Earth Pigments and Resilience: A Shifting Landscape Through 'Relative Terrains’

Published by: Carol Schwarzman | 7-Nov-2023
Relative Terrains maps the dramatic shifts in our environmental cycles and how this informs our internal and external experiences. The work traverses the geological terrain and volcanic landscapes of the Northern Rivers, NSW, Australia and explores how we, the inhabitants of the land, form and change with the forces of the elements, time and life experiences. The exhibition of Relative Terrains was initially scheduled to take place in Lismore Regional Gallery, however due to significant damage suffered by the gallery during the 2022 floods, The exhibition was postponed and later relocated to Grafton Regional Gallery. The research works of Relative Terrains have evolved amidst many climatic stressors, including droughts, fires, floods, and a pandemic. The work explores the influence of elemental forces, temporal dynamics, and personal life experiences on the shaping, adaptation, and transformation of individuals. #relativeterrains @k.a.r.m.a.a.r.t.s
Venue: Grafton Regional Gallery
Address: Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and Yaegl Country, Grafton, NSW, Australia
Date: 16th Sept - 12th November 2023
Call: +64450707709
Earth Pigments and Resilience: A Shifting Landscape Through Relative Terrains
Request Image Contact:
Image Copyright / CDN: Yaka Adamic
The immersive world of 'Relative Terrains', tracing the imprints of external dynamics re-configuring and altering our internal landscapes and terrains.
A collaborative exhibition, Relative Terrains presents the work of artists Karma Barnes and Robèrt Franken. The pair first met almost twenty-five-years ago, and have since evolved their art-based friendship into a creative, material alliance, based upon mutual affinities. Indeed, as evidenced in this contemplative, poetic exhibition, Relative Terrains is all about relationships – about the way humans are defined by affiliations and interdependencies – with each other, with other-than-humans, and as immersed in the environment. Whether the singular works in Relative Terrains speak of form, pigment, geology, culture or community, as a whole, the exhibition works to invite the viewer into a shared space where they experience reverie, equilibrium and calm.

In fact, balance and gravity each play an important role in every artwork. Most literally, in Barnes’ sculptural installation, CO-Lapses (2023), a group of seven suspended, elegant pods release streams of variously coloured, finely ground pigments onto the floor. As the downward-spilling red and yellow ochres, cream and tan particles form tiny hills, they are walled-in by curved Perspex, allowing a cutaway view of pigment strata. This small-scale vertical surface of layered sediment recalls geological processes building multi-coloured, millenia-old rock formations, and the passage of deep time. Additionally, the pods themselves have been designed to reference a backstory. While Barnes was working in her studio, she discovered that mud wasps were accessing her soil pigments to build their carefully shaped nests on the ceiling above her. Their results were, of course, multi-hued. Awe-struck by such a literal, visual example of inter-species entanglement, Barnes created CO-Lapses as poetic tribute to the wasps’ diligence and artistry. Her felt connection to the wasps’ lifecycle, (beginning as eggs, transforming into larvae, then as cocooned pupae, resulting in emergence as adults), intuitively linked to changes we experience throughout our human lives. CO-Lapses can be said to be a confirmation of intersubjectivity, defined as, “the notion that reality is co-constructed by participants in a relationship and in society”. As such, for Barnes, “society” encompasses a world co-created by humans and nonhumans.

In Franken’s splendid painting A Window to Reflect (2022), weightlessness and balance, mark-making and colour form a visual dialogue. With a buoyant sense of movement, flow and gesture, and contrasting earthly, dark umber framework, A Window to Reflect references life cycles of growth and decay. Directly in front, Barnes’ floor installation Earthly Embodiments: Shifting Landscapes (2023) works to convey the intersection of humans’ life experiences with climatic and geological events. How do human histories and landscape transformations influence one another? How can art express these experiences in tangible artifacts of significance? Here, Barnes has installed a 8 metre-long, low-lying plinth comprised of vintage Grafton bricks retrieved during renovation of the Art Gallery. The bricks have been semi-coated with a (now hardened) pinkish slip of liquid metamorphic earth. Lined up along the length of the bricks in subtly shifting tones, approximately thirty-five small, sculptural soil spheres reference transformation and the passage of time. They draw inspiration from the Japanese art of making dorodangos from soil, and employ earth derived from locations disrupted and damaged by landslides. The spheres have been transfigured through processes of compacting and burnishing, replicating here on a small scale geological processes occurring similarly on vast terrestrial spaces. At one end of Earthly Embodiments: Shifting Landscapes, the spheres gradually disintegrate into loose particles and pieces, following a stream of hardened metamorphic earth down onto the floor, signaling breakdown and entropy. In this installation, 19th century bricks bear unknown human stories of labour and creativity that converge with nonhuman materialities of earth, fire, and water.

