Painting in the Anthropocene

Dr Andrew Paul Wood

In recent years coral has become an important symbol of our increasingly precarious ecological balance. Coral has long been at risk from exploitation for jewellery and tourist souvenirs, agricultural runoff, industrial pollution, blast fishing, overfishing leading to population explosions among crown-of-thorns starfish, and more recently ocean acidification (climate change’s just as dangerous sibling, the osteoporosis of the ocean resulting in the inability of shell-secreting organisms to extract calcium carbonate from the water) and coral bleaching. Corals are the extremely sick canary in the coalmine, the heralds of the eco-apocalypse. Coral reefs are a fraught and fought over territory, by scientists, politicians, local communities, indigenous peoples, big corporations, and small-time commercial operators. They are vital niche ecosystems for ocean biodiversity.

In the context of the Kermadec Islands/ Rangitāhua, an arcing subtropical archipelago between 800 and 1000 kilometres nor’west of the North Island supporting unique coral reef ecologies. The Kermadecs have long been at the centre of environmental concerns: they were made a nature reserve in 1937 and a marine reserve in 1990. In 1955 the British government requested the use of the islands as a nuclear test sit, which Prime Minister Sidney Holland refused, fearing the political fallout more than the radioactive kind. That was one of the first faltering steps in New Zealand’s history of protesting nuclear testing in the Pacific and banning nuclear-powered ships and nuclear weapons from our territorial waters.

At a very fundamental level, Viv Kepes paintings of Kermadec corals provide a neutral ground in which to consider these conflicting interests. The novelist and chemist C. P. Snow, in the mid-twentieth century became alarmed at what he termed the “two cultures” model of intellectual life divided between the humanities and the sciences. He was concerned that the two ways of looking at the world had drifted so far apart that they were in danger of becoming mutually unintelligible to each other. Others have tried to bridge the gap, with the two main ideas emerging being biologist E. O. Wilson’s “consilience” (finding points of commonality and agreement as a basis for a synthesis of knowledge across the different disciplines) and author John Brockman’s “Third Culture” (the idea that popular communicators of science operate between the two). Kepes’ paintings reflect aspects of both. Kepes cooperated with scientists to visualise the structure of the coral, but her interpretation is painterly and interpretative through the prism of art. The paintings also remove the subject from a clinical laboratory context and put them in a public space, appealing to the artistic and aesthetic sensibilities of their audience without it merely being an aesthetic gesture. We are invited to consider the amazingly complex qualities of the coral itself. May we not also consider coral a kind of artistry, though unconscious ― an exquisite calcium carbonate sculpture?

Kepes’ canvases, although operating from direct and analytical study of coral samples from the Kermadec Islands, translate the coral into an abstract, all-over pattern. Although they are softened and ambiguous, their complex organic structures are emphasised. The paintings evoke an idea or impression of coral that makes us consider it and have an emotional response to it, without creating an emotionally-charged political context. The paintings focus on the aspects of the situation that everyone agrees on ― that coral is beautiful, precious, vulnerable and alive ― without the combative hostility and anger that gets in the way of communication. Here we may look to Susan Best’s concept of Reparative Aesthetics, where artists use indirection and ambiguity, and focus on aesthetic considerations likely to elicit a positive and receptive response from the viewer in order to make art about themes that are actually very political charged and highly emotive. The viewer can choose to just enjoy the beauty of the art, or they can go deeper and think more critically about the subject. The provision of these multiple options for experience and reading avoid the sort of angry and traumatising confrontation that can alienate a viewer from the message. By creating a positive and rewarding feedback loop, the viewer is more likely to be empathetic to, and supportive of the message, a bridge has been built and a foundation laid.

While photo microscopy can reveal the beauty of these tiny biological structures, a micrograph does not really tell you much about the feelings of the scientist looking through the lens in the way that these paintings do. The forms expand to fill visual space in the manner of a landscape, while at the same time they are direct descendants of still life painting (and given their environmental precarity, it would be appropriate to place them within the vanitas and memento mori tradition). On the other hand, there is a distinctly abstract and formalist sensibility at work. Kepes avoids a dialectic between abstraction and figuration by concentrating on atmosphere and the ambivalent relationship of organic form to the two modalities. There is no reason to set up a dichotomy. The flatness of the painted surface and the illusory window of naturalism coexist in a satisfying retinal gestalt. One might even draw a genealogical link to the Rococo and that period’s obsession with asymmetrical organic forms, fragility, rocaille, enclosure, and pastel palettes. Although we may not think of it as such, the rococo had its political aspect ― the expenditure of vast wealth in frivolous artifice and playing at a luxurious idealised facsimile of peasantry counterpoint the misery and squalor of the reality.

The paintings also sit comfortably adjacent to abstract and surrealist biomorphism. This becomes particularly clear when we consider Alfred Barr’s definition of biomorphism for the catalogue of the 1936 Cubism and Abstract Art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York: “Curvilinear rather than rectilinear, decorative rather than structural and romantic rather than classical in its exaltation of mystical, the spontaneous and the irrational.” This description is equally applicable to Kepes’ paintings, although “irrational” in the sense of rejecting the sort of rampant techno-industrial “rationalism” that has caused so much damage to the global ecology and climate in an era largely defined by human existence as the agent of change and extinction – the Anthropocene. Although the origins of biomorphism are as a reaction against the prevailing scientific and rational worldview of modernism and modernity, its contemporary evolution shows us that we don’t have to choose between nature and technology or between instinct and reason. The analytical and rational can embrace the beauty and uncanny aspects of nature as a path to a sustainable and ecologically balanced civilisation.

The Belgian painter Luc Tuymans once stated that: “The image is impossible, because as an individual one cannot cope with it”. In Kepes’ coral paintings there is something of Tuymans’ approach to an implied narrative alluded to through inexplicable, visually intense fragments. There is also a loose parallel with the flower paintings of Georgia O’Keefe in that the very small and often unconsidered is magnificently enlarged into something architectural, a multi-dimensional space or cosmic landscape, albeit with the overlay of a romantic, soft focus mist or gauze over the pictorial plane. It is this veil that gives the paintings their air of mystery and signals their artifice. It also underlines the vulnerability of the physical coral itself, emphasising its ephemerality in a broader context of environmental collapse and the uncertainty of its future because we can no longer clearly see its true nature ― like Schrödinger’s hypothetical cat, it is impossible to say if the coral is living or dead, or even whether it exists as anything real other than merely as some kind of shadowy illusion, a fading memory.

At their heart, these paintings are an essentially a very human and humane response to a situation that is both human-caused but of such magnitude that individual human beings struggle to comprehend it. They are environmentalist art, drawing attention to their subject, aestheticising it with purpose, grounded in the culture and traditions of painting, while realising that art is a blunt and imprecise tool (or bludgeon) with which to publicly engage on so complex, nuanced and contentious issue. The audience will come for the visual pleasure and hopefully stay for the serious message. It is a sobering thought to consider the possibility that in the grand scheme of things, these paintings may be the lasting monument to the coral they depict, but even that is simply a microcosmic allusion to the probability of a terminal, drawn out, global-macrocosmic catastrophe. That which happens to the mineral conurbations of the coral in the sea ultimately impacts on the concrete cities of humanity on the land.