Imaginative Confusion and Useful Contradiction
From the catalogue ‘Dazzle & Disrupt’ for the duo exhibition, West Gallery, Quay Arts, IW
27 March – 13 June 2021
‘We know there is no singular interpretation of a poem, or a sculpture, but we do not know and cannot know what all of the interpretations will be.’ Nora Bateson
This is an exhibition about design: about warships and war. Or perhaps it is an exhibition about looking: both the ability and inability to see, to see clearly, and to understand what is seen. Then again, this may be an exhibition about time: about shared history, artistic lineage and the careful processes involved in making artwork. Of course, ‘Dazzle & Disrupt’ is equally about all of these and, critically, about the visitor having their own personal experience of the work as they wander about its various elements.
It is with playful lightness that we encounter the idea of war games**, though this readily instigates an eerie questioning of reasonable exposure for the next generation. Traxler’s ‘Dark Disruptive/Light Disruptive’ seems transfixed in mid-movement, a child’s transformer toy, at once spirited and threatening. It mimics the foreground floor piece, enlarging itself while shrinking ‘Time Traveller – Transformation I’ into submission. Venturing along the room, the entirety of her installation is bookended by two of the murals. They act as lurking shadows which cloak the rest of the work with a lack of innocence, as well as recalling a pair of sphinxes at the ominous threshold.
Each ‘Time Traveller – Transformation’ piece is coloured in accordance with how the dazzle patterns impersonate the geographic locations of five alternative dazzle ships. Where the sea is richer and deeper, the darker blues and dramatic hues. Where the sea is calmer and colder, light pastels form the skin of the sculpture. They intimate puzzle pieces which connect through their active shadows across the floor. And they reinforce the original intention of the dazzle ships to appear as vessels broken into pieces. This question of origin repeats in Traxler’s works. The shape of the floor sculptures stem from the wall pieces which are, in turn, derived from a previous work titled ‘Industry’ 2019.
In a materials-based play on words, ‘Descendants’ of ‘Industry’ are cut from a single sheet of enamelled steel, nestled within a piece of wood composite. In the same way a jigsaw might be carved from one panel, these segments again project the idea of something whole appearing as fragmentary. Colours take their cue from dazzle patterns as well as the landscapes in which the wall sculptures were created by the artist. What was once a practical outline, transitions towards a code or a strip of text characters. Nothing is as straightforward as it first appears.
The overhead view of ‘Time Traveller Transformation’ mimics dazzle patterning on the top of the ships, in order to avoid aerial sightings from fighter planes. From this perspective, the works alter their form. They evoke strange, unearthly sized bugs. Creatures which scuttle about the floor, their physicality revealed and thwarted by their overlapping shadows, mimicking the outstretched wings of coccinellidae preparing for flight. With this mindset, look up to the wall murals and witness monsters of mindless machine menace.
When Kurt Koffka adapted Aristotle’s proposal and asserted that the whole is something else than the sum of its parts, he might have foreshadowed Traxler works in ‘Dazzle & Disrupt’. Despite the clarity of parts, the whole is complex and confounding, reshaping itself over place and time.
‘With our logical, rational frames of reference we can only see small pieces of the larger patterns of our world; but art is impatient, skips over decades of theory, and is either baffling, or stretches perception into new territories of knowing.’ Nora Bateson
Dazzle ships were decommissioned with the invention of radar. Today’s “grey haze” palette is intended to confuse the physicality of the ship against the blur of the horizon. One perceptual confusion – the illusion of a point at which the sky meets the sea – creates another. Likewise on land, where current day tanks are patterned with cameras and heat censors to produce a chameleon effect and blend these massive objects with their environments, beyond detection.
Context illuminates our seeing and understanding. The dazzle pattern uses particularly physical imagery which harks back to a time before analogue held its sway, let alone the reign of the digital. Think again of transformer toys**. While these might play a jolly part of a child’s playtime, their attraction is short lived as the child progresses to video games where they can control the machine not only to move, but to kill with realistic sound effects which intensify the experience. Similarly, we are moving further and further from the site of the action in a world where satellites locate, while unmanned drones drop the bombs. Lisa Traxler’s artworks bring physical existence back into the room. On that account, ‘Dazzle and Disrupt’ gives us an opportunity regain trust in the complexity of human experience and the knowledge that, while it may be difficult to fully recognise the entirety of what we see, with each part of the puzzle our own perspective can make a valuable contribution.
Jillian Knipe 2021
Member : AICA International Art Critics Association
Podcaster : ‘Art Fictions’
**In ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’, Susan Sontag refers to the book ‘Krieg dem Kriege! (War Against War!)’ 1910 by conscientious objector Ernst Friedrich, as a precursor to Virginia Woolf’s ‘Three Guineas’ 1924
‘The book starts with pictures of toy soldiers, toy cannons, and other delights of male children everywhere, and concludes with pictures taken in military cemeteries. Between the toys and the graves, the reader has an excruciating photo-tour of four years of ruin, slaughter and degradation….’p13
Note: This essay has been edited for the artist’s website
Lisa Traxler + Georgia Newman: In Conversation
From the catalogue ‘Dazzle & Disrupt’ for the duo exhibition, West Gallery, Quay Arts, IW
27 March – 13 June 2021
GN: What part of the dazzle design do you find most alluring?
