karen casey

casting shadows/drawing light
Arc One at Span Galleries, Melbourne
May – June 2003

Karen Casey’s latest exhibition combines natural ochres, fabric and rear illumination in an array of richly latticed surfaces with hypnotic, almost trance-inducing, intensity. The impressions taken from crazed and cracked concrete floors and pavements are the culmination of several years of experimentation with a personally developed technique that the artist refers to as ‘ground-printing’.

Casey had previously used this process to create textural surfaces for installations such as Dreaming Chamber, her multi-sensory environment exhibited in the 3rd Asia Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery, 1999/2000. More recently she devised a means of refining and stabilising these surfaces so that they are individual artworks in their own right. The resulting one off impressions form this unique and evocative series of works.

Despite being derived from constructed surfaces, these images seem to capture a sense of the urban landscape in its former natural state. With an elegant meditative presence each raw edged piece is contrasted against a soft grey metal mount, and hangs somewhat in the fashion of a Tibetan tangka or Chinese scroll painting. While clearly contemporary in design, these luminous works establish a visual conduit to the ancient tempo of a living earth.

Drawing on the randomness of natural terrains, Casey’s complex land maps form a fluid tableau of multiple-associations. One senses in these nebulous textures the origins of narrative and the unfolding and expansive potential of human imagination. The effect is not merely visual, as many of the works have the qualities of a living organism. Not surprisingly, the theme of a link between the beat of the earth and the pulse of human existence lies at the heart of Casey’s art. It underscores a fascination with interconnection and our universal bond to earth.

Three evocatively organic works, Ochre Field I, II & III, are visually and thematically linked, with a suggested horizon coursing through each panel, anchoring emergent forms and figures in multi-spatial perspective. Like other works in the show, they can be viewed with either front or back lighting, the transmitted light revealing unseen layers below the surface and transforming subdued ochres into tones of golden light.

The major piece in the exhibition is the original five metre artwork for Heartland, Casey’s recently launched three storey high public art commission for Melbourne’s Docklands. Evolving from a series of ground-prints taken in the Docklands area, Heartland is a commanding image, with fissures and cracks meandering through the work like a filigreed river delta. Stretched horizontally, its earth tones on vellum-coloured fabric give it an almost hide-like quality. Here the rear lighting comes into its own, revealing a web of crazed sand, encrusting the back of the image. A join in the fabric creates a subtle counterpoint, its stitched seam acting as either horizon or emblematic ‘scar’ across the earth’s surface.

By contrast Drift presents a more intimate view of earth. A horizontal strip of small mounted panels, each distinguished by delicate reticulated patterning, moves effortlessly across a range of subdued colour shifts. Other works in the show have a decidedly nocturnal presence, such as Tracking, an imposing white ochre on indigo panel. Two rust-coloured tracks traversing the work form a striking tripartite division, both inferring and highlighting a dual reading—are we looking down onto the land or beneath its layered surface?

In addition to the Docklands location, a number of these impressions were taken from the floor of the former Mass Gallery in Clifton Hill shortly after it closed last year. Capturing the patina and accumulated history of the building as a former foundry-cum-gallery and studio spaces, these images are notable, not only from a visual perspective, but also as a record of a significant period in contemporary Melbourne art’s culture.

By way of her unique creative process with its direct reference to earth, Casey offers a refreshing approach to the subject of our connection and relationship with the natural environment. Ironically it is within the very embodiment of the urban landscape that she makes her most compelling statement. Here the city is reclaimed, not for its alienating environs, but for the energy and continuity of the land on which it stands.