Clearly, it is Palimpsest: Echoes of Creation and Transformation (2023), a three-year project, that coalesces the artists’ shared concerns into true collaboration. This large-scale installation combining painting and sculpture is comprised of earth pigments, acrylics and oils, and ink on prepared marine ply. Palimpsest presents fifteen large, cut-out biomorphic shapes hung from the ceiling, forming a circle. Each shape is painted on both back and front, with Barnes using paints, on one side, made from foraged pigments, and Franken, painting on the reverse, employing traditional oil paints and ink. Together, their respective painting styles refer to a central thematic thread of Relative Terrains, namely, that the landscapes in which we conduct our lives affect our experience of life – from our immersion in slow transitions of deep geological time, to cataclysmic environmental events which occur increasingly often. Barnes’ softly-hued, mineral-toned paint, applied in graceful, fluid passages, suggests an introspective landscape of thoughtful reflection on life experience. She says of working with found, natural pigments that, “Earth pigments, produced by natural forces over aeons, are the material, interface and mediator through which different elements meet, carrying the records of the land's creation and transformation that are metaphors for our own stories as co-creators of our life’s evolutionary process”. Franken’s compositions speak more of aerial maps of physical terrain of mountains, valleys, paths and waterways. Yet both artists’ aesthetic voices speak of the Earth, of our profound relationship to the soil, and of the imprint of time on humanity, embodied in the natural world.

In their gridded, orderly presentation, Relative Cartographies (2023) and Mapping Internal & External Terrains - Community Cartography (2023) document Barnes’ recent social engagement practice. Produced with pigments submitted by community contributors and studied in follow-up workshops, three installations explore the intersection of art, mapping, and personal experiences through collection and identification of earth pigments of Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and Yaegl Country, Northern Rivers area, NSW. Examples of pigment samples and stories include: “Bush fire charcoal taken from the landscape of the Northern Rivers bush fires of 2019”; “Murwillumbah flood mud 2022, South Murwillumbah flooded shed”; and “Red Rock composed of 300-million-year-old Jasper”. In these works, Barnes has composed pigment samples into lush tonal arrays of subtly varying reds and yellows, umbers, greys and black. This methodical study of the aesthetic qualities of pigment hints at quantitative data produced by scientific rigour. However, the installations comprise material and emotional cartographies mapping human and nonhuman narratives, made to rebuild and strengthen bonds of attachment, to push back against crisis and loss, and to care for beauty and country. Rather than emerging from a purely factual, scientific regimen, these collaborative works accentuate intersubjectivity of living and non-living entities entangled through aesthetics, experiences and influences exchanged over time. Barnes’ and Franken’s collaborative efforts steadily remind us to value our interconnectedness, and prompt us to contemplate the ways in which these external dynamics have reconfigured and altered our internal landscapes and terrains.

Relative Terrains
Grafton Regional Gallery
158 Fitzroy Street
16 September - 12 November 2023

Karma Barnes is an interdisciplinary artist born and raised in Tāmaki Makaurau, New Zealand who lives and works here on Bundjalung Country, Northern Rivers. Her art encompasses site-specific installations, painting, and participatory practices. With a focus on engaging communities, Karma's large-scale projects involve collaboration with numerous individuals. For the past 15 years, she has explored pigments and soils, examining the critical connections between people and the land. Her work has reached a wide audience, with exhibitions across Australasia, Europe, Asia, and the USA, engaging over 15,000+ participants in her site-specific works. Most recently Karma's work has been exhibited at the MACRO ASILO Museum of Contemporary Art Rome and the New Mexico State University Museum.

Karma's art explores how creativity can aid communities in processing and understanding themselves during times of crisis and change. She delves into the relationships between nature, culture, and human experiences, drawing inspiration from the cycles of life, death, creation, and destruction. Through primal elements and impermanence, her work investigates how internal and external encounters shape and transform us.

Robert Franken is a Dutch painter based in Wellington, New Zealand, sculptor and arts educator whose practise has spanned 60 years. Robert was born in the Hague, The Netherlands, a sixth-generation artist Robert was brought up in the studios connected to the Panorama Mesdag Museum. Robert studied from 1963 at the Free Academy of Arts, the Hague, The Netherlands. Upon completion of his studies, Robert emigrated to New Zealand to pursue his artistic career in a new environment.

Robert has extensively exhibited internationally with exhibitions in Switzerland, The Netherlands, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Recently Robert was invited to the 7th Beijing International Art Biennial, China. His work is held in a number of prestigious private and public collections. For Robert, the process of art-making is a journey of meeting himself in unexpected places.

Carol Schwarzman is a visual artist and arts writer based in Meanjin/Brisbane. She is currently a PhD candidate at University of Queensland. Her research focuses on art-science collaborations with nonhumans in the Anthropocene.

Newsletter Sign Up

Join Our Growing Community

ART NEWS PORTAL is a global crowd sourced art news feed.
Everyone is welcome to share their art and culture related news.