LT: The experience of standing in front of a glass cabinet in the Imperial War Museum (1.) and witnessing rows of rudimentary model ships, hand-painted in an intense geometric language was my introduction to Dazzle. The audacity of the bold fragmented designs had a confidence and startlingly contemporary appeal resonating with my appreciation of architecture that was permeating my work.
GN: Having lived with dazzle design in your home and studio for a number of years, does it continue to inspire?
LT: My architectural research collided with dazzle fascination driving the spatial works for the exhibition BUILD (2.) consolidating a physical and emotional response to a house build. Researching a former WW2 radar station on the site of the build was my starting point. Living and working on site my studio became my sanctuary and the series Beauty Chorus(3.) were produced. These compact interlocking constructions held memory of the build whilst their vivid painted surfaces coded the unexpected discovery of dazzle. My practice continues to investigate and experiment, traces of dazzle are part of this structure.
GN: How much has your previous life as a fashion editor and costume designer played a part in your current practice?
LT: My multi-disciplinary approach means I work both two and three dimensionally, each informing the other. The fragmented pieces of Descendants (4.)can be imagined as pattern pieces cut from a fabric length, laid out along the gallery wall.
GN: There is a wonderful architectural quality in your work – grounded and resilient. How important are the materials that you use play a role in this?
LT: My relationship to materials is a further connection to my surroundings. Having had the challenge of working with non-traditional, industrial materials in an architectural setting, especially large scale, has enabled me to develop ideas beyond the studio. My sculptures rely on the process of slotting to form the final outcome. The paint is applied, a juxtaposition of colour choices creating surface rhythm activated once the shapes unite, comparable to fabric brought to life once it is made into the garment. The space exploring constructions of Peter Lanyon are an enlightening inspiration alongside the structures of architects such as the Venetian, Carlo Scarpa.
I wanted to make ‘objects’ that could be viewed in the round and the natural flow of house building helped feed into that vision.
GN: I first saw your work at Portsmouth University with Letters Home (2009) – an exhibition connecting archive and heritage. Do you feel there is a conscious effort to feed historical narrative into your practice or does it happen more by chance?
LT: I was artist in residence at Portsmouth Grammar School in 2008 and given full access to the school archives. The body of work for Letters Home was created from that time. The past speaks to us if we look for clues and listen, I am drawn to those signs that surround us. History encompasses all of us, the idea of something beyond ourselves.
GN: In both your paintings and sculptural work, there is a relationship of shape and form. Can you tell us about this and the colour palette for the works in Dazzle & Disrupt
LT: My paintings and sculptures often recall schemes of earlier works encouraging interpretation and further possibilities. This duality between the physicality of wall surfaces and the spatial situation of floor ‘object’ works is an ongoing dialogue. Seen in the wall hung Descendants is the essence of a predecessor work, Industry (5.) This wall painted design was deconstructed during experimentation creating offspring, ten irregular shapes of Descendants arranged across the wall. The black outline framing the splintered shapes within and holding the pieces as boundary lines also connect to my framed 2d collage works and their ‘pattern pieces’ of construction.
Whilst important to each other this relationship also extends to the works location. The walls of the West Gallery become an active component of Descendants whilst the Time Traveller Transformation (6.) series are placed directly on the floor creating a landscape from the gallery’s interior and their ‘architectural’ situation within this space. Apertures and spacings of the pieces encourage the viewers relationship.
A sense of ‘place’ is of great significance to me. The expansiveness of the wild weather worn coastline of my environment create ever-changing hues and tones. The familiarity of this palette was ideal for these new works aligned with the dazzle camouflage scheme. The Time Traveller sculptures, sequentially installed across the gallery floor grade in colour from Admiralty Dark Disruptive of the Mediterranean to the Western Approaches in Home Waters to Admiralty Light Disruptive of Iceland escort duties.
1. Imperial War Museum, Southwark, London SE1, research visit by the artist, 2016.
2. BUILD, 2017, Penwith Gallery, St. Ives, Cornwall and Surface Matter Materials Gallery, Hackney part of London Design Festival, 2017.
3. Beauty Chorus , 2017, eight vitreous enamelled steel sculptures, hand painted by the artist, fabricated: A.J Wells & Sons, IW, exhibited: BUILD
4. Descendants 2021, ten piece enamelled steel wall sculpture, Dazzle+Disrupt, West Gallery, Quay Arts, IW
5. Industry 2018, hand painted wall mural, Dazzle: Continuing the Art of Deception Southampton City Art Gallery, 2018-19.
6. Time Traveller Transformation 2021, five slotted floor sculptures, Dazzle+Disrupt, West Gallery, Quay Arts, IW.
Abstraction for Future Memories
From the catalogue ‘Blast Wall’ for the solo exhibition, The Foundry Gallery, London
13 May – 19 June 2021
War memorials are frequently grand, even imposing. Their list of names is often so overwhelming, that the text becomes a pattern. Common names begin to merge. Geometric shapes appear from the outline of letters. Lettering imitates codes. Repetition fuses together individual identities so that the surface becomes mortality en masse. So while the exacting nature of war memorials is essential, Lisa Traxler’s ‘Blast Wall’, works in conjunction with the former’s role as public record, while opening up a broader narrative, which brings the presence of loss into the current day.
