Embellish:   A New Collection Examining the Nature of Beauty


Auckland artist Emma Bass, whose photographic work ‘Hydrangeas 8.50 am’ from her Imperfect series, was selected for the prestigious Summer Exhibition at the 2016 Royal Academy in London, has a fresh new path.  And it was her visit to that capital city that planted the seed.

Her new collection, Embellish, will open at Smyth Galleries in St Mary’s Bay on November 9th. The photographs, says Bass, are: “richer, darker and more atmospheric” than Imperfect which featured bruised or decaying blooms set in decorative white vases against pale backgrounds.

While exploring London’s National Gallery, Bass became fascinated by the still life floral works of the Dutch Masters. In Embellish, she continues her investigation into the nature of beauty in a photographic play of shadow and light that reflects the dramatic style of those celebrated 17th century masterworks.

“This new body of work is about illusion,” explains Bass. “It asks questions including whether the act of embellishment amplifies beauty, or makes something less palatable, or can it create another way of seeing the world entirely?”

The sumptuous colourful arrangements are displayed in Bass’s growing collection of ever-more-ornate vases, positioned on an opulent marble ledge. These magnificent compositions fuse the work of the Dutch Masters with an Ikebana aesthetic to create a contemporary narrative.

As with her previous bodies of work, all is not as it seems.  Look closely and you’ll notice that some of the flowers are real, others artificial.  In some of the images, Bass is working consciously with the juxtoposition between real and that which can be called ‘fake’.  She asks:

“does something have to be authentic to be beautiful?  Where does authenticity stop and illusion begin.  At the same time, to embellish is a very human thing, but how much embellishment makes something fake??”

Then there are the embellishments themselves: buds that drip with luscious gold paint, the drama of petals spray-painted black or luminous blue.  She has even hand painted the petals of tulips to resemble long extinct Dutch varieties.  

Bass has included ‘fictitious additions’ in the arrangements, many of which are practically invisible until you get up close and personal with the work. Some embellishments are inanimate objects such as wedding rings, plastic bugs or miniature soldiers from her son’s toy-box.  Others are living creatures.  A praying mantis that happened along at shoot time became a natural part of one composition, the artist’s pet cockatiel did a number of star turns and Bass also nurtured Monarch butterflies from caterpillar to pupa to new-born adult to speak to the entire life cycle portrayed in some of the works. 

During the creative process, the personalities of these arrangements became more and more obvious.  They communicated a time, place, event or quality that exists in all of our lives, and shapes who we are and how we present ourselves to the world.   This dimension led to an exhilarating collaborative naming process with landscape designer extraordinaire Xanthe White.  Names such as ‘The Physician’, ‘The Speculator’, ‘The Beloved’ to name a few, emerged from this wonderful process.

Embellish is bigger, bolder and more complex than Imperfect.  The works are a confident progression for the artist. Noted art writer and critic Warwick Brown sees metaphors of mortality in the exotic, impossible displays.

“There is a lot more to Bass’s photography than meets the eye. Decorative and seductive it may be, but it poses challenges to the thoughtful viewer,” says Brown.

For her part, Bass hopes that the new works to be exhibited in November will inspire and bring joy. She says “British philosopher Roger Scruton argues that beauty matters. It is not just a subjective thing, but a universal need of human beings. If we ignore this need we find ourselves in a spiritual desert. We should risk everything to see it and find it.”  Bass is intent on exploring the different facets and facades of beauty.   


Embellish by Emma Bass opens at the Smyth Galleries, 41 Jervois Road, St Marys Bay, Auckland, on November 9th – 30th  2017
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