On a recent snorkelling expedition in Phuket I watched my nephew pirouetting
and sliding beneath the calm waters among the teeming fish and other ocean life.
I, meanwhile, floated somewhat hesitantly, face down, on the water’s surface.
From this position, never quite amongst it all, I was able at least to marvel at the
sight; connecting through my proximity, but still an objective presence because
I could not wholly become merged. This I know to be born of a fear of envelopment by water; a fear of being unable to breathe. All the more marvellous, then, for me to have had the opportunity to witness this other person so unself-consciously embracing an element other than their own.
The work of Hannah Campion reports from another imaginative place in which she has immersed herself completely and effortlessly. There is an oceanic feel to the work as a whole, which is highly suggestive of a revelation of a sensibility made manifest. The overriding sensation for the viewer is one of being in the presence of an elemental accumulation of experience. And experience that fuses in glorious ambiguity this centrally-imagined other realm and the very process of creating image and artefact out of inert matter. In works like Bang and Bug Bear forms seemingly swirl and float. They seem important. We want to get hold of them, pin them down. But they elude such fixing, because they are never quite of this place. Instead, these are images that will preserve their mystery. Forever nascent, they are fixed for us in the eternal process of becoming.
Like the hesitant swimmer, the viewer outside Campion’s picture is doomed to
participate at the edge of the dynamic flow of participation mystery that is centrally inhabited by the liberated, imagined viewer inside the picture. To be in paintings like D Zyzus Beni, Sea Slug or Wind in the Willows would be to know viscerally;to feel the vitalist flow and to understand without reflection; to trust the alien territory unconditionally. In part this separation of the viewer outside the picture and the centrally imagined viewer inside the picture is produced by the ambiguous pictorial spaces created by the play of form and colour. At times a sense of pictorial depth is inferred, as in the feeling of aerial perspective underpinning Dementor (though this is immediately disrupted by emphatically physical, vertical surface forms) or the more ethereal Rainbow. On the whole, though, space is created by an optical push and pull, as in Jessica Rabbit and D Zyzus Beni.
The sense that we are at an interface between two worlds – one imaginative and elsewhere, and the other that physically occupied by the viewer – is heightened by a number of strategies. Most of these are variations on the reinforcement of the physicality of the painting through texture and other real three-dimensional elements. This might include collaged elements, such as the card and ribbon in Fiji Celebrations, or more subtly in works on paper like Stumpy physical impasto inevitably brings the viewer up short in otherwise supremely flat painterly surfaces, while in the case of many works on paper, cockling of the picture support through the drying action of paint and glue alerts the viewer to the work as constructed object, as in Snail Trail. At times paintings have highly reflective surfaces. Whilst on one hand this might be seen as drawing attention to the emphatic flatness of the painting, the very act of reflection problematizes the object distance between viewer and work. In the same way that texture and relief elements on the surface ground intrude into the physical world outside the picture, the reflective surface claims fragments of the world outside the picture, Alice-like, into its realm.
Art needs a viewer to animate it. However, the best art has life within it, which
is put there in the process of coming into being that is the dialogue between
artist and materials. Where artists lose their ego in the immersion of making the
work, something living and other ensues. And viewers who approach the work in
a similar spirit of openness, are granted a privileged audience with, if not quite
unlimited access, to this other imaginative realm.
Colin Rhodes is Professor of Art History & Theory and Dean of Sydney College of the Arts,