As public constructions, traditional shrines are as architecturally fixed in time and place as their detailed accounts. Their stillness can be thought of as “being”, prompting the claim of ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides: ‘Whatever is is, and what is not cannot be’ whereby change is an illusion, because the truth about the state of things is eternal and unchanging. However, the physical reality of these monuments points to the philosophical opposite: that of “becoming”. The very materials which compose the building, age and crumble over time, giving way to another great Greek mind: Heraclitus. He of never stepping into the same river twice, insisted that nothing is permanent except change. The possibilities of abstract sculpture testify to this fluidity with their potential for multifarious meanings.
Much like the actual, protective structure on Traxler’s outpost property, the upright ‘Blast Wall’ sculptures appear as a group of sturdy figures who can take the blow. On second thoughts, we see they are made up of interlocked, flat pieces so perhaps they are much more susceptible to collapse than first glance implies. The hard edge of their dark outlines and bold surface pattern claims a strength, which is simultaneously contradicted by their skeletal character. Their height is impressive, while their parts point towards possible dismantling, reduction and reconfiguration. They are closer to characters, than the lists offered by conventional memorials. And their abstract configuration opens up universal accessibility to interpretation.
The title ‘Ghosts’ tells of spirits of the dead. Though here we can widen the idea to an acknowledgement of origins and what has come before. It is coincidence or intention that the narrow, uprightness of their forms recalls the interior framework of the bunker itself. Used to hide a precious diesel generator, critical for maintaining wartime communication, vertical steel formwork would have been erected as part of the substructure. Their existence is evidenced in the remnant beams protruding from the nearby radio mast platforms. These become not only a recollection of the bunker’s foundations, but of the builders themselves, and how important and dangerous their work was. After all, if one is building a blast wall, one must expect an explosion at any time.
Unfurling the memory, ’Ghosts’ also nods towards those who died on the battlefields. It recalls a range of similar, confidently upstanding testaments to the dead, from ancient burial poles of Australian aborigines to the recent ‘7 July Memorial’ 2009 commemorating the victims of the 2005 London bombings. Though what is particularly unique about them is their shape. It is as if, when reconfigured, they might all fit together to become one. The spaces between them are activated by a sensation of potential connection. And in a play on their configuration, each impersonates the outline of a key so that they become both inward and outward looking: carved to unlock as well as rewarding us with the possibility of further meaning.
As individuals standing in a group, the patterning across ‘Ghosts’ reinforces a sense of the collective. Their development during lockdown is essential to understanding how they came to be as they are. Having so much downtime allowed Traxler to just “be” with the bunker and its neighbouring blast wall: watching the sunlight open up and warm the concrete as it introduced diagonals and created rectangular shapes and stripes across the surface. Together with the surrounding landscape, Traxler then worked on a set of large scale paintings that were later divided up into singular entities. Now the eye can trace along one panel and envisage the sea, the illusion of the horizon uniting water and sky, and the changing times of the day, bringing shadows between discreetly varying hues.
Close by, ’20 Letters’ is a series of outtakes, like chapters or soundbites, from a larger series of sculptures ‘Time Traveller – Transformation’ 2021. While inextricably linked to their host, this next generation are distinguished in their own right. They seem to be momentarily motionless, while still in the process of forming, therefore reminding us that, often, language does not suffice.
‘These dead are supremely uninterested in the living: in those who took their lives; in witnesses – and in us. Why should they seek our gaze? What would they have to say to us? “We” – this “we” is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through – don’t understand. We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.’ Susan Sontag*
History has a habit of presenting itself as fixed fact. Whereas contemporary criticism views historical accounts as merely a cobbled together series of stories, which allow the elite to overshadow everyone else. However, actual events actually happened. And it is difficult for us to accept that these facts are far outweighed by the number of omissions. Though by acknowledging this, history has the possibility of both “being” and of “becoming”. The more we can re-address history against its own context and today’s world, the more that history can belong to the livelier realm of flux, though naturally, we can never literally embody the horrors of war.
Just as Traxler’s discovery, reading and sharing of her great uncle’s letters, are able to collapse time, bringing something of him into the present; so her sculptures by their abstract nature are able to give rise to explorations of remembering the one and the many. They work in companionship with their accompanying ‘Letters’. While these might refer literally to letters written home from the battlegrounds, they might also refer to the alphabet. From the alphabet we leap to language and from that to the possibility of understanding.
Nevertheless, language itself is limited. How can we be certain that our collection of sounds is sufficient to explain much more than our interactions with other human beings? Is this why we have art in the first place? To “talk” about what is beyond words? As Nietzsche might assert: at best, there remains a constant tension within the limitations of knowledge, for which we only have access to perspective to resolve. However, returning once again to
’Ghosts’, it seems abstraction might be one of the keys to creating a focused experience of looking, in order to open up thinking. For while we might rely on the limited tools of humanity to understand the universe, this very fact underscores how critical it is for us to understand our own nature of being, as becoming. And with this, the possibility of new recollections from future generations.
* ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ 2003 p113
Jillian Knipe 2021
Member : AICA International Art Critics Association
Podcaster : ‘Art Fictions’
Lisa Traxler + Elizabeth Goode, Director, The Foundry Gallery, London
For the Arts Council England Awarded solo exhibition ‘Blast Wall’
13 May – 19 June 2021
EG: Having seen the work in two very different spaces (the bunker and the gallery), do different settings effect the dynamics of the work?
