Stella Brennan, artist and writer
On those relentlessly hot July afternoons, Ada liked to sit on a cool piano stool of ivoried wood at a white-oilcoth’d table in the sunny music room, her favourite botanical atlas open before her, and copy out in colour some singular flower. She might choose, for instance, an insect-mimicking orchid which she would proceed to enlarge with remarkable skill. Or else she combined one species with another (unrecorded but possible), introducing odd little changes and twists that seemed almost morbid in so young a girl so nakedly dressed. 1.
In Vladimir Nabokov’s baroquely overwritten last novel incestuous couplings and languid corruption are entwined with the figures of the butterfly and the orchid. Sex and death are tangled in the sticky heat of summer. Two impossibly precocious and perverse children, Ada and Van, infest the trees and attics of a country estate, lingering over erotic encyclopaedia and medieval medical texts.
The cloying profusion of Nabokov’s novel brings to mind the shiny curls of Caroline Rothwell’s vinyl banners, the nacreous prettiness of her glossy porcelain ornaments and the distorted geometries of her huge flower wall drawings. Ornament-sized works, flying birds folding in axial symmetries, are multiplied by mirrored plinths. Wavering, looming, anamorphic flowers fail to resolve themselves into appropriate perspective, their correct proportions available only from an inaccessible corner or from behind some locked door of the gallery.
Rothwell’s materials have a toxic iridescence – carcinogenic polyvinyl chloride, toluene-laden nail varnish, noxious clouds of automotive lacquer. In her work the pretty and delicate merge with the monstrous and imposing. The enormous distorted blooms of her wall drawings suggest an ominous plenitude; her creepy knick-knacks evoke the pale fleshy bracts of deep-sea worms. Her work plays with tropes of the feminine, the subject matter of lady painters and gentlewomen gardeners. She takes pleasure in the rude fecundity of flowers and weeds, the excess and sadism of saccharine fairy tales where things turn out badly.
Sometimes lurid and unwholesome, sometimes pearly pretty, her works toy with symmetry. Distortion and repetition are key to her methodology, from the stretch of anamorphic projections in her banners and wall drawings to the axial reflections of her bird sculptures. Distortion twists the familiar into new shapes. The inversions and multiplications of reflection reduces forms to motifs susceptible to mechanical reproduction, suggesting a proliferation beyond the bounds of the works – works which are themselves often located on reflecting surfaces of water or mirror.
The shiny seamlessness of the industrial materials Rothwell chooses is subverted by the artist’s handiwork – the wavering freehand lines of her vinyl drawings and banners, the visible stitching of her moulds. Public scale is also undermined. Shadows (flowers and weeds), commissioned for Te Papa, was shown grouped in an outdoor courtyard. Concrete, a heavy, permanent exterior material was cast in sewn fabric moulds, creating short, plump forms. The thigh-high concrete objects are part missile, part chandelier. Still bearing the texture and stitching of their canvas mould, they are a little pretty, a little absurd, a little menacing. En masse, they represent variations on a theme, like the miniscule, but taxonomically useful bristled chitin penises of beetles, little grappling hooks designed to snap off inside the female to deter further suitors. The work might be read as a spoof of our national museum’s regime of access and interactivity – human-size fiberglass spiders and displays of creepy crawlies encourage us to empathise, rather than squish, but the gory details of insect sex are not so easily tamed.
Standing in the clear windy sunlight of a Wellington afternoon the work is stalked by its shadows. A blot, an interruption of the light, shadows and silhouettes appear frequently in Rothwell’s work. Together they represent a bare minimum of information – the bird’s outline against the bright sky is all the ornithologist needs. In an earlier work the artist attempted to trace the path of her moving shadow – an impossible task. Silhouettes are ambiguous, like shadows they slip and change. Rothwell’s weed banners on clear PVC fill the outline of uprooted plants with bright bands and circles of colour. Set out from the gallery walls these silhouettes cast doubling shadows – weeds as wallpaper scrawling up the white surface.
The ambitions and failures of domestication form a subtext to many of Rothwell’s works. The preponderance of pearl finishes reflects a pleasure in surface and a preference for the girlier side of the colour chart, but it should be remembered how the pearl is itself formed – layers of fluid nacre coating a jagged shard of shell or sand. The pearl is the oyster’s attempt to make the intrusions of the world outside its shell bearable. In substance the pearl is palliative, with irritation at its center. The pearl is a gleaming testament to the power of home improvement. Embedded in the oyster’s soft flesh the pearl is at once beautiful and grotesque – the Baroque itself taking its name from the Portuguese barocco, or misshapen pearl.
