Penny Siopis: In the Air
Presently on view at Stevenson, Amsterdam is In the Air by Penny Siopis. The exhibition demonstrates Siopis’ particular focus on materiality and the ‘life’ of non-human matter, extending her inquisition on contingency, empathy and the imaginative possibilities of formlessness through paintings and her most recent film.
Atlas, the series of 57 paintings central to this exhibition, was created in the artist’s living space, ‘thick with fumes and dreams and the ever-present view of the sea’, over the recent period of isolation. Siopis writes:
This is the first time I have lived with my paintings, or rather in my paintings, as they literally clad the walls around me, and the first time I have painted by the sea. The protean sea, the epitome of change, morphing all the time; this has had a potent painterly effect on me, despite my longstanding affair with flux and fluidity.
Seclusion brought Siopis the opportunity to reconceptualise how she combines processes within her practice. Drawing from art historian Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, in which numerous seemingly unrelated images were juxtaposed in ways that prompted new visual and psychological associations, these works are arranged as individual chapters – collectivised yet unique. Uniform in size while varying in technique, each functions as a stage for Siopis’ visual incidents; some paintings foreground the liquid overlay prominent in her recent glue and ink works, others feature dense layers of ink and oil paint with areas of sgraffito-like reduction. Fundamentally guided by an ecological consciousness, these works were all made from repurposed materials. She continues:
The lifeblood of the paintings is liquid ink and viscous glue which alter when coming into contact with air, water, gravity and my hand, with everything moving in tune with the open receptive tooth of the paper. Later creamy, crusty, sticky oil paint joins the fray, and endless possibilities emerge, each a potential image and site for imagining both within and beyond the bounds of the page.
Each seems like a scene – someone described seeing operas – but you can’t tell what’s going on. There are bodily-looking things, animal-like forms, vegetable shapes. Stains and swathes that have the feeling of water, wind, fire. Bits and pieces fly around, float; some fall or sink into substance, drown. Other surfaces erupt, break out. Presences peer from behind curtains, visors, tear barriers, touch other presences, distill into dots that read as eyes, beat their breasts, have tantrums, seem like grief, appear like love, ecstatic, tragic. But these are nothing but visual incidents. Material twists and turns on the page. Capacious colour stains. Paint skin thick enough to catch the light. Cut into, perforated, at times to draw you in. Glue, once writhing, now dry, suspended animation – gestures of formless matter. In this particular uncertainty, everything is open to being shaped; you can see things in things. The air is thick with the times.
Described by the artist as ‘individual catastrophes’, the figurative elements in these suggestive scenes allude to present anxieties around vulnerability, violence and environmental collapse, themes that find resonance in Siopis’ film She Breathes Water. An early version was included in a vein of ‘collateral illumination’ in the artist’s previous exhibition, Warm Water Imaginaries (2019); here, the film in its final form features as an oblique mirror to the paintings, echoing their concerns yet weaving an autonomous narrative. She Breathes Water, too, exists as a palimpsest, constructed with found footage and audio, foregrounding non-hierarchical meaning-making and the relationality that, for Siopis, is not just a formal feature but a guiding philosophy. Siopis writes:
‘She’, the protagonist, is an octopus, a creature who started out life with us human creatures, and somehow we lost her the moment we took our terrestrial (and territorial) turn, the path that led to the destruction of the planet… Here she is offering us her ink to help us redeem ourselves and start to write a new history ‘not all about our might’.
She Breathes Water premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in 2019 and will be featured in Stevenson’s debut presentation at the LOOP video art fair, based in Barcelona but taking place online, in November.
Penny Siopis: In the Air runs until 9 January 2021 at Stevenson Amsterdam.
May 14, 2021
May 12, 2021