Nature's Rhythm

13 February to 29 March 2014

Christine Atkins

Christine Atkins, Paused 1, 2014. Steel and Wood. Photographer: Greg Piper.

Nature's Rhythm by Nadege Desgenetez

Artists come to Canberra from all parts of the world, often to study or jump-start their careers amidst the thriving arts community we are lucky to foster. Sadly, in time, we farewell many local-grown talents, as greener pastures - literally and metaphorically - call.

Christine Atkins is familiar with the appeal other places might present. A Canberran by adoption, she was born in Zimbabwe and spent her childhood and early teens in England. Green still feels like home, and she tells me that it is the colour she imagines the perfect landscape to be. Yet, she made Canberra her new home, as she truly loves its pace, and most of all the unique convergence of city and nature our capital affords its residents. She can escape, at any given time, to nature, and that is what grounds her. That is also what inspires her practice:

"Witnessing how water reforms materials, or the shadow of a leaf on the bottom of a shallow pool, I find myself engrossed in a contemplative moment, which enhances my feeling of connection with nature. I try to highlight these natural phenomena in my work, understand their inner workings and thrive on seeing the beauty that can come of these moments."

Interestingly, if her motivation to make stems from a personal experience of communion with the natural world, her work has taken a broad, non-linear, inquisitive and poetic look at how Nature inspires Art.

Since graduating with a Bachelor of Visual Arts with Honours, from the Glass Workshop at the Australian National University in 2011, Atkins has continued to develop her original methodology. Conflating natural phenomena and empirical testing, her works echo nature, but also the world of science and a familiar quest for knowledge. Moreover, they present us with the poetics of the ubiquitous materials that surround us.

In her Refraction series, started in 2011, ethereal and enigmatic projections reveal the insides of amorphous hand-made glass 'blobs'. The spectres seem alive, strange jellyfish maybe, or diatoms or seeds, shifting as the hanging works sway. In her more recent Trace series, abstract and fortuitous patterns are shaped by the unlikely encounter of glass and water. They are raised, graphic and sometimes bold on the piece of black glass that give them ground. Yet, they are smoke, they shift and seem to dissipate before our eyes.

A tension between stillness and movement recurs in the work of Christine Atkins. Unlikely artifacts appear at once known and foreign, elemental and scientific. Ephemeral phenomena are captured permanently, and craft and chance are equally important. Time, she tells us, is becoming material.

The second solo exhibition in the short time since she graduated, Nature's Rhythm follows from a very successful few years, when the emerging artist managed residencies, her first solo and several group exhibitions, as well as winning entries in national prizes.

The impetus for this new body of work was a research trip to Japan, which followed Atkins' long-standing fascination with Japanese culture. It is both a continuation and a departure. A continuation in so far as the works still speak of the gestures that framed her experiments; a departure as the young Canberran, inspired by the complex tradition of Wabi-Sabi, has reclaimed weathered materials, developed new processes with metal, and carefully composed works that explore patterns and rhythms.

In Koya-San to Brindabella, the artist revisits the traditional Japanese screen, in a collaboration with furniture maker Miles Gostelow. In this freestanding work, glass panels are framed by an articulated wooden structure. The symmetry of the collage resonates with the Japanese tradition, and the delicate glass designs echo at first the painted screens of Asia. But the frame is curved, and seems to carry the mark of both Eastern and Western influences.

Here, the artist extends her now signature process, which originated from observations of evaporations, and entails various semi-controlled experiments. On a sheet of black glass for support and frame, water is poured over white glass powders in deliberate ways for broad directional outcomes. Sinuous patterns form, reminiscent of tidal salt formations, but also traditional techniques like paper marbling and ink drawing. As the water dries, the full result emerges, unique and unpredictable. This precarious remnant is then 'fossilised' through fire, and made permanent. Atkins makes a number of tests before editing the panels down to the ones used in the final artwork.

As we spend time with the work, we might experience a succession of double takes. At first, intrigued by its at once solemn and light presence, the depth of each framed panel is revealed. Of course, we might think of flow, as water is a primary ingredient in the genesis of this artwork. But, as in morphing clouds or aerial views, motifs of landscape emerge, sometimes eerily recognisable, sometimes abstract. One of the panels reminds me of a particular Hokusai woodblock print I once saw in a Kyoto exhibition. Another makes me think of the depth and airiness of Jessica Loughlin's work. The overall effect is mesmerising, as the viewer adjusts in and out of focus, taking in the whole before delving into the details.

It is this constant shift between macro and micro that links the two bodies of work presented in this exhibition.

To create her new series, Paused, Atkins follows the lead of some of our most celebrated local sculptors, like Rosalie Gascoigne or Wendy Teakel. Scavenged wood from fence posts is reclaimed, and its purpose reinvented. The artist tells us about its preciousness. It is precious, because beautiful. Beautiful because gloriously tired, exquisitely weathered, rendered silvery and shiny by the Australian elements, revealing their sinuous, broken, knotty selves.

These tenderly gathered pieces are in conversation with a collection of rusted squares of sheet metal of different sizes. They too seem reclaimed, and from the built landscape, but they are not. Atkins emulates the process that began her Trace series, and through rust experiments sets out to reveal the beauty of time passing, the beauty of age and decay. Again, water is transformative in this work, and our attention is drawn to surprising connections between materials. Details emerge that entice us to shift from far to close, from large to minute. If it loosely speaks of Wabi-Sabi principles, the work also resonates with the local landscape. The colours are of the earth. They are in part inspired by the visit Atkins recently made to the ninth generation Bizen pottery studio in Okayama prefecture, but undoubtedly also resonate with our region's distinctive colour palette.

Like many of the artists who inspired her, Atkins is asking us to slow down, and consider the intrinsic value of the moment, and the rewards we can mine from a genuine connection to our environment. As her artwork tells us its story of time unfolding, the significance of 'now' is captured. Atkins seems to hold for us a magnifying lens, allowing us to see the beauty of what she calls 'Nature's Rhythm'.