The pearl’s solidifying nacre reflects Rothwell’s preferred method of casting, which allows fluid shapes to clot, becoming hard and impervious. Rothwell’s castings create ambivalent objects – solid but sagging forms. For Kotuku, her project for Art and Industry in Christchurch, she expanded the scale of her mould making. Standing in a pond at the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, Kotuku is a seven metre wide sculpture, a silhouette of the bird repeated three times. To create the work nylon moulds were pumped full of polyurethane foam and fibreglassed after the removal of the fabric. Given a gleaming pearlescent gelcoat, the folded and stitched public sculpture evokes toys or furnishings; its structural bolts resemble a line of buttons. Unlike the bronzy solidity of traditional public statuary these birds are frothy, shiny and hollow.
The native White Heron carries with it ideas of frailty, endangerment and purity, Rothwell’s giant stuffed versions add to this reading questions about our ability to sentimentalise our native fauna. With a lack of cute fuzzy mammals toy manufacturers must play up the charm of our native birds. Loving the avian is a local trait. Rothwell’s latest works have continued to use images of endemic birds: albatross, gull, shag. Ornament-sized casts repeat silhouettes of birds in flight, sewn together. From Jonathan Livingston Seagull to Blue Stratos packaging, the motif of the flying bird represents a cliché of freedom. Hinged together and sprayed with a pearly finish this moment of freedom is fettered, frozen.
…I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those sprawling, flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in the following, pronounced enough constantly to irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions.
The colour is repellent, almost revolting: a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.
…each breadth stands alone; the bloated curves and flourishes – a kind of “debased Romanesque” with delirium tremens – go waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity.
But, on the other hand, they connect diagonally, and the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing sea-weeds in full chase. 2.
The Yellow Wallpaper
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Yellow Wallpaper is an uncanny classic, the story of a mentally ill woman’s growing fixation with the wallpaper of her sickroom. Forbidden to work, she lies in bed brooding on the walls around her. A suffragette who struggled with mental illness, Charlotte Perkins Gilman endured a treatment similar to that described in her story. Gillman characterizes this enforced domesticity as fostering the very neurosis it aims to cure. As the empty hours pass, the unnamed woman in the story searches desperately for a symmetry in the sprawling convolutions of the paper. Her fascination grows till she finally becomes entwined in the paper’s logic, compulsively circling her room, attempting to evade the clutch of the pattern.
The Yellow Wallpaper combines the intimate power of domestic interiors with the mind’s desire for order and meaning. The smeared and blotted walls of the sickroom become a space for the projection of the protagonist’s neurosis. The threatening images the woman perceives in the vague fungal shapes of her wallpaper mirrors the processes utilized by Rorschach practitioners. Based originally on a parlor game, the Rorschach Test is a projective personality test that attempts to evoke latent states of mind by requiring subjects to find images in ten standardized inkblots. Tracing pathologies that form the most unthreatening phenomena into ominous forms, psychodiagnosticians work with catalogues of images; indexes of ambiguity and ghosts in shadows.
This methodology is familiar to Rothwell. Psychodiagnostics, her bright Rorschach furniture, is a series of beanbags or enormous cushions sewn from shiny tarpaulin. The cushions are patterned after inkblots and are cheerfully coloured and soft, but sticky and cold to the touch. Slip is a series of repulsive ornaments, cast in porcelain, glazed and decorated with pale nail varnish. Formed from condom moulds, lab glass and opium poppy heads, the glistening and demi-tumescent forms resemble glittering piles of entrails. With its jumbled, coagulating ambiguities Slip resembles a porcelain keepsake of the ancient art of augury, the practice of predicting the future from the guts of a slaughtered animal. Drawing portents from forms that might otherwise be repulsive or meaningless, the works echo too the more modern, but equally projective nature of the Rorschach Test.
Vinyl and porcelain, pearl and polish give Rothwell’s work a surface sheen. Behind this, her works linger where the smooth finish of things begins to rupture. Shadows, distortions and ambiguous stains betray the attractions of the point where the polite structure of objects breaks down and something more sinister yet fascinating looms. Innocuous flowers and animals assume enormous proportions. Their anamorphic twist sends us searching for the place where the images cohere, but this point evades us. Birds sprout extra heads, while weeds develop hypnotic candy stripes. Profuse and gargantuan, ornamental and intricate, Rothwell’s world is like a fairy garden where the charming and the grotesque sit down to tea.
If you can imagine a toadstool in joints, an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions – why, that is something like it.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Yellow Wallpaper
1. Vladimir Nabokov
Ada or Ador: A Family Chronicle
1970 Penguin Books, Middlesex England
2. Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Yellow Wallpaper
In The Charlotte Perkins Gillman Reader
Edited by Ann J Lane
1981, The Womens Press Limited
3. ibid p 12Stella Brennan, artist and writer