologist friends’ work when they are away in the field.
Like Gerhard Richter, despite their works being rooted in photographs, both artist’s concerns are first and foremost painterly – emphatically not of photographs rendered in paint. As Sarah Biggs explained, there is a stage in her painting process at which she removes the photographic reference and works according the painting’s own guides. Biggs in a work like It’s all relative uses minimal paint, working in thin washes and even allowing the canvas to show through. Lilford, on the other hand, vigorously works the canvas, creating both thick and thin layers, scrumbling and reworking – forming a dense painted surface. Both artists travel the distance between figuration and abstraction, letting the images at times almost dissolve while tentatively holding on to form.
This idea is perhaps a little stronger in Biggs, who plays with notions of distance and obscurity. In many of her works the distance and diminution evoked by the landscapes dwarf her figures. It is a concept which also extends to her titles. She asks us the question: How long?; she puts things in perspective: It’s all relative; she affirms our location: This must be the place, yet tells us that it is a: Long Way Off. In these too, with their reference to nature, notions of the sublime are present along with man’s attempts to discover, quantify and measure land. She playfully suggests the distance between land and knowledge with titles like search party, for your information, gathering dust, and hypothesis. Others, like oh and encounter, suggust a contact with the sublime.
Biggs’ palette of warm and cool tones is often startling in its vividness, stunning the viewer into seeing the painted surface. The landscapes of Bigg’s work become at times volcanic surfaces of molten lava or watery depths, unstable and liquid. Yet they are anchored through her figures and her more figurative works. The figures in Biggs’ works are often solitary ones, toiling and exploring the shifting landscapes or marking their paths with brightly coloured flags.
Conversely Lilford’s figures are rarely solitary, and where they are it feels like they are on the edges of some group activity. Her work evokes a nostalgia for summer days with friends and family – a nostalgia, however, that is distanced from us by the intangible haze of fading memories. In Distance she presents scenes of children playing, couples boating and friends relaxing on loungers together. These images have a foggy flatness to them, which at once invites us in and closes us off. The ever-present water is soft and misty, yet is also an impenetrable blanket. It suggests translucence but is opaque. The recurrent theme of water in Lilford’s work of boats and inner tubes arrested in paint takes on the suggestion of a waterborne journey.
Lilford and I have often mused that the images she selects to work from are frequently mundane – yet through their ordinariness, her paintings evoke the Freudian notion of the ‘uncanny’. The uncanny suggests that something can simultaneously be familiar and strange, and that the uncanny, as Freud suggested, moves along a continuum of comfort and alienation. Lilfords’s work shifts between summer haze and deep shadows, giving the paintings an unsettling nature. The images of the everyday become a site for exploring paint. For me, Lilford’s works operate best when they hover on the verge of abstraction, when forms tangle and disentangle through their painterly shaping or when they flatten out in planes enlivened by their painted surface.
‘Distance’ invites the viewer to consider the space between photographic representation and painterly reality. It leads us to consider the process of painting and its formation of the depicted image. Both Biggs and Lilford’s works originated from photographs but their painted surfaces create a distance from these origins and call us to consider the passage of their painting.