I meet artist Joanna Kirk in the huge glass-windowed space of Blain|Southern’s Hanover Square gallery. A Goldsmiths graduate, who has exhibited widely in the past, she is showing here a series of brand new pieces: 12 unusually large and intensely coloured pastel drawings, intricate landscapes constructed from vivid whirls and whorls of colour applied thickly with fingers in layers. Here and there a girl and a boy, half-hidden in the patterns, peer out. Far from naturalistic, these thickly entwined purple and blue woodlands or multi-coloured rocky landscapes evoke an Arthur Rackham-ish fairytale world, alive with dreams and forebodings.
It turns out these boards are partly inspired by their distinctive materials. Kirk says, ‘I always drew, I drew from a child, I never really liked painting. And then three years ago I found these amazing Schmincke pastels, at Cornelissen’s, near the British Museum. The colour is just sublime. This is what changed my work, the actual colour. I was doing quite naturalistic landscapes before. And then I suddenly thought, there is not enough of me in the work.’ She also started to look closely at the work of Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, Odilon Redon, Klimt and other artists she admired, where colour is never naturalistic, but laden with symbolism, atmosphere and emotion. ‘I start off with a big panel and I build the colour on it,’ she adds, ‘there are an awful lot of layers, a lot of mark making – they go through quite a transformation of colours.’
The other inspiration is motherhood. There is only one piece in this show without children in it. Kirk explains: ‘It is obsessive. I think it is about looking over someone the whole time. I realised, when I had children, that I was always going to be thinking about them, no matter how old they are. You are continually involved with someone else’s life. I find that fascinating.’ The children are woven into the landscapes, just as her experience of landscape is inextricable from her feelings for them. She also likens the painstaking process of creating her works (each takes three to four months of long days) to mothering: ‘There is an element in my work that is a bit like bringing up small children – it is very laborious, sometimes boring, you are just building something up gradually, a lot of hours spent with them.’
Each image has a direct source in a particular landscape that Kirk has photographed – typically woodland she visits often in North Wales, or the coast of South Wales or, more recently, the volcanic landscape of Iceland, experienced on a family holiday. The first painting in the show, called The Mothership, transforms this barren, moon-like landscape into a psychedelic vision. A figure stands on one rock, while a shape – possibly a rock or clouds or weather – beams light towards her. ‘This is my daughter on these gorgeous rocks doing a Pina Bausch pose, whose work I absolutely love. It’s about her future, feeling very empowered within the landscape. I want her to feel entitlement, a sense of her place in the world, in this very beautiful but actually quite harsh landscape.’ The Battle of Nant y Coed, by contrast, presents us with an intensely blue, densely tangled wood, with no horizon, where her son sits, almost invisibly, high in a tree. ‘I was thinking about my son, and the things that may happen in his life, the battles. It’s a bit like the tale of Sleeping Beauty, with the thorns, so he is stuck right at the top up there, watching this chaos unfurl beneath him.’
The one pastel without figures offers us a lurid tree root, depicted in visceral shades of red, orange and yellow, cut across by spooky green tendrils, with cooler green woodland behind. It is entitled Self-Portrait. Kirk explains: ‘This is me getting older. Thinking about me still being alive and very much part of everything but actually, it is quite scary. I think this may be the age where I am quite scary. But it is also celebratory.’ All the images in this exhibition are fraught with similar contradictions – between fear and confidence, chaos and serenity, joy and madness. The detail is maniacal, but it is also deeply satisfying, as, in the words of Kirk, ‘there is no corner that hasn’t been dealt with.’ We are held, spell-bound.
‘Joanna Kirk’ is at Blain|Southern, London, until 3 October.