Alice Browne is a young artist who recently graduated with an MA in Fine Art from London’s Royal College of Art after which she has featured in group and solo shows in the UK and as far afield as Norway and the US. Primarily an abstract painter, she creates in her works obscure, imaginative spaces that she dots with floating objects that play with perspective and often intrigue with potent symbolism.
I was immediately struck by the vibrancy of the colours she uses in her new solo exhibition at London’s Tintype Gallery entitled Found. The series of oil paintings was inspired by visits she has made to mines and caves, particularly those that have been adapted as tourist attractions. The colours within them occur, for example, in the mineral veins within the rock walls and the strains of algae that grow on them. You can appreciate them thanks to the lighting installed to make these subterranean places attractive to visit. In this way, Found also becomes a reflection on our relationship with the natural world beneath our feet.
Beneath[Before]/ FeS₂, above, is typical of this new work with its mix of the figurative and the fantastical. It’s one of several large works, two metres high. Structures support a mine in which coal is represented at the bottom and the lusciously contrasting purples, browns and greens on the rocks catch the eye. Then there is a hand floating near the surface, which she tells me, is scaled to her own hand, and which relates to the idea of connection.
“It’s the feeling of viewing something wonderful, viewing something natural and wanting to connect with it, wanting to be a part of it. But not only that but viewing art as well, the fact that we want to own a piece of it, we want to touch it, we want to be a part of it and the hand is partly that but it’s also a connection to me to the work.”
Tourists are well used to visiting caves that, to make them accessible, have been equipped with concrete or wooden pathways and staircases lit with electric lamps and so on. I’ve been to some in which stages have been erected on which concerts are performed exploiting the magical backdrop and the echoing acoustic.
Browne references this ‘humanising’ of subterranean locations in the slightly cynically-titled picture above, in which the stalagmites cast shadows on the man-made centre-piece via spotlights, thereby mixing the natural with the artificial. The motif of the hand recurs and she has stuck on, in the way of a collage, white stickers to heighten contrasts and to add depth.
After you’ve finished visiting entrance-fee paying caves, you often find yourself in the gift shop where you can buy pretty-coloured pieces of quartz crystal that bear no relationship to the place from which you’ve just emerged. With that in mind, Browne has sculpted small (but heavy) and variously coloured plaster-casts of a human big toe which are on sale at the gallery along with the paintings. They sit in the gallery window resting in a wave-like wooden base and accommodate tea lights. Why a toe? Well, as a young girl she was taken to see Rodin’s sculpture, The Burghers of Calais, outside the Houses of Parliament and the memory of its giant toes stayed with her.
I particularly liked New……..Place, above, which is once again beautifully coloured and the only suggestion of its being underground is a hint of a small window of light near the top right-hand corner. It’s an almost completely abstract work except for a yard-stick and a tape measure on either side, balanced by a clock near the bottom. It’s a painting that reflects upon the idea of discovery and wanting to share what is found.
“The way that we communicate is very much through facts and figures. As a society we give things a value, so you’ve found a cave, all very well, but how big is it? We need to measure these things in order to share them.”
The alluring space Browne has created here, like all good abstract works, allows the imagination full rein especially given the work’s large size. You can almost step into it. She has built up quite transparent layers using a watercolour binder that gives the picture a rich, velvet-like texture. What’s more, she’s included bits of mica to this and to other of the paintings which not only adds a sparkle but fits in perfectly with the theme.
One of the works here is almost in monochrome, the most figurative in fact, of a slate mine based on one she visited in north Wales complete with winding gear, cogs, wheels and ladders, all appropriately in slate grey. Depictions of remnants of industrial and rural archaeology are abundant. The exhibition is not a polemic in favour of environmental protection but more about the complexity of our wish to understand, measure and share the wealth of the earth.
“It’s kind of a conflict that we have as people, that, in a way, is what the whole exhibition is aiming towards – wanting something pure and wondrous and natural but never being able actually to achieve that. It’s something always beyond our grasp. Once we’re in contact we change its nature…we live off the earth, we need it so we can’t let it be and enjoy it from a distance.”
Found is showing at Tintype Gallery, 107 Essex Road, London N1 2SL until 23 February 2019
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.