LT: The Ghost sculptures were structured for the Foundry Gallery setting but to view them in the very place they were devised was a special moment. This was also the first time I had seen the sculptures assembled together in their entirety. Had I responded correctly? Was there more to say? How did they react from exterior to interior?
EG: How do the floor-based sculptures work together – can they be shown in different arrangements?
LT: The Ghost sculptures are a set of six floor-based slotted works, A to E, created as a group formation: they have a modular elements and the spaces their edges create is part of their force, an important aspect. Each Ghost has three to four pieces with each components having a code cut into it. Depending on space they inhabit the arrangement of the sculpture is fluid, moving to capture the light and dimensions they are installed in. Each Ghost can be viewed independently although in their family group they have the most impact.
EG: How did Blast Wall as a body of work begin?
LT: During lockdown I realised the importance of home and the everyday existence generally taken for granted. I had already become very attached to the derelict radar bunker glimpsed daily from my home. During this isolation and confinement the emotions of ‘place’ were heightened, I found myself spending time within the walls of the blast wall as if it were a courtyard, a place of safety.
I had visited the Foundry Gallery and had a sense of its size and light, I wanted to create upright sculptures that were modular so they could be moved reacting to the space and with one another. The blast wall is a rectangular shape similar to the gallery space and this synergy helped the pieces evolve. These sculptures needed to be linear to have a connection to the walls of the blast wall and concrete surface markings. The designs painted relate to the grid of steel frame buried within the concrete for structure and strength. Each painted form works off this initial grid structure; the stripe of the concrete shuttering against the geometric chevron of light and shadow.
EG: Are the wall pieces, 20 Letters, and the floor sculptures, Ghosts, to be seen as two separate bodies of work or one?
LT: As I evolved the Ghost sculptures I felt the apertures created in them linked closely with the openings of the blast wall and the topography beyond. 20 Letters is a response to this landscape but also the landscape of the letters of my great uncle and his heritage. The landscape of time and place merge to create these minimal wall pieces. This piece of work also recalls the schemes of earlier works, linking one project to another utilising off-cuts to form a previous set of sculptures, Time Traveller Transformation. (1.)
EG: Which artists influence your work?
LT: Originally the bunker was covered with a mesh camouflage. I was gifted an original war department field manual from 1944, Camouflage Materials and Manufacturing Techniques (2.), which was designed as reference data on camouflage. It is fascinating to imagine this being used in a theatre of operations during WWII.
I have a strong interest in the work of Paul Nash particularly on visiting Paul Nash at Tate Britain in 2016.
I find the emotion of his work and colour palette very evocative and mystical and his fascination with the past and his interpretation of his environment in his wartime paintings.
It’s no surprise that architects feature in my influencers’ list. The Venetian architect, Carlo Scarpa, has a
great impact. Recent reading of Carlo Scarpa’s Tomba Brion by Guido Guidi(3.)
has distinct alignments with the bunker building – catching shards of life, textured surfaces, shadows of time passing over the building.
EG: Is your work ideas or materials led?
LT: One informs the other. Sketchbook and thought lead to drawing and maquette construction. This play with maquette is the free forming of ideas before the process becomes exacting further along. A set of rules seems to exist: what am I saying? What choice of material would best suit this concept? What are the dimensions of the material? Industry standards dictate this but I have made this an advantage, as boundaries can aid the process. With the Ghost sculptures each piece works next to its neighbour to extract as much from the panel size as possible whilst ensuring the final outcome, akin to a giant jigsaw both physically and metaphorically.
EG: How important is the use of colour in your work? Where do the colours for the work in Blast Wall come from?
LT: The palette of the landscape where my studio and bunker are located is wild and ever changing. The vast expanse of ocean beyond the field from my studio is in constant flux: a clash of light and precipitation on the ever-moving water. This colour of ‘place’ aligns with the shades of military camouflage. The unexpected yellow flash found on the Ghost sculptures feels equally at home on the embroidered lapel of a naval jacket as it does on the flame yellow bloom of spiky gorse bushes that edge the windswept coast.
Time Traveller Transformation: five painted acrylic, poplar sculpture, ACE Dazzle+Disrupt: West Gallery, Quay Arts, IW, March-June 2021
Camouflage Materials and Manufacturing Techniques, FM5-20H War Department Field Manual, War Department, July 1944
Carlo Scarpa’s Tomba Brion by Guido Guidi and Antonello Frongia, publisher: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2011
NOTHING LIKE HOME
From the catalogue ‘Blast Wall’ for the solo exhibition,
The Foundry Gallery London and The Bunker, Isle of Wight
13 May – 19 June 2021, London and 27 -30 August
and selected dates in September 2021, Isle of Wight.
When does a place become home? Is it the building, the memories created, the everyday ordinariness, your belongings surrounding you, the feeling of safety and comfort to retreat to?
During 2015, my partner and I moved to the site of a derelict WWII radar station, the decommissioned RAF St. Lawrence (1), with a house build project ahead of us. This project in unison with the historical site set in motion an unprecedented sequence of events within my art practice. I was surrounded by a myriad of construction materials, practically living on site whilst the project took shape and all within the shadow of this monumental, concrete radar bunker. I found the structure mesmerizing – its clean, sharp lines contrasted with the rugged coastal landscape around it. Distilled in history it had a powerful impact on me.
