To blur the edges
In her paintings and installations, emerging artist Tyne Gordon seeks an effect that is internal and intimate, expansive and wild. Andrew Paul Wood speaks to the artist about the ideas and influences behind her visceral textures and surfaces.
As environmental concerns make us feel the bond between our own bodies and that of the earth keenly, artists will find ways to explore that relationship. That’s one of many threads that run through the work of rising Christchurch-based artist Tyne Gordon, a talent going places.
After graduating from the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts with honours in painting in 2015, Gordon very quickly made her mark, becoming in 2018 the 31st recipient of the Olivia Spencer Bower award.
This gave her a year to fully concentrate on her studio practice, expanding her painting and sculpture work into installation. The animistic relationship between landscape and the body emerged strongly in the resulting exhibitions Double Dribble at Canterbury University’s Ilam Campus Gallery and Double Dribble 2 at Christchurch gallery The National.
“I’m interested in how a space can direct and influence where you move and how you feel,” she says. “In Double Dribble and Double Dribble 2,
I emphasised the personality of the gallery spaces. The space becomes part of the overall composition. My paintings and objects hold a dialogue with the spaces they inhabit, and the viewer is an interactive witness to this dialogue. The viewer becomes part of the experience.”
Gordon is notable for her adventurous incorporation – in unexpected ways – of unusual materials into her work; an important part of what makes her art so striking. The materials are every bit as important as the image in the work. Inspiration can even be found while doing the dishes.
“Landscape subjects and interior textures, surfaces and materials are things that have always been an influence,” she says. “I like the way a surface or material, taken out of context, can be evocative but stripped bare of its original narrative. For example, one of my frames I made from resin and Steelo pot scrubbers. Even though I used an everyday washing-up material, in the frame it transformed into an unknown texture. It’s not overt – it becomes more about the Steelo’s form and colour, the wispiness and curls of the steel amongst translucent, glistening plastic.”
Gordon’s ambiguous paintings might depict a part of the body, a landscape, or be an abstraction of either or both.
“It began with finding anthropomorphic qualities in nature by giving elemental forms a personality,” says Gordon. “Since I’ve stopped using photographic references as departure points, my work has become blurred in terms of its representation. A rocky crater can also be read as a flesh wound, or orifice. I want my work to evoke human existence within the sublime… To blur the edges between something internal and intimate with something expansive and wild.”
In the first Double Dribble, kitschy, crusty-impastoed garden-centre fountains perched on AstroTurf seemed to allude to body openings and geographical bodies of water. Of them Gordon says: “I see fountains like metaphors for the life of the body, the circular repetition of fluid references the cycle of the human body, a cycle which also inevitably has an expiry date. That’s why I choose to not have the fountains working, they are shells of something that once was alive. They display the left-behind sediment of repetition and movement.”
That archaeological approach is bound up in Gordon’s fascination with the qualities of her materials, which have so far included glass, marble, modelling clay, found objects and soap, frequently looking back to the similar use of materials by feminist artists, such as Janine Antoni, from the 1970s onwards. Gordon elaborates: “Materiality has always been at the forefront of my process and I get excited about how different materials and surfaces evoke the body, or the memory of something visceral. This relationship to materials is especially evident in my recent fountain works.”
Landscape has long held maternal connotations, going back to the personification of the earth as a mother goddess. Inevitably, where the human body is under philosophical investigation, so is sex, gender and identity. The ambiguities of Gordon’s practice lend themselves to a multitude of readings at a time when our understanding of those categories are in flux and constantly being challenged.
“I have been obsessed with depicting these ‘mound’ forms which all have an inlet, and people do read them as vaginal,” says Gordon, “but my work always holds a balance between various opposites, so what you look at can evoke many things. I love that uncertainty. That confusion usually ends with a feeling or emotion instead of a clear reading of something.”
The organic forms and corrupted textures, and the extension of metaphorical body into the corporeal earth, invoke Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection – the horror one feels when the barrier between the self and the subjective ‘other’ of our environment breaks down. Often manifesting in art and popular culture as gyno-horror kitsch, the realisation is that we aren’t skin deep, but full of viscera.
Gordon appropriates that abjection into something beautiful and empowering, providing a paradox and frisson that powers a lot of her recent work. The hint of a David Cronenberg-type aesthetic is never very far away – seen in the uncanny counterpoint of obvious artifice with fleshy hues.
“Kristeva’s ideas around the abject are influential to me and my work,” Gordon says. “The oozing, dripping, bleeding of fluid materials is a big part of my practice. And the abject nature of orifices and the inside/outside fear of what we don’t see really interests me. There’s a scene in the film Possession (1981) which resonates with me. The protagonist is having some sort of possessed convulsions and milky thick fluid is oozing, spitting and projecting out of her mouth and body. Although horrific and unsettling, the expression and movement of the actor’s performance and the materiality of the fluid is somewhat beautiful and dramatic. This juxtaposition of emotions is something I try to create.”
This year, Gordon received a Creative New Zealand grant to explore the geothermal areas of the Bay of Plenty. Her work has a complex, even Romantic relationship with the natural realm, and increasingly the artist has moved from mediated source material in reproductions to seeking out direct experience of the sublime in nature.
“My first excursion to a particular landscape was Iceland back in 2016,” she says. “I was lucky enough to be awarded an Ethel Susan Jones Fine Arts Travelling Scholarship through the University of Canterbury. I wasn’t quite sure how to approach my investigation into Iceland, so I took a lot of photographs and did some audio field recordings. I initially thought I would exhibit photographs or paint from the photographs from my trip, but that didn’t sit with me. This was the beginning of making work which didn’t use any photographic reference. When I look back at this time it was the beginning of my exploration of colour, form and texture in a more abstracted manner.”
There is something compelling in Gordon’s change of direction. It sits within a broader recent phenomenon of artists turning away from the rarefied atmosphere of conceptual art about art and the ephemeral social engagement of relational aesthetics. However, it also feels closer in spirit to 19th-century Romanticism and its obsession with the dramatic and transcendental in landscape and nature.
“My process at university,” she says, “was finding images of natural phenomena which resonated with me. I would then use them as departure points which I painted from. I saw the internet as a simulated landscape which I trawled through. I’ve since moved away from using photographs. My process is now based on intuition and my own imagined imagery. I prefer to call them ‘fake landscapes’. My recent trip to the Bay of Plenty was a way for me to be within natural phenomena and see how my experience of these places seep into my practice, without my interpretation back in the studio being too explicit or literal. It’s more a kind of brewing; a soaking in places which inspire me.”
The artist, like many Millennials (she was born in 1988 – too late for Generation X and far too early to be Gen Z), is emerging at a time of rising art-school fees and increased caution on the part of dealers to pick up unproven talent. Gordon doesn’t yet have a dealer, but isn’t unduly fazed by these pressures. “I love the ambiguous nature of an art career,” she says. “Things never really conclude or end… it’s a process which grows out, slowly and organically.”
Gordon certainly does have a lot of choices and seems to be making the right ones. Her work is appearing in an upcoming group show, Catch, at Tinning Street Presents in Melbourne, and in October she has a solo show, Visitor, at CoCA – Toi Moroki Centre of Contemporary Art.
“I have confidence now in creating work without thinking about it in a logical way too much,” Gordon says. “The subconscious is a magical thing, and it intrigues me and keeps me on my toes. I feel more playful and experimental working this way. I’m excited to see what new things this trip to the Bay of Plenty will birth.”
And we should be excited, too; because as an audience we are no less a component in a Tyne Gordon installation than AstroTurf or steel wool. The viewer’s own body is just as important as the abstract metaphorical bodies in the art. “I want my work to be open enough for the viewer to bring their own contextual narrative,” the artist says.
“I want the audience to be aware of their own body and movement and for the work to evoke distant memories that are blurred and filled with unease.”
Visitor is at CoCA – Toi Moroki Centre of Contemporary Art, Christchurch, from 12 October to 1 December.