Sunday, 22 July 2018


'the diviner' 2018
In every sense of the word (and for reasons that will also hopefully become clear) Helen Sear’s exhibition which opened last Friday at Hestercombe Gallery, is divine. Least alone because the show opens with her most recent photographic work, titled ‘The Diviner’ (2018) spectacularly displayed on the gallery’s nineteenth century staircase [pictured]. An epically-sized series of three prints of willow trees taken over two years chronicled as their roots grew and dried with the rising and falling of the water where they grew. Their roots adorned by the artist, with flowers to denote their likeness to skirts; a fitting tribute, in the absence of any actual period-dressed skirted ladies, to the grandeur of Hestercombe’s ballroom-like setting. Many proms, in-fact my own having taken place here some years ago (though I never recall myself or anyone else wearing anything that quite matches the scale that Sear’s tree-skirts convey)! The trees divine water through their roots and mirror-image both their workings above as below, intentionally or not, allude an interesting insight into the dual-nature of Sear’s work depicting her subject matter through multiple viewpoints,  the known and the unknown, both here rendered visible. Its subject matter, scale and situ within the gallery, along with its use of colour and play of illusion through mirror-imagery really set the tone for the other visually intriguing and intellectually beguiling works exhibited. 

“Sear has always, it seems, been interested in looking with, looking round and looking through as she is in looking at.”

'stack' 2015
Sitting on the periphery between photography and fine art the works on show in ‘prospect refuge’ are united in being influenced by Sear’s interest in nature and our 'human/animal relationships within it'. The title of the show influenced by a concept from natural history writer, Jay Appleton whose concept of ‘prospect refuge’ states, ‘the perceived beauty of a landscape is directly linked to human survival’. Personally speaking, I am unsure if the images I see consciously trigger thoughts of survival, though I do find many of the stills from Sear’s film-based pieces, with their strong use of colour and focus on textures (a curtain, a net, light through trees) to be beautiful in an aesthetic sense. Maybe much of what we know of 'survival' in relation to the natural landscape has been lost or is now only ingrained in our subconscious? I am unsure, but this psychological-edge to the work creates a double-take in how it is perceived by the viewer. The film/sound piece ‘wahaha biota’ (2018) made for The Forestry Commission England that shows the planting and processing of trees is an example of how Sear’s work creates a sense of intrigue and beauty through green-filtered scenes of meadows and dappled forests in contrast to the isolation and strange sounds that also give these places an edge of being dark, primal and slightly foreboding. Though the overall impression I get is that for what is mostly an exhibition using photography it is surprising just how painterly, immersive and in some cases sculptural the images are. 

The exhibition features photographic and film-based works from 2015 onwards with the implied cross-over between sculpture and photography being an idea that the artist herself acknowledges within one of the first pieces you encounter in the gallery. Titled ‘Stack’, [pictured above] a pile of stacked logs is displayed on a large scale, which in-turn is also physically sliced and stacked vertically as an image along the gallery wall forming a visual blockade that is physically felt as well as seen,

‘a meeting of photography and sculpture, or treating the photographic image as sculptural,...’

In a visual-sense these logs are a series of cylinders piled onto one another, but it also raises feelings of deforestation, man's relationship with the forest, ideas of the homestead and stacking logs used for fires and so on. The doubling-up of the captured-moment of an image of stacked logs versus the stacking of the physical image itself calls into question the visual play between illusion and perception.  A theme explored across a number of Sear’s works from when she exhibited in the Welsh pavilion in the Venice Biennale in 2015. 

'...caetera fumus' 2015  
One of several pieces from the Venice Biennale exhibited at Hestercombe, titled ‘...caetera fumus’ reads almost like a transcription of the original painting of St Sebastian [1490] it was inspired from by Andrea Mantegna.  Instead of a figure the landscape becomes the protagonist, a bright yellow field in contrast to red twigs become symbols for blooded arrows and a light-box becomes a modern-day interpretation of creating a glaze in paint and almost celestial-like luminosity associated with religious imagery. In the same room, the curation of the quote, ‘Nihil nisi divinum stabile est. Caetera fumus’ [which translates as ‘Nothing is stable if not divine, the rest is smoke’] displayed, in my mind rather wittily, above the fireplace and refers to the impermanence of all things. I am fortunate to have seen these works before in Venice where the context of this work was closely tied to the building it was shown in, however, I feel that the work has more autonomy in the context of Hestercombe away from the heat and saturation of art in Venice where it can be contemplated quietly and more fully than I allowed time for previously. 

Colour and the reference to painting (as we have already had with sculpture) are also present in another series of photographs called ‘brand 1’ and ‘brand 2’. You could almost take these images on first glance to be paintings, stains or rubbings. 

“My use of colour is also to do with a convergence of the synthetic and the natural, using heightened colour to explore relationships between light and pigment, painting and photography.”

I think they are a photograph of a marking on a tree, but for me the uncertainty and place it fits between being photo and non-photo, is it a documentation of a moment in time or is it merely an image? Are these colours natural or manmade, real or unreal? Are questions what make these and many of Sear’s images worth revisiting.

“Her process of production often suggest a series of veils or membranes that may be alternately piled up and peeled away...Rather than merely giving us the world, or giving us to it, the photographic act is an overlayering , of times and places, signs and sensations.”

'the beginning and the end of things' 2015
The projection piece, shown on the floor ‘the beginning and the end of things’ (2015) is another example where our sense of perception is skewed and how Sear adapts her medium of film and photography to create something that (like ‘Stack’) her audience almost 'physically' encounters rather than merely 'looks-at', as one tries to work out what this unfamiliar amoeba-like changing coloured thing is. Her work has been linked to ideas within Surrealism and I can see why within this work particularly as it conveys an ever-changing puddle within which the trees and sky are reflected but at the same time are an illusion of the real-thing, an Alice in Wonderland-like portal to another world... It is real and unreal at the same time, uncanny, slightly trippy and strange but oddly also more engaging because of those things than had it been static or on the wall. Once again there is also something very painterly/impressionistic in its fluidity. It is not the only piece in the exhibition either where Sear combines new technology along with nature/natural images drones are used in the film piece, 'moments of capture' (2016).

There is more to be seen in this exhibition than I have referred to here in what is also worth noting is Sear's first solo show but second time exhibiting at Hestercombe, having shown work in 2015's 'Double Take'. Then as now, I feel that her use of colour, modes of display and references to painting/fine art is more exciting, inventive and engaging than I have felt about a lot of photography as a medium previously. It is great to have that perception challenged as it is also worth reiterating how great it is to see these works on my doorstep and I would encourage others to do the same. 

Helen Sear’s 'prospect refuge hazard 2' is on at Hestercombe Gallery until October 28th

Quotes sourced from: Drake, D (2015) Helen Sear: ...the rest is smoke, Ffotogallery Wales Limited: Cardiff 

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