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Jacqui Colley, BLOOM, 2016

By Meredith Leigh Crowe

Perhaps too gentle a term for this subject matter; bloom: blossom, blush, unfold – delicate, gentle, revealing.

Single-celled plant-like organisms need only water and light to live; they inhabit the surface layer of any body of water in their millions. Visually, an algal bloom can be a beautiful phenomenon with coloured organic form radiating through the ocean’s currents. Algal blooms inhabit an environment with a lack of containment; causing them to seep and spread often hundreds or thousands of kilometres from their source. Sometimes they happen naturally, but often they are stimulated by human industries; sometimes they are harmless, and sometimes they are deadly.
Over the past few years our species has become more and more interested in scale. Aerial views of tar sand operations; of livestock raising facilities; of sea-ice melting; of the 50-year growth of cities like Shanghai and Surat. We see info-graphics and animations daily of the growing wealth gap, increasing house prices, and ways to study our current financial market behaviour against that prior to the 2008 crash. We watch things get bigger and bigger; faster and faster; seep into new areas, affect more and more people, animals, plants, land. We are saturated by that which we claim to understand, but evidently can’t grasp.
During 47 Degrees South, the 2016 artist residency on Stewart Island/Rakiura, Jacqui Colley explored the relationship between nature, and human activity. There is a need for literal and abstract dialogue from artists in this area and Bloom shares inspiration with many. In the 1980’s, Tasmanian artist Peter Dombrovski’s photography was instrumental in stopping the Franklin River from being dammed. At the time, there were few photographs of the area available and his work gave image to the land at risk from this human intervention. More recently in 2012, 22 Taranaki artists including Dale Copeland and Roger Morris came together in FRACKED; an assertion of discomfort and disillusion in response to the regions fracking activity. Pacific artist Paula Schaafhausen’s Ebbing Tagaloa (2015) at Fresh Gallery, like Bloom, exudes a growing concern for the ocean; speaking of the implications of our warming planet. Ebbing Tagaloa begins with Tagaloa figures of koko Samoa, coconut oil and sand standing throughout the gallery and ends with the materials mixed and melted over the floorboards. Visually Ebbing Tagaloa connects with Bloom in the organic forms created with the natural and man-made, and the tempestuous interactions between them; sensually powerful, and conceptually frightening.
Colley’s drawings featured in Bloom speak of data and seem to know something we don’t. There is a strong reference to the work of Julie Mehretu who’s dense layering of forms sings of a saturation of information. Mehretu’s works are dynamic and shifting, drawing reference from architectural forms and cities, particularly areas of high urban density. In her 2013 work Kabul, Mehretu renders these urban forms from a multitude of perspectives; aerial, cross section, isometric; and in various scales and directions. The effect is the communication of a time-based narrative centred on a sense of place, and an invitation to reach in and understand. Colley’s drawings too speak of data and pace. They appear to be in motion, growing as the situation changes. There is dichotomy between the organic ink forms, and their ruled and measured counterparts. It appears as if the structured forms are trying to make sense of the unpredictable growth and density reference made by the ink. The drawings appear microscopic, and have an urgency not present in the show’s paintings, perhaps alluding to the fact that things seem slower and more controlled from further back. A powerful visual phenomenon that enables strong deniability on subjects such as climate change, and the growing amount of CO2 in our atmosphere.
The painted works in Bloom speak at a larger scale and exude the visceral presence of abstract expressionism. They radiate immediate and natural action, reaction, response; a very physical inhabitation and movement of the body in a given moment. In this instance it seems that paint just happens to be the medium, but that the process of distortion and reaction could manifest in any contemporary creative expression. This method of creation carries risk, building layers and layers of experimenting, and evolving from the forms already on the canvas. The painted works range in their effect, from harmony to clamor, interruption and interference to sustained and ceaseless progress. The gestural style creates forms that swirl and scatter and appear to assemble and disassemble over and over again.
Colley’s paintings show similarities to the method used in the late 1950’s by Don Peebles as he began to find lively representation of the weight of Wellington Harbour in Wellington Series. Peebles’ works of the time were pioneering abstraction in New Zealand; talking to order and freedom, the push and pull of the Wellington tide present in the heavy water mass. Like Peebles, Colley’s paintings in Bloom speak sharply of tension, but without angst or the manic brush strokes that feature in a lot of expressionism. Where Peebles found inspiration for his developing process in the weight and motion of the Harbour, Colley’s work echoes a contemporary sentiment towards our waterways; one of agitation and unease.
Bloom is not representational, Colley draws upon information and observation and responds. What is unique about these works is how they interpret the shifting and distorting of their subject matter, but remain opaque. In the same way we are duped by the beauty of algal blooms and the plainness of single line graphs, Colley has given the works an apparent beauty which is knowingly at odds with her subject. The works become a caricature of the growing disquiet felt by many about our relationship with our planet and those we share it with.
It is a messy topic. Even those who want to face it, and actively work to live in balance and with respect for ecosystems worldwide find a wealth of conflicting advice. A counter for every argument, a falsity for every truth, and stuck somewhere between the naysayers and keyboard worriers (sic) lies the growing dead zones of our oceans. It is becoming more difficult to deny that as a species we are putting alarming pressure on the natural systems that surround us. Calls for change are growing, products, movements, communities; all taking aim at indifference, but this too is messy.
Bloom. Perhaps not too gentle then, a quiet growing resistance. Slow and steady – a spreading infection on the skin that becomes harder and harder to ignore.

