random moments (detail)
“Random moments” is a collection of 42 works on paper plucked from my preoccupation with the environment, which I embarked upon on my return from China in 2012. In these works-on-paper I wish to highlight the confluence of forces that act upon a place, helping to shape its uniqueness. Movement between liquidity and solidity, between absence and substance, between deserts and forests, caves, rocks and remnants of rocks, between dust, mist and smoke, all of which emerges through order and disorder within it.
The technique I have been using is a modified version of the old masters. The meticulously layering of oil paint and white tempera assists to define the shape of the forms, as well as reflects light as in nature. This technique serves to create works which act as metaphors, alluding, through the subjects of grass, twigs, sand, stones, water, dust or mist, to day to day experiences. The works is a nexus of the immeasurable age of the natural world, with the fragility and transience of human perception on which that experience is dependent. The slow process of making my art allows new ideas to emerge. This interaction with material and the actual “doing”, leads to an enhanced understanding of the conceptual framework that propels the work.
circle of fifths
THE REAL AND IMAGINED WORLDS OF HANNA KAY
To see Sandro in the mountains reconciled you to the world and made you forget the nightmare weighing on Europe… He aroused a new communion with the earth and sky, into which flowed my need for freedom, the plenitude of my strength, and a hunger to understand the things he had pushed me toward. We would come out at dawn, rubbing our eyes, through the small door of the Martinotti bivouac, and there, all around us, barely touched by the sun, stood the white and brown mountains, new as if created during the night that had just ended and at the same time innumerably ancient. They were an island, an elsewhere.
Primo Levi, Iron – The Periodic Table, 1975
Hanna Kay's practice is akin to that of the alchemist. As she brings each pigment together from a particle to a whole, her paintings coalesce like a fine-grained concoction of conspiring elements. Kay’s engagement with the earth’s surface as a point of tension, force and fragmentation, reinforces its potential for change.
Kay’s practice is based on a painting technique learned in Vienna from old masters of the 16th century. She has harnessed this antique practice over many years, layering oil paint and water-based white tempera to capture a unique and contemporary interpretation of reality.
When working on linen, the layering of oil paint and tempera gives Kay’s work a particular quality of being atomized and pixelated up close, yet cloudy and ephemeral from afar. It is a time-consuming process since each layer has to dry before she continues. The end result however is distinctive - the white tempera creating a luminous surface, which could not otherwise be achieved with white oil paint. When working on paper, however, Kay uses any medium that will adhere easily, such as watercolour, oil sticks, oil pastels and tempera. This is a faster and more immediate process, her preferred medium for developing new ideas.
Both Impetus (on paper) and Terrain (on linen) are perfect examples of her technique and differing approaches to each medium. These works were created as part of a larger body of work exploring a world in flux; a world where the weather turns large boulders into smaller ones, then into pebbles, then into sand grains, which in time will turn into boulders once again. It is a world where gushing river water bounces rocks around, smashing them into smaller stones, and depositing them as pebbles in the estuary where angry waves shatter them into sand. In turn the sand will be lifted back inland by the wind.
Kay grew up in city landscapes, a sharp contrast to her current rural existence in the upper Hunter Valley. She has left the hustle and bustle of her hometown Tel Aviv, and later sojourns in London, Munich, New York, Sydney and Vienna, to a place of quietude and contemplation.
Although inspired by the rugged Australian outback, there is also some sense of having been “elsewhere” in both Impetus and Terrain. Yet each work, be it on paper or linen, speaks of a poetic delicacy, an intricacy drawn out from this rough and turbulent turf of the earth. Kay, like Sandro, loses herself in the outdoors, as far from the conscious constraints of language as she can be. She absorbs the varying shades of stones, which inspire the colour sources for pigments in these paintings. In her response to nature, her identity is both erased and emergent.
Kay speaks of her Jewish and Israeli heritage with reluctance: the pains of the past that she cannot forget, the intrinsic nature of her consciousness that shapes her. Kay’s homeland is one she associates with aggression and the repercussions of war: unclaimed bodies, stories of brutality and lives needlessly lost. Yet Kay admits that there are dimensions to each moment. With darkness there is also its opposite; pain can only be know through its antonym. Kay’s studies of darkness and light illuminate this notion, The artist herself explains in her process journals the fundamental dualities that inhabit her consciousness.
“Paradoxically, the essence of Jewishness is light and beauty. In its core there is an aesthetic quest, a search for the chards of an exquisite vessel. The Kabbalah and the Talmud offer several legends about the breaking of the vessel. In one the vessel was shattered in the first act of creation. It was a vessel made of varying mixtures of light, which burst by the intensity of the light it was designed to contain.”
