2 August 2019

From a White Ground opened tonight

Open 11am-5pm Fri-Sun 3-18 August

From a White Ground (detail: Left: Nicole Ellis; Right: Barbara Halnan)

Lisa Sharp,
Tabula Rasa for two: time and tempo

If I were to say to you, or you to me, I come from a white ground, what would we see in our minds’ eye? I may see an ancient place where bleached ruins and relics lie partly buried by shifting white sands. Or snow. You might see shimmering spectral forms approaching the present from afar, the scene as indistinct as an overexposed mirage in blinding light. A whiteout. Extremes. Desert heat. Polar cold. Silence. A place, or space, where the elements of ground and light are foremost. For visual artists though, the exhibition title’s reference to unmarked white ground is the classical material beginning. It means a freshly primed canvas, a crisp sheet of blank paper, a lump of unformed clay, with all the expansive potential of unexpressed pictorial expression locked into a surface of blank and impassive whiteness. For a painter a white ground is the first layer, an underlying source of light and luminosity that can be returned to, to let light in, during the making of a painting. For a printmaker white is the negative ground, the space untouched by impression or ink.

A white ground is also a tabula rasa, the Latin term literally meaning a scraped tablet, a used and reused surface, marked and then scraped back, bearing as history all the incomplete residues of past messages. This makes it all the more appropriate to describe the continual development and communication of the abstract visual language common to the practices of Nicole Ellis and Barbara Halnan. In this joint exhibition From a White Ground they present new works, developed separately yet linked by their ongoing dialogue with white ground. Each set out to investigate the role and meaning of white ground by allowing it a certain primacy as their works emerged from and engaged with it. The rasa action, of scraping back, provides a telling analogy for Ellis’ textile collages on canvas, which rely more on innate materiality than intervention to convey meaning. In Ellis’ work the white ground appears in two states; the initial white of canvas, recognisable as every painter’s beginning, but also in the subsequent over painting in white, which is never solid but is often abraded and in doing so stands for the passage of time.  Conceptually, the philosophical notion of tabula rasa as a blank state of mind open to the reception of empirical sensation is perhaps more descriptive of Halnan’s work, based on arithmetic units and patterned sequences of progression, tone and scale. Each artist explores the concept with rigour and also a certain austerity such that, when seen together, the works come From a White Ground in ways that function both as asceticism and aesthetic.

Ellis’ Light Ground series consists of 6 identically sized rectangular canvasses, each one named and developed around a particular muted hue; purple, grey, brown, red, gold and pink. Pursuing her longstanding interest in found colour, found shape and the repurposing of textiles, remnants and offcuts of manufactured decorator fabrics are laid down in rectilinear constructions and combined with areas of paint and other markings. The textile pieces and other elements are placed according to the rectilinearity of a grid, referencing the historical traditions of concrete and constructivist art. The effect is also to eschew the movement and dynamism of diagonals in favour of structure and consolidation, slowing down and pacing the viewing. In Ellis’ work the hand is restrained in favour of materiality, and what a poignant material story is told. These carefully salvaged pieces with their scarred and degraded surfaces convey the passing of time with every overlapping layer of fabric, each partly obscured design, each echoed pattern, each familiar motif. Like turning the pages in a book, they build a sense of time and of loss. As many of the designs are derived from domestic offcuts, the narration deviates into the personal suggesting once familiar living spaces, curtains and upholstery of recent memory. Beyond the personal though is the knowledge that textiles have since ancient times been such rich sources of social history, meaning and making.

In Halnan’s works, the white ground acts as that clean slate, a renewed and primal state with forms, structures and patterns rising up from it, establishing and building the composition up from the ground. There is a sense of orderly and decisive movement yet, also beneath the purpose, something tentative, as if testing the stability of ground for the first time. While the titles of Halnan’s works, Wandering and Meander suggest an equivocal journey; others like Numbers and Faultline evoke precision and systems. The rectilinear grid is referenced again, with works where 9 and then 25 individual panels function as discreet elements of a whole square. Within the square, elements of line, texture and colour riff and repeat the pattern. The equivocation, like a melody, is contained in the hand drawn lines of graphite and in the delicate and sparing use of colour, only pale yellow and silver-grey, like shadow or reflected light. Textures when present are tenuous, in a barely raised edge, a rippling of surface, soft as sawdust swallowed into paint. Geometry is very much in play, with motifs repeated, flipped and reversed. Halnan’s crafting takes these constructions to crisp precision. Notably, in each work there is some element of relief; either within the work itself or between the work and the wall. This modelling, lightly done invites the viewer to perceive actual space within the work, and so creates a lifting off from white ground, a lightness.

If we were to walk on white ground through that bleached and ancient place we first imagined, visibility would be reduced and other senses heightened. Similarly, the priority given to the role of white by Ellis and Halnan in this exhibition enables other formal elements and long held interests in their practices to come to the fore. If white is about beginnings, a new page and a freshly scraped wax tablet then Halnan’s work, based so fluently on rhythm, scale and order rises from it like a piece of music. And if that was a beginning, then Ellis’ work with its pieced layers of loss and erasure is evocative of endings, of the action of time and memory having passed over, leaving only material traces.

Lisa Sharp
July 2019