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Seeds and Syntax

Julia Farrer and Mandy Bonnell: Eagle Gallery, 6 February - 6 March 2015

A review by Laurence Noga

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Installation shot

‘Seeds and Syntax’ brings together the work of Julia Farrer and Mandy Bonnell, through the medium of book arts, in an original and collaborative manner. The artists’ shared affinity with drawing and print develops, in this exhibition, as an understanding of complexity of form and depth of structural sensation. The visual harmonics of the space have a natural synergy that comes partly from the art works themselves, but also from the interaction between the meditative, the decorative, and the industrial. The show is curated through a logical process of thought and imagination, which allows the concept to coexist alongside the body of work, in an alignment of exacting geometry and punctuated pattern.

“It’s no good having an idea if you can’t construct it, new ideas come out of the making. There are no ideas without technique, just as there is no language without syntax.” (Julia Farrer)

Farrer’s Syntax of Bridges  is a highly ambitious, large-scale book, in the form of a triptych,  which flows across the gallery with an ambiguous geometric presence. Its curves, angles and loops generate a stereoscopic illusion of space. Farrer often begins  this kind of collaboration with fluid drawings and collages,  and exchanges of written and visual material, and this interaction encourages us to see the work as a kind of kinetic sculpture. The grey tones have a metallic feel, which combined with the Barnett Newman-like horizontal zips, allows the rhythm of the piece to go right through you.

Julia Farrer, Syntax of Bridges, 2014 etching and letterpress , with text by Robert Vas Dias, 27 x 182 cm

‘The present painter can be said to work with chaos, not only in the sense of handling the chaos of the blank picture plane, but also in handling the chaos of form. In trying to go beyond the visible and the known world the artist is working with forms that are unknown even to them” (Barnett Newman).

The book is constructed in an intriguing eight-fold leporello format with three hand-coloured cut-out etchings. Farrer’s helical forms are slowly revealed as the book opens, concealing and revealing a prose poem by the poet Robert Vas Dias. The text locks us in to the associations of the image, with their depths of connotation. The syntax is always partly visible through the precise cut-outs, giving us the sense of a unique place, or site, through the architectural elements of the work. We are deeply aware of a metaphysical understanding.

That sense of ‘the site’ resonates in Farrer’s exactingly-contoured painting Study 1 (144 x 58 cm, acrylic on birch ply). This work has both propulsion and energy, and its architectonic relationships develop a sense of continuity in the gallery. The palette in this work is finely tuned; the cool, diffuse surface, and the controlled sense of tonal change operating from a grey-blue ground. The approach reminds me of works by Frank Stella in his  Flin Flon series, although, with Farrer’s informal reductivism, the interlocking forms move much more quickly in the picture space. It’s not easy to work out the decision-making process in the painting’s construction, in terms of the system used, because, as Farrell says: “at every step the idea is played with, improvised”. The internal components work through the drawing decisions, which are key to the juxtapositions we encounter in her prints.

Circus Acts 1-3 2014 are hand-coloured etchings with an insistent emphasis on the tonal clarity of their colour relationships. These prints have evolved out of Farrer’s research into helical knots and their molecular structure, incorporating her intuitive and emotional colour choices. Farrer’s paintings are often developed on a computer, with multiple variations and permutations. They are constructed in many layers, but the clarity of the medium and the spatial structure is direct, and comes from an understanding of a free-form improvisation, like something that has been performed live.  

Julia Farrer, Study 1 2015 acrylic on birch ply 44 x 58cm

Julia Farrer Circus Acts 1 - 3 2014 hand-coloured etchings with aquatint 47 x 64cm

Mandy Bonnell’s recent work is a result of her residency at the Albers Foundation in Connecticut in 2009, which influenced her work in a poetic and potent way: “I was given unique unlimited access to the archives, and was able to explore the text-based typewriter drawings of Anni Albers”

Installation shot

Bonnell’s hardly-visible drawings are hung simply, a little above eye level. They evoke the feel and atmosphere of Ellsworth Kelly’s flower drawings, which partly conceived his large-scale ‘flare out’ forms. The drawing here has a sense of dematerialisation; the skeletal structures are refined, suggesting botanical specimens. Their intricacy is mesmerizing, but they also contain a synthesis of threat and eroticism.  Bonnell is able to engage the viewer with this beguiling complexity of marks, particularly the typographic punctuation. Transferring them into patterns and formations gives them their own visual narrative, enabling the audience to see art as microcosm, or as metaphor.

“Pattern making is central to my imagery, and I prefer to work on an intimate scale. Drawing within the format of a pattern helps me to understand and recognise how important both nature and its growth are, as a key to creativity” (Mandy Bonnell).

Three images from Mandy Bonnell’s boxed work

The work is deepened by Bonnell’s long-term collaboration with the writer and poet Gabriel Gbadamosi, whose poems draw on his response to Bonnell’s intimacy of scale, jewel-like quality and obsessional precision in a world of small objects. Insects, shells, small plants and seed pods are depicted life-size. Each series of works is put together in a small-edition, concertina-format book with hand-set typography, displayed in a low white cabinet. In the printed Fleuron series, the signification seems to set up a determinate form in our consciousness; an inflorescence, where part of the shoot or seedling is modified, like a molecular pause. In unmasking that language we see a mirror of repetition and representation, transforming the meticulous indissoluble connection between the human species and the natural world.

Mandy Bonnell, Eloise Butler's Wildflower Garden 2013 Moss Box 2014

The work of Farrer and Bonnell demonstrates that both artists are engaging in an ongoing dialogue with the concept of simultaneity and the idea of syntax, while their sense of formal reductivism allows us to undergo a metamorphosis, conditioning how we see, feel and react.