“Light is both giver and taker, light and darkness being the underlying premises of Jewish belief – a dualism between creation as the distillation of light, and its separation from darkness. Light is an emanation that does not belong to earth, it exists from elsewhere, another reality. Darkness intensifies light, emphasising our desire for it.”
Kay’s paintings play with obscurity, that which we cannot see around or through. Clouds of dust burst in front of us, hiding the path below. Rocks hang in mid air, as though they are weightless balloons, overwhelming us and obscuring the space around them. They force us to question: are they sitting, falling, rising? Or does the artist simply create uncertainties, unknowing. Is she asking us to suspend our disbelief?
Weightlessness is an ongoing theme in Kay’s work. Director of Moree Plains Gallery, Katrina Rumley, also observed this and spoke of the illustrative and symbolic power of water - an element with ethereal properties, a seductive absorber of light. Kay’s waterscapes of grass, stones and floating twigs are offset by reflections of trees mired in the water, to a point where the distinction between the ground and the sky is indiscernible. Heaven and earth are intertwined as a beautiful and harmoniously balanced poem. The work is often divided by panels and as such we experience their beauty as fragments rather than as a universal whole.
There is a constant flux and flow in Kay’s work between liquid and solidity, between matter and vapidity, between rocks and remnants of rock, between being acted upon and acting upon. There is no victim or perpetrator, it is just action, at times violence, in its most pure form. Granulated remnants of rock in Kay’s work attests to the sensuality of the Australian landscape that emerges through unity and discord within it.
Kay’s ambivalence about her own heritage was fleshed out, literally and metaphorically, during her project Undertow, a commission she undertook to respond to the historic Jewish-only graveyard in Maitland. She noted the way in which the grass was overgrown, the stone was eroded through the elements of wind and water and the way the gravestones stood in various states of decline, from upright or at precarious angles, or had collapsed into the ground.
These gravestones in Kay’s work are given a new mortality that is distinctive and instinctively felt. Kay avoids overt sentimentality by describing, through paint, the way these gravestones exist today: dilapidated, forlorn. Yet their anthropomorphic presence is bewildered and withered as the occupants of the grave might also be. There is something sorrowful and elegiac in the colour palette. Almost indescribable, indecipherable colours of mustard greens and yellows, purples, greys and deep navy blues capture the watery floodplains, movements of water and eroding the engravings and inscriptions.
Historian Janis Wilton OAM pointed out that, while the cemetery has been neglected, it is never forgotten. Kay’s work is perhaps not so much an illustration or retelling of the stories, however, it is rather an evocation of these faded memories being subsumed in nature.
Kay's work in the cemetery also explores the ambiguity between life and death, between nature and the denatured, and the eventual “re-naturing” of denatured nature. It is an expression of herself and her physical and metaphysical roots. Kay studied agriculture at school in Israel and went on field trips to a farm where they were put to work to weed, a task of which she loathed. Many years later, weeding gives her a kind of joy, putting her into a kind of trance through the constant rhythm of pulling. Weeds themselves have become an ongoing motif in her work, serving as broken threads of time passed, accumulations of time. Their removal creates forms both concave and convex - signs of absences and presences in her life. This is also evident in her studies of nests that allude to the notion of home and the abandonment of home - if not by force, then by agency.
In a way, Kay has carved out a space quite a distant from her early work created while she was living in urban Sydney. The Dolls series is built around images of discarded vacant-eyed dolls of which, for the viewer, triggers unsettling thoughts of childhood, loneliness, possible abandonment, even ill intent. Yet this kind of unrest, a sense of things not quite as they should be, remains in Kay’s most recent work. There is disturbance in her landscapes - a movement, a friction, an imminent rupture rumbling within it. In a sense, these works seem to be taken over by a cyclical power beyond the artist’s own hand. Cycles, the sheer force of nature, provide an unrelenting source of energy for Kay’s work.
Again, the waterways appear as embodiments of calm meditation and tranquillity. Yet her floating rocks, ripples waves and spray evoke an unsettled spirit, a sense of trepidation. Alongside this anxiety is a gentle resilience, just as a rock endures erosion and gradual transformation through the constant of natural forces.
Kay's work goes beyond a given time and place, opening outward into something connected to humanity writ large. Real and imagined spaces collide, providing us with a kind of groundless, boundlessness with which to consider our place within her mysterious spaces.
Jessica Holburn, Curator & Arts Writer, July, 2014