Everard Read Cape Town
At first, the paintings in Tanya Poole’s ‘Ancient Codes’ seem to be concerned with the gentle and delicate objects we might encounter in nature: Birds nests, spider webs, or a patch of trampled grass all give off the illusion of a body of work firmly rooted in all things docile and bucolic. However, through an exploration of her own artistic technique, and the metaphor of genetics, Poole’s body of work becomes an urgent reminder that, even in the most uncertain of times, instinct and resolve can give way to meaning.
Exhibited at Cape Town’s Everard Read gallery, ‘Ancient Codes’ is a collection of large-scale ink-on-paper works inspired by the natural environment. Trees, grass, nests, and cells all feature prominently throughout the show, each bit of nature showcasing its innate ability to provide structure, shelter, stability, or life. While retreating into nature in search of beauty or inspiration has a long history in the arts, Poole’s objectives move beyond the simple act of admiration and replication.
Poole is seemingly fascinated with her place in the world, and the act of better situating or contextualising herself and her surroundings through the immediate environment. Mark-making is a means of making sense of all of these things. This can be seen in her first solo exhibition with the gallery, ‘The Island’, where a residency on an Indonesian island populated by palm trees prompted a deep-dive into the artist’s own upbringing and belonging, geographically and otherwise. Now, in ‘Ancient Codes’, Poole expands on these motifs.
Works such as Cradle, a soft and earthy (both in colour and in composition) tangling of twigs and leaves tentatively bound together by the silvery strings of a spider’s web, can be a whimsical genealogical map or a complicated historical recess. Inheritance puts forward a fractured and complicated image that reads at first as a hazy memory or a glimpse through a wintery canopy. Here, the work’s title does a great deal for its interpretation. Are these the tenuous branches of a family tree, some tapered off and lost to history, others tangled up and wildly overgrown? Are the watery blotches of ink dark marks on our ecological history or are they indicative of the things we inherit through time or lineage?
Tangle, Unfurl from Deadwood, or the black and white canopies that comprise the Trees series of works all move beyond mere observational study and into the realms of deep contemplation – a yearning and a compulsion to pause, look up, and see beyond the interlaced and entangled treetops and towards whatever lies beyond them. The branches in these works are in varying stages of growth and regrowth, some flush with leaves and flowers, others bare and brittle, but all of them in communication with one another. As noted in the exhibition’s accompanying statement, these works can be read as Poole’s meditations on the mycorrhizal network of chemicals and signals between plants, ‘not dissimilar to our own brains’ network of neurons,’ she explains.
Scale is a pertinent factor in ‘Ancient Codes’. With most of the works measuring around 150 x 200 cm, Poole introduces an empathetic and almost supernatural element to her works. ‘I painted small nests on small pieces of paper and threw them away. They were inklings. I painted outsize nests on large sheets of paper and these felt better: in proportion to a human body, they could be a place an artist or a viewer might want to crawl inside,’ she notes in her artist statement.
As Poole illustrates, in her words and her paintings, there is a move, during these sad and indeterminate times, towards the concrete – a stretch of solid ground to land on, or someplace strong enough to endure the storm. Similarly, there is a yearning for a certain degree of intimacy or interconnectedness with others, like a network of trees and birds and other living things able to communicate in their silent, knowing ways. Art may help us in this regard, but it is not enough. Science, nature, and the inherent and ancient codes written into our DNA are another way of approaching the world or at least puzzling it out. Through the works of Poole, then, we are given a gentle reminder: Return to old ways of seeing. Have faith in the ‘innateness’ of things. Find new methods of rebuilding the world. Seek out shelter in a dried-up vespiary or a fortified weaver’s nest, and begin to string the web back together again.