The collision of construction and history drove the spatial works created for the exhibition BUILD (2) consolidating a physical and emotional response to the house build. A set of vitreous enamelled steel sculptures, Beauty Chorus (3) were produced. These compact interlocking constructions held the memory of the build whilst their hand-painted surface design alluded to defence architecture and military camouflage. Subsequent works, particularly the sculptural Time Traveller (4) series, were fabricated from a resin paper composite originally used in construction on the exterior of the house build and its interior staircase. This exciting evolution of working with non-traditional, industrial materials in an architectural setting enabled me to develop ideas beyond the studio.
BUILD articulated the endeavour of construction; excavating history, I was a spectator as the project unfolded. Blast Wall is an intimate response, the silent witness now active has become ‘home’. It encapsulates the daily grind, the joy of ordinary, safety, comfort and memories. It is protection from the storm beyond its perimeter. It is also the space where I charted the arc of the sun, watching the sliding shadows of time pass through the long days of lockdown (5). It was my safety net – Home (6).
The blast wall (7) mentioned is one of the surviving components which references part of the radar station of RAF St. Lawrence. This blast wall is located on the seaward elevation protecting the bunker area of the military building that would have housed the generator. It is a concrete structure open to the elements but sheltered on all sides by its thick shuttered and textured hand built concrete elevations. The reinforced concrete embeds a grid of steel rods and is cast in place within a wooden formwork leaving a textured imprint: an evocative memory of its hand-made past. Triangular shaped protected entrances either side give a view through this building to the land beyond. During lockdown this area of the bunker held more significance to me encapsulating the concept of ‘home’ and protection.
The British painter, Paul Nash, talks of this sense of place that home brings. His family home was important to his emerging concept of place. He wrote: ‘It was undoubtedly the first place which expressed for me something more than its natural features seemed to contain, something which the ancients spoke of as genius loci – the spirit of a place, but something which did not suggest that the place was haunted or inhabited by a genie in a psychic sense … Its magic lay within itself, implicated in its own design and its relationship to its surroundings’. (R. Cardinal, 1989).
Whilst Blast Wall talks about the architectural structure of a piece of defence architecture it also alludes to the emotional history of this period of time through a collection of military letters recently rediscovered by my family. My great uncle was a Lance Corporal posted overseas during the Second World war; he wrote frequently to his sister about his yearning for Home, missing not only his loved ones but also the domesticity of everyday existence. Each time he wrote the word Home he used a capital H, elevating this word to describe the spirit of place, his genius loci.
He writes; ‘India seems so very far from Home – but there – letters fill in the ache – so I guess we can’t grumble – someone has to be out here – don’t they?’
Part of Blast Wall has been transcribing these delicate, faded letters to uncover his story. The writing is beautiful not only in script but in the lyrical way my great uncle describes everyday life. Reading and deciphering these letters whilst creating the Ghost sculptures for Blast Wall has infused this moment in time, intrinsically linked.
Standing within the blast wall on a clear, bright day, capturing the geometry of light through photographs and sketches I am aware of its solid concrete structure. Watching time measured in shadows creeping across the shuttered walls, open to the elements, the sky above, waiting in its stillness.
He writes ‘The weather has been very hot and dry for the past few months. The ground could do with a soaking – it’s dry and cracked as hard as iron – and the dust is horrible.’
Above us both the same sky… but a different time and space.
Quietened by the noise of ‘outside’ during the strange time of lockdown gave me time and space to explore my interdisciplinary practice. This experimentation created new ways of bringing the two- and three-dimensional aspects of my work together.
Six painted Ghost sculptures suggest the construction of the blast wall and the shape of time passing with their geometric, upright hand-painted planes. This process follows weeks of drawing, maquette building and panel painting with the final procedure offsite and the panels fabricated in an industrial setting. These vertical pieces slot together forming floor-based works to be viewed in rotation creating an immersive experience of my paintings. The edges of each structure creating their own space sculpture – intervals in time. Within these shaped forms apertures are cut, echoing the blast wall slots and openings, through which the landscape wall piece 20 Letters can be viewed. This wall sculpture alludes to the twenty letters from my family history whilst also creating a lineage utilising excess shapes from previous works. These forms are reconfigured and re-worked , their colour palette pertaining to the rugged land, bunker patina and military camouflage working in unison.
My great uncle never did make it home, dying in battle on 11 June 1944 and buried in the Kohima War Cemetery. His letters are significant, not only to his family but for himself. By writing he brought himself ‘Home‘ creating his genius loci through the ink on the paper to his connection to his sacred place.
Title: There’s Nothing Like Home, a phrase written by my great uncle in one of his letters, November 19th 1941.
1.) RAF St. Lawrence was built in 1941 and operational 24 hours a day until decommissioned in 1947. It was part of the Chain Home network, a series of 20 radar stations creating a national defence system to protect Britain’s coastline during WW2.
2.) BUILD, 2017. Solo exhibition Penwith Gallery, St. Ives, Cornwall, and Surface Matter Materials Gallery, Hackney, part of London Design Festival, 2017.
3.) Beauty Chorus a set of eight vitreous enamelled steel sculptures hand painted by the artist and fabricated in A.J Wells & Sons, IW, exhibited in ‘BUILD’
4.) Time Traveller, initial sculpture from this series, fabricated in a resin paper composite industrial material.
5.) Lockdowns of 2020/2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
6.) ‘Safety Net – Home’ a series of constructed collage paintings created during lockdown 2020.
7.) A blast wall is a barrier designed to protect vulnerable buildings or other structures and the people inside them from the effects of a nearby explosion, whether caused by industrial accident, military action or terrorism.’ (from Wikipedia, 2020).
Isle of Wight, 2021
Foreword by Polly Bielecka
from the catalogue ‘Time Traveller’ for the solo exhibition,
Southampton City Art Gallery, 2 July – 8 October 2022
Coruscating colour, line and elegant form – on first appearances this exciting body of new work by Lisa Traxler might appear to be a joyful exploration of abstract geometry. Yet on closer scrutiny and with patient exploration Traxler offers us a far deeper visual experience. One that is intimately connected to both our past and our present, to architecture, textiles, camouflage, letters and loss. Time Traveller is unique in its visual approach and offers an extraordinarily rich and multi-layered expression of our times.
This richness of content is perhaps not surprising given Traxler’s broad range of experience which charts her transition from working as a fashion editor in London where she honed her astute eye for colour, pattern and texture to moving to the Isle of Wight where she has focused on painting, house building and more recently sculpture. Since creating her first delicate paper constructions a decade ago to her powerful combinations of painterly strokes of vitreous enamel over steel, Traxler’s painted sculptures have explored the third dimension in increasingly innovative and inspiring ways. In this exhibition, they find form in three new, free standing sculpture series as well as wall reliefs, prints and murals that respond brilliantly to the internal architecture of the gallery.
In 2014, Traxler and her architect husband moved from a sleek, highly finished ‘Grand Design’ property they had developed from a bungalow to a site south of the island comprising of a derelict World War II radar bunker, two Nissen huts and the most phenomenal 180 degree view out over the English Channel. Transforming this site, overgrown with thick brambles, into the beautiful home it is now coincided with Traxler’s development of her distinctive sculptural language. Working within the self-imposed constraints of standard panel sizes for the materials she uses such as ply or specialised paper composite for outdoors, Traxler creates works that probe and provoke traditional boundaries between painting and sculpture. Works such as the four vertical freestanding Shape Shifters seen here, compress and expand the surrounding space but also have a surprisingly figurative aspect. Each element is meticulously designed, primed, painted, cut and then finished to enable the smooth and exacting slotted construction she uses to explore space and volume. This complex making method resonates with her experiences of watching a building coming together however it is painting that forms the primary root of her work. She says:
My painting is always my fundamental link – this desire and ache to create through the medium of paint is integral to my spirit. The investigation through other materials enables me to gain insight into space and shape within my painting. This analytical, inquiring approach to my work helps to create more than simply ‘pleasing pictures’.
It is not unusual for an artist to invest as much of themselves in their surroundings as they do in their work, however it is unusual for an artist to absorb and respond to a building so completely, then digest and express it so brilliantly. Talking to Traxler ahead of this momentous exhibition one can sense how deeply connected she feels not only to this site but to its wider local and maritime history which has taken her on a journey researching not only the bunker’s function during the War but to dazzle ships and the rediscovery of a series of letters from her great uncle which offered up a surprising and deeply personal connection to those lost in service. It is this that gives Traxler’s works such an unusually personal element to her abstraction and is subtly alluded to by the titles she gives to works such as ‘Descendants’.
During the pandemic Traxler drew comfort from the mighty strength of the bunker’s blast wall where she would sit each morning and watch the subtle shifts of light on the rough concrete and feel its warmth. If an artist’s primary purpose is to absorb and interrogate the unseen or forgotten details of our existence so that we can understand ourselves better, Lisa Traxler’s Time Traveller is a perfect and poignant example of an artist who has skilfully succeeded in doing exactly that.
Pangolin London Sculpture Gallery
FROM FORMAL TO PERSONAL AND BACK
From the catalogue ‘Time Traveller’ for the solo exhibition, Southampton City Art Gallery
2 July – 8 October 2022
Try hard enough, and you can find representation in almost anything, clouds being the most notorious example. Yet on the face of it Lisa Traxler operates at the purer end of abstraction in her show ‘Time Traveller’. A repertoire of sharply defined shapes generates plenty of energy and intrigue, but the obvious question is ‘what is she doing?’ rather than ‘what does she show?’
So what is she doing? The basic unit of Traxler’s wall drawings, prints, steel reliefs and floor-based wood ply constructions appears to be the line, albeit she rarely allows a line to stretch out for long before cutting it off. And, while one associates the line first and foremost with drawing, that list of her methods makes it apparent that she operates in and between the zones of painting and sculpture. Straight off – and you won’t find any curves, by the way – we have an ambiguity, a cross-fertilisation, between three potentially separate forms and that’s the immediate cause of that energy and intrigue.
Abstract art is bound to be made of something, and to carry some colour. It’s evident that Traxler relishes her materials, but she doesn’t foreground them: you see the form first, not what it’s made from. Nor does Traxler hit you with colour. Without going quite so far as Picasso and Braque’s early cubist work, her preferences are quiet. Muted shades of green, blue and brown recur, setting up another potential for tension: you don’t get many straight lines in nature – some people claim you get none – but those are the colours of temperate nature. The British landscape, for example.
