Emma Stibbon – Fire and Ice

There’s a certain cinematic quality to much of Emma Stibbon’s work. Her landscape paintings, prints and drawings that have earned her an international reputation, depict environments in a state of turmoil and flux. Erupting volcanoes and retreating glaciers and ice shelves, are meat and drink to her. Her new solo exhibition, Fire and Ice, conveys a sense of drama, not only with what you see in the pictures themselves but also with the way in which they were made.  Her subjects show that apparent monumental and permanent geological structures can often turn out to be fragile at the hands of nature and mankind.

At first glance, the picture at the top looks like it could have been the result of an earthquake. In fact, it’s a geological phenomenon known as a tumulus. This one is close to the volcano, Mount Kilauea in Hawaii where Stibbon was invited to be artist in residence. She explained to me that it’s formed by volcanic gases that underlie the lava pavement, pushing it upwards and in this case cracking the surface. The area is so dynamic in this sense that the terrain can change overnight. So what, I wondered, is the attraction to environments that are either changing both naturally and particularly through human intervention?

“I’m living through a period of dramatic change and so I feel as an artist that I’m a witness to this and I really want to record that in my work. That’s a mission I feel I’m committed to.”

Chimborazo II, 2019

In Broken Tumulus and Chimborazo II above, the tonal range within the monochrome and the way with which the mountains, snow and clouds are depicted create an atmosphere that a photograph can seldom capture to the same effect. The scale of the picture, nearly two metres wide, accentuates this. She shows the kind of artistic skill for which she was elected as a Royal Academician in 2013.

Stibbon has added some volcanic soil to the ink here, taken from the site. It gives a certain glitter that enhances the snowfall. Elsewhere, she has incorporated volcanic ash into the pigment. Aside from the visual effect, it renders a kind of metaphorical connection to the place. Mount Chimborazo, in the Ecuadorian Andes, is the earth’s highest point. This exhibition has taken the artist to other remote and inhospitable areas including both polar regions.   

Abandoned Whaling Station, Deception Island, 2007

It was in Antarctica that she came across this abandoned whaling station. In its heyday, the shore would have been red with the blood of these hunted mammals. Once again, the dilapidation is enhanced by the dramatic tonal range of this woodcut print. After chiselling out the highlight, she has placed the ink first on a pink block followed by a black block going on top of that. Elsewhere, she has found it more suitable to use intaglio prints as well as monotypes. The common denominator for her paintings is paper which she much prefers to canvas. 

A key aspect to Fire and Ice is the inclusion of a large number of preliminary sketches Stibbon has made en plein air. They’re chiefly watercolours and ink drawings. It’s a vital part of her research for her larger pictures yet not without practical difficulties. She spends a lot of time walking and so In the polar regions, she faces the dangers of a rugged terrain, inclement weather, even of a hungry polar bear creeping up on her. The cold means she has to work quickly and sometimes the water can freeze on her brush and the ink can go everywhere in high winds. 

Arctic – Svalbart, 2015

Mist, such as in this sketch above, is another hazard. Svalbart, in the Arctic, is one of the most rapidly warming places in the world, its glaciers melting at an alarming rate. Stibbon takes a camera with her and can take literally hundreds of shots of a particular scene. So why, given all the drawbacks, does she bother to make sketches?

“When I’m making them through observation in the field, it gives me great recall. I can really remember the climate, the time of day, how I was feeling even. I think when you’re making marks it kind of imprints it on my brain whereas the photography which is obviously good for information doesn’t hold that same investment.”

Italy, 2019

Some of the sketches have to be done later from memory since the scenes were witnessed at night. The sketch above was made of the volcano on the island of Stromboli off the northern coast of Sicily. Only this week a hiker was killed by its latest eruption. The picture has a semi-abstract feel to it. 

As aesthetically pleasing as it is, viewing Emma Stibbon’s work is yet another stark reminder of the fragility of the world we live in. She has got down and dirty, witnessing its drama and its vulnerability first-hand and communicating it through her art though she hesitates to call herself a campaigner. 

“The sense of living through something, seeing something and wanting to somehow make a response to that and communicating that, if that could be called a campaign I’m not sure… I’d like to engage people and make them think about our responsibility to the planet we live on.”

Ice and Fire is showing at the Alan Cristea Gallery, 43 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5JG until 13 July.

All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.

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