Helga Groves | Tremor of Form
Helga Groves has returned from a field trip to New York, however do not expect skyline shots in her latest work 'Tremor Form'. Instead she spent her time digging deep into the tangible physiology of Central Park and examined geological specimens from the Natural History Museum in order to trace geological time. Opening this Saturday 11 February at Milani Gallery, Brisbane, look forward to entracing patterns that are translations of topographical mappings of rare geological surfaces through mediums of painting, drawing, collage and sculpture. Groves spoke with Artist Profile in Issue 32, discussing her core interest in geophysical processes and how she plays with form and medium to bring to the surface the wonder of our natural surrounds.
Helga Groves creates works that inspire quiet wonder. The abstract, minimalist creations balance nature’s flux in an expression of ordered chaos. A refiner of sorts, Groves engages in a-kind-of hybrid artistic and scientific enquiry to distill nature down to its primary core. Celebrating nature at its most unexpected, Groves’ abstract works invite you to revel in their pure poetic forms, or decipher their scientific origins – the beauty of it is left up to you.
Your family is originally from Finland, and you have grown up in Northern Queensland. Has your experience of quite different environments inspired your exploration of natural phenomena?
Both of my parents migrated to Australia with their families in the early 1950s, my mother from Finland and my father from England, and I was born in Ayr in Far North Queensland. The influences of my cultural background and early experiences of place have no doubt played a role; there is a duality within me because I was born in Australia but also have a strong cultural background from the Northern Hemisphere. I am very conscious of that duality in my practice; over time I have developed a visual sensitivity to the natural phenomena, geology and ecology from both hemispheres. As a result I have travelled quite extensively, in particular through Scandinavia to Finland and Norway, as well as to Iceland and Russia to observe these extreme locations.
Your works are intense, as if balancing order and chaos in your methodical enquiry. What is it about nature at its extremes that draws you in?
‘The balancing of order and chaos’ is an accurate reading of my work. I am interested in the nexus between art and science. The natural world is in a constant state of flux, I make artwork based on what I see, hear and read. Observing the natural world, in combination with my knowledge of science is my attempt at creating a semblance of balance. I am drawn to extremes because I perceive them as being more profound as subject matter for making art.
I source some of my titles from scientific terminology, which provides a starting point for understanding. I believe artworks should have a certain physical or visual presence without having to be over-explained. Mine are minimal, pared down, contemplative. In a world of constant change we are expected to absorb everything quickly; by contrast the experience of looking at art should be about slowing down time.
When evolving a new concept, is the place important to your practice? Do you work site-specifically or do you source materials?
Most definitely my first-hand experience of specific locations and natural environments is intrinsic to the evolution of new concepts. I have worked site-specifically when making installations and I source materials that best emulate the particular subject matter of my artworks. When I travel I always look for new materials to work with that have the potential to be transformed into something else. I recontextualize materials such as mesh, fibreglass rope, Perspex, fishing line, wire, slate and woollen felt for symbolic functions.
Can you expand upon how you go about starting a work?
First of all it can be determined by travel to a new location. For example in 2010 I was a recipient of the Australia Council residency in Helsinki in Finland, and this gave me the opportunity to travel on to Norway, Russia and Iceland.
When I go about making my work, it is a layered process, I start by collecting data, observing, drawing and photographically documenting a new environment. I remain open to the unexpected or unplanned. In the studio I begin the process of distilling and editing everything I have collected from my research, to begin conceptualising the new work I have in mind. At this stage I also make decisions about what mediums and materials I will use that best describe the subject matter. Following that I embark on making the artworks stage by stage – it can take up to 12 months before a new body of work is completed.
Your works engage in multiple practices, varying from drawing to painting, projected animations, sound, as well as three-dimensional forms. What is your preferred medium – does it inform your practice of other methods?
Yes my art practice is multi-disciplinary, all the processes are interlinked and I am always experimenting regardless of the medium. Some of the three-dimensional artworks I’ve created have involved housing photographs of water, stratospheres and geophysical activity in transparent structures. Other times I have set out to combine incongruent materials such as felt and Perspex, or woven and hand-knitted fishing line set within moulded Perspex forms. It is difficult to define which my preferred medium is – as it is the experimental process I enjoy the most.
In your experimentation there is a recurring contradiction of the natural and unnatural in your use of artificial materials to explore nature. What informs your selection?
The most consistent ‘unnatural’ material I’ve experimented with is Perspex. I’m drawn to it for its range of properties – its colours, transparency and translucence. I have found it to be extremely versatile, having used it many times as transparent supports for housing different materials and photographs, or as an opaque platform for projecting an animation onto, and as light-emitting components of installations. More recently I have worked with fluorescent green Perspex; it has characteristics that simulate the fluorescence or luminescence within nature.
Your use of colour is eye-catching and bold. In what way do you engage with it to evoke your concepts?
My use of colour oscillates between subtle and bold. A kind of distilling process occurs from all the visual information I gather. My paintings are abstract and I keep the colour palette close to what I see in the natural world. The subtler toned ones are in response to the colours of the Northern Hemisphere. In the first ‘Lithic (Topology series)’, 2015, I directly referenced the surface patterns and colours of Arctic map lichen – evoking the greens, silver-greys and light orange tones.
In the second series of the same title, I’ve used bolder tones to evoke the colours and topographical patterns of coastal lichen growing on granite rocks at Wilson’s Promontory in southern Victoria. The landscape down there is one of the most dramatic in Australia. The colours and tones of the lichen are more intense in their range of oranges, greens and yellows. Maintaining a truth to the original source of inspiration from the natural world and ensuring the paintings work formally is a delicate balance.
In your more recent works you engage with sound and light. What role do these mediums play in the articulation of your conceptual practice?
My art practice remains experimental. I attempt to invent ways of making new work that is idiosyncratic of my approach to mediums, materials and the subject matter I address. When I first incorporated sound, it was for a site-specific installation at Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts in 2012. The sound I recorded for that installation was of the wind moving through very tall bamboo trunks. I discovered it purely by accident while visiting a friend on a property inland from the Sunshine Coast, and was immediately struck by its potential to be an ambiguous sound. When I listened to it in isolation from its visible source it translated very differently, evoking the sound of rain falling onto metal. It worked well when it was incorporated into my site-specific installation ‘Green Precipitation (Microclimate series)’, 2012.
A year later I exhibited a different version of that installation in Brisbane at Milani Gallery, experimenting with light and removing the sound component. The use of an ultra-violet light completely changed the experience of the installation to a nocturnal environment.
When developing a series of works, does the way they interact in the gallery space direct your work?
I take into consideration the way a full body of work will be installed in a gallery space for exhibition. That consideration is integral to my art practice and is part of the legacy of having gone to Sydney College of the Arts in the mid 1980s – conceptual art was the main focus of the time.
It is always difficult to exhibit mixed media artworks of varying scales together in the same gallery space. Paintings, three-dimensional works, drawing and animation – the installation has to end up looking completely resolved. I aim to embed an element of visual poetry, I’m not sure if I achieve that, it remains subjective to the viewer.
Tremor of Form
11 February – 04 March 2017
Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane