It is in this rich thematic garden that photographer Emma Bass strolls. At first blush her large prints bloom with the intoxicating colour and form which have always made floral arrangements so appealing. Vibrant petals are meticulously washed with indulgent light as their stems and leaves wind suggestively out of intricately detailed ceramics. The surface beauty is obvious and arresting, but for Emma the images are far more than just a pretty face.
“I wished to explore how we build facades in our life: how we create them to enhance our beauty or conceal our realities, and whether that compromises our authenticity,” the photographer explains. “I became increasingly interested in the paradox of embellishment versus being true to ourselves as we move through life, and take on different roles within our family and our wider world.”
This is far from the first time Emma has used botanical arrangement to explore such heady themes. In 2012 she put together her first show for the Imperfect series, floral pieces expressing the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, in which beauty is found through accepting blemishes and impermanence, failures and death. The subject gave her ample room to develop her aesthetic intent (and resulted in a second exhibition in 2013), but with the Embellish series the photographer is excavating even richer thematic ground — aging, generational change, the unexpected nature of reality, and our ability to cope with it.
“I observe the next generation coming through and having to negotiate how to teach our children to cope with the world as it is at the moment,” says the mother of two.
One of the biggest issues facing her as both an artist and parent is the impact of the digital world on everyday life. One kind of embellishment her work references is the way social media projects a highly unreliable image of the lives of those around us.
“We often live behind a mask; you never know what’s going on behind the beautiful images on Facebook or Instagram. There’s the artifice of the mask, of what you see, and what lies beneath that, and the multiple versions of embellishment at play. “My images are almost floral selfies.”
In that spirit, the artist is adding far more into her arrangements than she did previously. In the Imperfect series there would occasionally be an unexpected insect cameo, which occurred naturally, but for Embellish the bouquets utilize paint, toys, pets, dead insects, jewelry, and artificial flowers. The artist disrupts the notions of the truthful and natural, and questions the values assigned to differing perceptions of beauty.
“It’s very difficult to tell what is real and what is fake, and if you find out a flower is fake, what is your reaction to that: is that tacky and gross, is there a judgment? Does something have to be real and authentic to be beautiful?”
These additions, however, aren’t without their own brand of authenticity — the objects all found their own way into the composition as Emma shot in her beautiful home studio, and as they’re staged in the midst of her domestic environment, the additions reflect a part of the artist’s home life. Her son’s toy animals, left behind after play, sometimes appear in the works as a humorous homage to the creatures included in the floral paintings of the Dutch masters, from who the series takes aesthetic cues.
Sometimes the intersection of life and art is a bit more forceful, such as when kicked balls or fired toy guns result in one of the artist’s collected vases being smashed on the ground. Turning a setback into an opportunity to explore yet another layer of embellishment, the photographer set about learning the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which a broken object is repaired with gold to exhibit rather than hide the imperfection. Several of the Embellish receptacles now proudly display the gleaming lacquer lines that evidence Emma’s dutiful repairs. These objects are made more beautiful in their brokenness.
The initial set of lavishly constructed works were exhibited late last year at Auckland’s Smyth Gallery, and were extremely well received. The Embellished show caused a flow of viewers through the door unprecedented in the small Ponsonby gallery, with some viewers noted to have been moved to tears by the large-scale beauty of the prints.
Those who missed out on viewing Emma’s sumptuous works in the flesh need not worry just yet; the photographer continues to develop the body of work, and she’s far from finished embellishing Keats’ slippery concepts of truth and beauty.