It’s germane to mention cubism and Britain, because Traxler’s way of handling of line puts me in mind of the British version of Cubism: Vorticism. That aimed to concentrate the energy of modern life into abstract compositions, the jagged forms of which typically suggest industrial machinery. In 1914 Wyndham Lewis characterised their aims as ‘activity’, ‘significance’ and ‘essential movement’, and cited ‘the pattern of angles and geometric lines which is formed by our vortex in the existing chaos’. The comparable dynamism of Traxler’s sculptures might be seen as inverting Vorticist paintings by such as Lewis, Helen Saunders and Edward Wadsworth: they made 2D paintings suggesting 3D sources, she makes 3D results out of 2D sources. So there we have it. An update on vorticism that builds in and reconciles contradictions to freshening effect. Can we move through to the Burne-Jones now?
Hold on, though, what nags at me is how Traxler’s ostensibly various types of work seem all-of-a-piece, as if they’ve sprung from a common source. There is, if you want to get fancy about it, sameness in the difference. What, then, is her process?
Traxler has history with this room. Go back to 2018-19 and her drawing ‘Industry’ was on that wall with a doorway we were about to walk through to the Burne-Jones. That established a template of forms that flow into her subsequent body of work. The forms have been cut up to make new shapes which retain the memory of their origins. The ghost of ‘Industry’ emerges, as if out of the wall it was painted on, into the same room’s ‘Shape Shifter’ sculptures. The results look like an explosion of geometric abstraction – as if one of Bridget Riley’s stripe paintings had been blown up, then the wreckage been slotted together. It’s appropriate, then, that the ‘Industry’ wall drawing was shown next to Riley’s ‘Red Movement’ – especially as Riley has often cited the effect of the light and colour of the Cornish landscape in which she grew up as a key influence on her own abstract practice.
But then one is driven back another step. Where did Traxler’s originating impulse come from? It turns out that the formal is rooted in the historic and the personal. ‘Industry’ was based on designs of dazzle camouflage for World War I ships, the idea of which was not so much to hide them as to disguise their contours and so confuse those hunting them down, making it harder to assess their speed and direction. Dazzle was the invention of marine artist Norman Wilkinson, but also had vorticist links: Edward Wadsworth supervised the camouflaging of over 2,000 ships, and painted a series of dazzle ship canvasses after the war. Come World War II, the development of aeroplanes and radar had made that ploy less relevant or effective, but dazzle camouflage was used instead on the decks of ships, with the aim of spreading the confusion to the newly prevalent view from the air.
The series of five ‘Time Travellers’, then, don’t travel just within the time of Traxler’s practice, but also back to the dazzle designs of a century ago. Not only is dazzle – disrupted – the source of their shapes, it is also where the colours come from. Each impersonates a geographic location in which a ship would travel: from ‘Admiralty Dark Disruptive’ for the Mediterranean to the ‘Admiralty Light Disruptive’ used for Icelandic escort duties. And the vitreous enamels of ‘Descendants’ descend – as their title leads you to expect – similarly.
The history becomes personal, too. Traxler lives on the south coast of the Isle of Wight, and her cliffside house near Ventnor incorporates a concrete bunker, in military use during 1941-47. The concrete walls were poured in planes which yield formations not unlike dazzle patterns, and those also feed into Traxler’s work: they are the other shapes around which the ‘Shape Shifters’ shift, but with the forms twisting up into the gallery space. And their palette is more restricted: tonal blue-greys with just flashes of green and silver, and darker towards the top as if, says Traxler, a storm is rolling in.
It will be no surprise by now that the ‘Ariel Reconnaissance’ puzzle gives visitors a chance to move round the pieces to make their own version of Traxler’s lineages. Nor that the new wall drawing operates similarly to suggest an aerial landscape view, somewhat confused by dazzle. Nor that Traxler’s muted colours seep in from the sea, sky, fields and ancient woodlands outside her house and studio – she walks round them every day with her camera – as much as from the history of dazzle. Moreover, that way of forming a three dimensional object out of joined flat materials comes from a previous part of Traxler’s personal history: she spent over a decade in the fashion industry, and that’s just the way garments are made. Perhaps I’m now making everything sound rather fully thought-through and controlled. Not so: that cutting, folding and joining up necessarily gives rise to accidental effects, and Traxler embraces that. She relishes the excitement of the work arriving from the fabricators, wondering whether her plans will come together successfully. Chance keeps things dynamic, keeps the work moving forward.
So the formal turns out to be the unpredictable outcome of the historic and the personal. Traxler’s abstract language actually holds a lot of content. Does that matter? In one sense, no – what matters is whether all those factors feed into convincing and interesting forms. Why should we care about the artist’s means to that end? There are two answers to that: first, such background content is interesting in itself; and, second, its presence may not be a coincidence so much as a pre-condition of generating the results. The vorticists saw themselves as capturing the essence of the industrial age. Similarly, whether we return to the spiritual concerns of Hilma af Klint, Mondrian and Kandinsky; the emotional self-expression of Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning; the inspiration of place in Mitchell, Frankenthaler and Lanyon; or the conceptual agendas of Judd, LeWitt and Stella, successful abstraction has tended to operate in a to and fro with external drivers. From the formal to the personal and back is how it needs to be.