Dunne, M. (2003). New Zealand Painting: A Concise History. Auckland University Press.

Jacqui Colley, Markdorf Statdgalerie, 2014

Review By  Andrea Dreher.

Anarchy, freedom and identity are key concepts in the work of Jacqui Colley, who lived in Southern Africa for 31 years before moving to Wellington, New Zealand. Colley clearly loves manipulating perception, switching perspectives and posing riddles. When she starts painting, she begins with a clearly defined content, but abandons it completely during the act of painting in favour of totally free-form painting. It no longer has the original content as its subject matter but simply follows the path of “intuitive knowledge”. Her instinctive, visceral experience ushers in a state of chaos that accompanies the painting process, yet Colley never loses sight of opportunities that present themselves along the way.

Shifts in perspective are a characteristic feature of Colley’s works, along with ongoing dialogue between figurative elements and abstract forms and a deep-seated questioning of all conventional forms of perception. Colley demands of her viewers unconditional acceptance of her imaginative realm, for it is only by letting go of entrenched thought patterns that we can begin to access these provocative images.

A primary feature of Colley’s painting is her cross-disciplinary approach, where spatial collages with elements of painting and drawing emerge as the outcome of thought processes defined by emotional depth, instinctive rapport and intellectual discourse (“the sensory exploration and the measured exploration”).

In Colley’s latest series of work dated 2013-2014, “Aggregate”, “Of Eden” and “Nascent”, the graphic element takes a back seat in favour of the gestural. The focus of these oil paintings is less on the narrative level and more on the affirmative tone of the work. The act of painting has reasserted its authority and there is a self-confident demand for its authenticity to be taken seriously (“the painting can contribute to the broader dialogue”). The hovering nature of earlier works appears to have given way to a powerful dynamism that captivates the audience and generates a great deal of intellectual engagement.

Jacqui Colley’s strength is her ability to create moments of excitement in her paintings, because she gives every form within the image the space it needs and every space the forms needed to be experienced differently by each viewer. The intensity of the work process is not immediately obvious in Colley’s work, but you do get a sense of it. She confronts her viewers with unfathomable heights and depths in presenting us with an ingenious interplay of awareness levels.  Colley’s work pays homage to the freedom of being and thinking, with an implicit rejection of any definitive role models, for as she says “each of us is born with a unique imprint”.

© Andrea Dreher M.A., art historian, Ravensburg, Germany, July 2014    Translated from German

About my practice

For me working with paint or ink involves recognising degrees of visceral experience using the viscosity of the medium and colour. When you understand your medium in this way you trust your engagement. Even when the chaos sets in, you bring your entire being to the process and to the moment.

At a certain point the content is no longer primary for me. Content is the foreplay. It is the painting and the act of painting that is all consuming. With each work you gain intuitive knowledge.

To own the way in which you work with your medium sometimes requires undoing what you’ve known or been taught. To recreate a working memory and to find marks that are unique to your own hand, allows you a confidence in your practice.

While I have strong visions of what I want to do, I feel each work involves an element of risk. The first marks allow me to familiarise myself with what is about to begin. The chaos I talk about is both thrilling and foreign each time. But it is where I find the most freedom in life. It is where I am alive.

Each work will reveal itself through the process, I will attempt to pull it out of the chaos, discover more opportunities and better solutions. It requires letting go of preconceived visions and still managing the medium sufficiently to create something that will speak about the ideas.

For me the abstract world does not rely on the same structural laws of written language. Visual language has no boundaries and so I have the ability to work with abstract ideas that are not easily translated into words, sounds yes, but not words. I think this extends our understanding of what it means to be human.

I want to challenge and engage my audience in the way that I am challenged. The intricate threads and the points of reference across the work are like the dots. When you join the dots, you see the bigger picture. It is an obscure ongoing conversation and meditation with deviations, detours and contradictions. It is not a carefully crafted narrative with a beginning, middle and end.

All creative work becomes a biography of sorts. This is a battleground for everything.

Jacqui Colley is a New Zealand artist living in Wellington.