New Art New Nature is the latest showcase of the Ulster Museum’s extensive art collection. It is a small yet far-reaching show, with the political nature of photorealistic portraiture displayed alongside colour fields of dawning light.
The work included seems to take a split approach in considering nature as a concept – whilst sometimes touching upon representation of natural things, the work is often more of an exploration of the method and materiality of the art itself. The poured layers of dilute acrylic paint in Morris Louis Golden Age, for example, deal more with the physical, light-based nature of paint more than any traditional sense of environmental nature – unless, of course, relating to its own environment within a museum collection.
It’s not surprising that this thread of material-based exploration is most potent in the sculptural elements of the show, where physical components and materials can clash and work with and against their own nature.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is Siobhan Hapaska’s The Dog That Lost Its Nose, a kinetic sculpture from 2009. A work based upon the human’s removal from nature, 11 steel orbs, decreasing in size and rimmed with fur rotate in a solar-system arrangement, suspended from a leather-coated beam. Cold spheres and rectangles cross with the animal hide in a pointed contrast of texture. As both protection and decoration, the hides are irrelevant but also complicit to an elusive “function” in the piece, both mechanical and organic in nature and reference. The viewer and surrounding exhibition are seen in the warped reflection of the spheres.
In contrast Passion Bed by Dorothy Cross shows signs of the artist’s hand – it is a gridded structure of aged, twisted steel wire, made of small uneasy lines. The top curves off, with the tight upper rows containing a number of yellowed wine glasses.
With vessels encased in the wire, Passion Bed evokes old and suspended use, whilst suggesting both chalices and a communion tray. Yet it’s a piece that has some mathematical implications amongst its religious and body-based imagery, like a misspent graph or cage.
On the far side of the sculpture one can see the sharks sandblasted into the glasses – some are blasted through to form holes in the vessels, with dust collecting in their bodies. It is a dark motif, yet reduced down to a harmless symbol trapped in the structure.
The older works of Isamu Noguchi and Peter Randall-Page use more traditional formal sculpture in their singular bronze and stone pieces, both black and heavy in the gallery space. Whilst Noguchi’s Dark Sun was modelled on nonfigurative natural forms and the circle motif he favoured, Randall-Page’s Dark Fruit is less abstract, a totem of smooth and symmetrical plump segments in limestone, formed like the perfect berry or pinecone. It’s a curious representation of everlasting ripeness in the inert material; its serpentine-patterned base is more roughly hewn, providing a less polished edge.
With an all-encompassing theme to this exhibition it is this kind of material curiosity that pulls its disparate pieces together. Where nature itself is not placed in direct focus or explored in a linear sense by artists, the nuances of its abstracted elements and concepts are free to be explored.