floating or sinking
Unusual mixed-media technique creates mysterious dualities that challenge the viewer
by Hollis Walker for the Journal
I don't often like flowers in artwork with the exception of botanical illustrations, and the older, the better. Little else has risen to the challenge of saying something about flowers that flowers don't say better themselves. Paintings of flowers— even realist paintings— are more often about painting than the flowers.
But Vera Sprunt's exhibition, "Tideline," intrigues me. The 12 images in this show are mixed-media works that combine layers of black-and-white photographs printed on clear film and sheets of Mylar painted with acrylic gouache. It's an unusual technique that Sprunt uses to create mysteriously seductive results.
Her works are essentially photographs of flowers in water that leave the viewer floating in time and space. Is that bloom floating or sunken? Are those patterns reflections off the water, or are we looking through the water to a surface beneath? What is going on here?
Sprunt's eponymous work features two pink hibiscuses that appear to float on the surface of a pool of water; dew droplets dance on the petals. In the background are palm trees, reflected on the water. But wait— that's not quite right, the eyes say. Are we looking up from underneath the water, seeing not the reflection of those palms but their tangible trunks in the sky above the pool? And that soft yellow-and-blue sky must be painted, as are the tender stripes on the petals. These uncertainties are unsettling; we like to know where we stand, what and where the real and imaginary diverge. But "Tideline" is enthralling despite its puzzles. The spiky palm fronds, velvety oval petals and the visual convergence of air and water together outweigh its visual disparities.
A tideline is the place where two ocean currents meet, causing seaweed, driftwood, foam and other natural and man-made detritus to coalesce into a floating line. A tideline isn't actually related to the tides; it's an ephemeral place created by two like forces moving at odds to one another, each offering up its baggage to demark a boundary between it and the other.
Sprunt's images explore such dualities— time and space, above and below, shadow and light, reality and illusion. But even in her borders she is defying the normative; the water seems to continue flowing into the white area framing the image. Barely perceptible splatters and tracings suggest the wet stain of spillage from picture into "nonpicture" plane.
"Spring Equinox" offers up a floating, impossibly vivid green spring blossom and its dark shadow on the pool floor. Depth here is a conundrum; Sprunt has painstakingly painted the water's surface into a mosaic, patterned like a map with meandering and intersecting lines of light. But this map of what seems to be the water's surface appears here behind or below the floating flower. That yin and yang, coupled with the metaphor of equinox— that point at which night and day, light and darkness, are of equal length— underscore the idea of death and regeneration inherent in this image.
"Tideline 2" and "With the Tides" further explore these visual and metaphysical issues.
In "Permeable World," Sprunt carries her technique to a more painterly lever. Here we know we are underneath the water, because we can see blossoms floating beneath the surface. But the water is no longer invisible. Instead, the artist has painted movement into it, using splatters and arcing irregular strokes, sweeping gestural strokes and fast, parallel marks to create a complex, fluid dynamic, suggesting the flowers soon will be sucked away downstream, toward a drain or a dam. This shift in technique makes for an overt, otherworldly sensibility not present in her other works in this exhibit.
In addition to these flower-and-water works, Sprunt offers several images into which she has inserted humanity: a woman's hands embrace a white bouquet; a foot with painted toenails pokes out of another bouquet; a woman's arms appear to plunge a bouquet underwater. None of these, despite their painterly aspects and strong composition, is as evocative as the solely botanical images. The human flesh makes them too specific, too personal, narrowing the range of meanings that can be attached. Only one of these appeals: In "Sanctuary," we see the arms and long black hair of a woman underwater, below floating stalks of sunflowers. Horizontal painted wave lines create a cross with her body at the image's center. Is she dead or alive, staring happily into the sunlight above, or into the depths beneath her? This ambiguity rescues what might have been too trite.
Sprunt's botanicals capture my interest partly because of her technique. The luminosity of the Mylar, the delicate hand-painting and the nouveau still-life photographs she has combined manage to say something new about and with the flower. But equally important, Sprunt's images challenge us: Are we in the pool or out of it, participating in or observing life, floating or sinking? Perhaps we are sometimes in one current, sometimes in the other— and, sooner or later, riding the tideline.