Emma Bass is experiencing a moment of change. Entering a new phase of life and motherhood compelled the Auckland-based photographer to take a fresh approach and honour artists who have guided her creative journey. The result is a new body of work, A Little Garden, being exhibited at Auckland’s ARTIS Gallery. Admirers of the internationally acclaimed artist will immediately appreciate the new pieces are completely different to anything previously offered up by Bass.
Whereas her past still life compositions have been true to her background in photography, Bass blends photography and painting for this series using reproductions of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish flower paintings. Objects are layered directly onto the print, then further layering is added digitally, and finally 24k gold Henri Matisse inspired cutouts are applied.
The new works continue to explore various aspects of beauty – a concept that has long inspired the artist. A Little Garden is an evolution of Bass’ previous work, “exploring beauty through a more surreal and manipulated lens”, and playing with distorted reality. “The Dutch flower paintings were impossible bouquets – they were illusionary, fully constructed with elements from mismatched seasons with distorted size perspectives,” she explains. “I’ve played on this by layering real elements, such as creatures and flora, which has added to the different scale perspectives.” Giant bees, ladybirds and flies appear large in comparison to the painted elements. Bass also adds dead creatures and more real flowers to the paintings, referencing “the transience of earthly existence and temporariness of life”. The layering of plastic toys and various animals add a touch of humour. “I love the ridiculousness of a flamingo turning up in a Bosschaert, or an ape in a van der Ast,” she says. “It’s not taking itself too seriously – an idea I want to abide by as I age.”
“I AM FINDING WHAT IS ESSENTIAL TO ME
IS CREATING AND ADDING BEAUTY TO THE WORLD.”
Bass discovered the works of Dutch Golden Age artists such as Ambrosius Bosschaert and Balthasar van der Ast, as well as Willem van Aelst and flemish painter Jan Brueghel, while exhibiting her piece ‘Hydrangeas 8.50 am’ at London’s Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition in 2016. The National Gallery happened to be exhibiting works exploring the origins and evolution of Dutch flower painting at the time. For Bass, it cultivated an instant love affair with the genre. “I was mesmerised by the technique and skill, and intrigued with the stylistic development of the floral bouquets,” she says. “I realised that the previous floral works I’ve been making all these years were actually part of this long tradition of flower portraits and I wanted to take my work in a new direction, referencing these. “I wanted to have a contemporary take on these original works.”
A Little Garden also pays homage to the famous paper cut-outs of French artist Henri Matisse. Bass, a former nurse, was moved after learning Matisse had created his cut-outs when he was incapacitated following cancer surgery and left unable to paint or sculpt. “He still forged on making art despite his physical limitations. Because he couldn’t leave his room and visit real gardens, he wanted to create ‘a little garden’ in his room, which is what I’ve called this body of work. “There is a fear as artists that as we age we may lose our edge or skills and talents, and there’s something quite wonderful that this man in his eighties was continuing to produce brilliant work.”
A series of recent events in Bass’ life inspired her to take her work in this innovative new direction. Entering her 50s was a significant juncture. “I don’t feel the need to adhere to other people’s expectations of me; I’ve found the courage to spread my wings further,” she says. The breakdown of her marriage and becoming a single parent to her two children also led to the discovery of a “more creative voice”, which helped her to traverse pain and difficulty. I am finding a new sense of purpose, realising my mortality and what is essential to me, which is ultimately creating and adding beauty to the world. I have so many plans ... I hope I live long enough to bring them into fruition. “I love that Matisse adapted at a time when he was incapacitated. The creativity flows through you no matter what the circumstances. That is inspiring!”
A Little Garden,
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