Onya McCausland 'Sited - (Salt Green / Blue Earth)

3 Mar 2012 – 26 Mar 2012


St Ives, United Kingdom


Save Event: Onya McCausland 'Sited - (Salt Green / Blue Earth)

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Salt Green/Blue Earth Salt Green/Blue Earth refers to copper carbonates also known as Azurite. The name Azurite is derived from the Arabic - al lazuwar related to lapis lazuli - meaning ‘from over the seas'. The pigment is formed by salty minerals weathering copper ores inside the earth and leaking through the granite slowly turning blue and green, so the colour is formed by the conditions of the landscape. I use this colour because it recalls the history of painting, from its use in medieval wall paintings to the landscape paintings of the St.Ives School. The colour comes from a mine near Zennor, three miles outside St.Ives. Relocated in the gallery, it is separated from its original source, but it remains related to it. I am interested in the affinity between video projection and wall painting, in that doubt can exist between stability and change. The wall surface gives way to an immersive fluid space in the film ‘Salt Green/Blue Earth' and an ‘horizon line' slowly emerges. The paintings explore relationships between components parts in singular works. Each is partly painted directly onto the gallery wall, dividing the work, so that it exists in two sites — between fixed and unfixed states, emphasising tension between surface presence and the illusion of space. Visual overlaps between the 2 dimensional and 3 dimensional further undermine a single stable point of reference. To make each of these works I have taken pieces from landscapes and turned them into pigment, starting with a journey to the site I am interested in, then dig or climb underground. Manual processes of washing and grinding change the material into paint. It is this physical transition and transformation that interests me as much as the act of painting itself. Onya McCausland, 2012 INTRODUCTION ONYA McCAUSLAND: Paintings from beneath the earth Onya McCausland's work comes from beneath the earth. It is also of it. She travels down mines, used or disused, and collects rocks. Iron oxide, manganese, black earth, chalk, which she then brings to the surface, to begin her process of transformation. Handfuls of the sludge are put into water and stirred. All the gravel and detritus quickly sink to the bottom and the colour is suspended in the water which she pours off into a clean container, and leaves to settle for a day. Then the clear water is poured off, leaving the pigment in the bottom. This must now be dried out, either in a low oven at 80 degrees, or left in the sun, then ground with a mortar and pestle. Finally it's put through a fine sieve to remove any remaining debris. The result is pure earth pigment. But this is not the alchemy, though it is the start. The alchemy is what happens later, when the pigment in its turn is transformed. When you look at these works, you are not remotely aware of these processes. There is such a remarkable lightness of touch that it seems as though the works have simply been breathed on to the wall, you don't think of them as having been ‘constructed', or laboured over; rather, they seem to belong to the wall as though by their very nature. But constructed they are, made out of those same rocks brought up into the air, from those same mines. No sign here of the precarious climbing through the tunnels, or the persuading of the authorities for permission to open up the disused places which have been left dark and untouched for decades, sometimes longer. What we then see shown on these walls are the simplest of all possible geometric shapes. Though in Onya's case it is not just geometry — the shapes she uses are so simple as to hardly warrant the name. It is certainly not about geometry as such, and hardly, even, about ‘relationships', which is what defines almost all art, if not indeed all that exists in the world. She creates squares, circles — although her circles are not quite circles, nor yet quite ovals — you hardly notice that, but it teases you. And precisely next to the rock/pigment shape she has constructed, on the wall she paints the thinnest, most translucent wash of that same pigment, which then appears as its shadow. But not just shadow: it becomes both shadow and part of the whole. Shadow and substance as one. Another kind of teasing. As though some minute microscopic force, like a seed, for example, is somehow animated by an internal force, until it expands, gently, using only its own material, until it achieves its ultimate shape and form: its destiny. No different, in many ways, from the growth of an apple, or thistle, or many things natural and organic, which when fully formed achieve a surprising perfection. What we see at the end of this process is a unified image that is both simple and complex. A shape. You couldn't really call it ‘reduced' — because reduced from what? — but nevertheless a shape, or form, that does many things, in spite of all appearance to the contrary. There is something deeply serious about these works, but simultaneously such lightness that you feel you are waiting for them to escape. In Red Earth, she cast a truncated triangle from red Iron Oxide, hung it horizontally on the wall, and painted beneath it the palest shadow of itself, as though reflected. Nothing to it, you would think. But it seems to tip over to you, about to fall, and only keeps its place on the wall by some invisible sleight of hand. You are disconcerted and comforted at the same time. As with the deep Black with Shadow. Its two sides - cut off where they meet — are reflected, echoed, or completed, by the other. There seems to be no clue as to how to read it, partly because you have to make an act of will to see it as being actually on the wall. The illusion of the wings of the object detaching themselves from the wall remains even when you have understood the reality. And in White Earth the line that appears at its centre — made from nothing, it seems, except catching the light, the work takes on an almost sacred dimension. These works absorb light, sometimes as though into the deepest void. And they also emit light, partly from the object itself, as a result of its atomic density, with some sense there of its history, its residue as ‘stuff', as material found and collected from deep underground. Mined material. It is not then neatly cut and remade and replaced, or replicated. It has gone through processes that are almost alchemical: from lumps of rock, to distilled shard, from shard to sludge, then to be ground, finely, by hand or machine, into pigment. And always with the intention of being put to use, to eventually become something. Something else. Onya herself speaks of ‘an integral order' that is part of this process. It is almost impossible now to buy true ‘earth' colours. Onya's pigments have nothing of the industrial processes that go towards the fabrication of paint bought in tubes. These works are somehow complete in themselves. There is no external reference, or even really metaphor. The simplicity of the language, the familiarity of the geometry, roots them strongly enough in our vision and experience not to require anything more. Although more there is: if not metaphor, then layered history, even adventure; they extend and expand the way pigment has been used since it was first discovered. For some artists the reason for their work lies in their need to tell the world something of what they feel, see, experience. We sometimes call this ‘expressing ourselves'. Onya does not do this. We don't think of her when we look at her works. On the contrary, she points to something in the world, and of the world, that affects us without our being aware of being so affected. A series of transformations: from the world — or the earth — into the world. And these substances that have, in themselves, no meaning apart from being of the earth beneath our feet, are taken and shaped by the human hand. They are transformed again, and acquire meaning. These contradictions, of weight and lightness, substance and shadow, stability and instability, are part of what keep you looking. You look also, at these substantial works that seem to be also floating, that through the illusion of shape and material, seem to be separating themselves from the wall, and cannot quite grasp how they do this. They are part, a continuing part, of a long tradition. Whether you think of the thirty-odd thousand year old cave paintings, made with such limited means; of the discoveries and uses of perspective in the Italian renaissance, of ‘Land Art', or the attempt by recent Minimalists to reduce and distil art to almost nothing, this is a continuation of that thread. But Onya has moved that thread forward again, because her new paintings — paintings? — are not the same as the Minimalists. She hasn't let go of the Ariadne's thread of searching for that particular depth of expression — better not use the word ‘purity' here — but she has moved it on. Because we haven't seen work quite like this before. She has achieved that most difficult of tasks, to make work that is truly and completely simple, and at the same time so rich, so evocative, that the degree of its complexity exactly matches that simplicity. They are at one and the same time object and illusion. Tess Jaray, London, 2011


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