Paul Carey-Kent is a freelance art writer and curator, and a member of the International Association of Art Critics. He is Visual Fine Arts Editor of Seisma Magazine, in which art meets science. He also writes regularly for Art Monthly, Frieze, STATE, Photomonitor and World of Interiors (UK) and Border Crossings (Canada). He has a weekly column online for FAD Magazine and a monthly interview online for Artlyst. Links are available to his Instagram and blog and a project on Early Works by famous artists. Paul has curated more than 30 shows, currently ‘Girl meets Girl’ at Vestfossen Kunstlaboratorium, Norway.
STRETCHING OUT FROM THE PAST TO THE FUTURE
From the catalogue ‘Time Traveller’ for the solo exhibition, Southampton City Art Gallery
2 July – 8 October 2022
“We all have our time machines, don’t we. Those that take us back are memories…
And those that carry us forward, are dreams.” H.G. Wells
The present is the radar bunker and my fascination with this decommissioned WW2 concrete relic set in the coastal landscape of the Isle of Wight – it is also my home. Since 2016 the architecture and heritage of this monumental building has influenced the course of my art practice and my subsequent artworks. Defence architecture research at the Imperial War Museum in London led me to the dazzle camouflage phenomenon of the Great War. Marine artist Norman Wilkinson believed that disrupted geometric designs covering the surface of vessels at sea would impede the viewer and leave them enquiring as to the direction, speed and validity of what they were seeing – thus the audacity of ‘dazzle’ was created in 1917.
I was invited to paint a dazzle influenced drawing, Industry, onto the walls of the gallery at Southampton for the exhibition Dazzle: Continuing the Art of Disruption (2018). This invitation and the subsequent small scale two piece slotted sculpture, Time Traveller Voyager, which went on to win the Southampton City Art Gallery Open of 2020, are the key influences for the works exhibited in the exhibition Time Traveller. With these artworks as a reference point, history and architecture collide to create an immersive landscape within the gallery setting.
Scaled up and hand-painted the new versions become Time Traveller – Transformation 1-5, originallyexhibited in the Arts Council supported Dazzle & Disrupt exhibition at Quay Arts, Isle of Wight, 2021. Each vertical surface is uniquely painted in a disruptive design their jagged, geometric laser cut wood forms creating confusion through the gallery space and against the tension of the hand painted wall mural, Descendants. The vitreous enamelled steel shards, recessed into wood fibre panels of Descendants, create numerous geometric shattered systems once hung. Then the wall between each component becomes an essential spatial element, the black surround material framing the splintered forms within, holding the pieces as boundary lines. The medium of vitreous enamel, a fused glass ink, was selected to reflect and highlight the abstract, geometric patterning and one I been working with for over a decade for its brilliant lustre.
Exploring these fractured landscapes the works are concerned with edges in space: boundary lines, imaginary lines, camouflage lines, a no-mans land – a hypothetical journeying into the past or the future. Perhaps the works can be viewed as broken shards of dazzle split from their origins and abandoned in the gallery setting, deviant components emanating destruction and chaos.
The development of these shapes has created a new series of sculptures commissioned for this exhibition, morphing the configuration deeper into broken vistas, pulling the shapes up and outwards, twisting the forms into the gallery space. In this continued process of transformation the Shape Shifter sculptures are extended and dissected evoking alien shards, a juxtaposition of balance and energetic forms. The Shape Shifters interrupt the space they claim creating a rhythm from their geometry. This composition of ancestry presents itself as a quartet: 2.5 metre tall balancing forms comprising of six slotted components each, alongside them two emerging infants, a metre tall, with five slotted components completing the ensemble. The playful uniquely shaped pieces are a puzzle in action – lay them out over the gallery floor and they nestle side by side reforming the rectangular poplar wood panel from which they were laser cut. I use the boundary of panel size as an opportunity to develop the shapes. What exploded formations can be coaxed from these flat industrial sheets?
Surrounding these floor sculptures, the vast hand-painted wall mural, Land Folded, slices and criss-crosses itself across three of the gallery walls generating an imaginary topography across the facade. This abstract wall design takes its notion from the camouflaged mapping created for aerial reconnaissance during WWII, the land distorted and creased. The dynamics of this information continue across the hand-painted Shape Shifter sculptures, the lines and forms edited across each plane reducing information whilst amplifying the surviving tones and traces. Their skin is hand-painted geometry – less ‘dazzled’ than the Time Traveller Transformation group, restricted in tone and pattern. The Z type shapes balanced at the pinnacle reverse from the deep black of storm to the palest blue-white of a still sea, laser engraved slashes echoing the wall drawing etched into the wooden surface. The alternate angles of the Z formations invite the viewer to trace the surface and edge, the eye travelling left to right, top to bottom creating imaginary horizontal lines as if scanning a landscape beyond.
An invitation to engage further is created by interacting with the manoeuvres of the Aerial Reconnaissance dissection puzzle: a request to move the separate shapes across the table-top surface whilst building into the three dimensional and reinventing the borderlines with the puzzles decorated surface. This puzzle is not just a visual stimulus but a method of inviting touch and play, connecting with form and material.
The outcome is concealed until the work is installed in the gallery space, a secret held back until all aspects are consolidated. The unpredictable is refreshing after the rigour and confinement of precision measuring and structured fabrication through this long process, time stretching out from the past to the future.
Lisa Traxler 2022
For the catalogue/exhibition: ’Time Traveller’
Southampton City Art Gallery
2nd July – 8th October 2022