Monday, 20 June 2016

Essay to accompany The Overview Effect at Lewisham Art House

Overviewing the Overview

Art is a vehicle that allows us to transcend linear time, to travel backward and forward into personal and transpersonal history, into possibilities that weren’t realised and those that might be.[1]

According to this view of art, an artist might be seen as something akin to an astronaut – able to travel outside of the earthly realm of being and see our planet and the life upon it from a different – and unique – vantage point, experiencing the familiar and quotidian afresh, as if unknown.

In 1987, Frank White coined the term ‘the Overview Effect’[2] to refer to the tales of inspiration, overwhelming emotion, and sense of oneness, or transcendence, described by astronauts upon seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth – ‘a tiny, fragile ball of life’ – in space. In this exhibition of the same name, five artists set out to query their own – and their viewers’ – world views, questioning, as they do, the very viewing process itself.

In her predominantly grisaille paintings of bunches of flowers, Miranda Boulton emphasises this notion of fragility, as well as playing with the idea of looking down on something from darkness. Sourcing images of flowers late at night on Instagram, Boulton commits them to memory ‘in the no man’s land between being awake and asleep’. The following day, she paints the bouquets from memory, wilting, overlaid on older paintings, creating an archaeology. ‘Art,’ writes Jean Cocteau, ‘is a marriage of the conscious and the unconscious,’[3] and Boulton’s work epitomises this, imbuing these memento mori with moods and emotions from her own existence and from the transient passing of others.

Katya Kvasova’s paintings also sit on this boundary, ‘a translucent lens between inner and outer worlds’. ‘I am drawn to paint people,’ she explains, ‘when they are alone with their thoughts. I choose to paint them blurry, achromatic and half rubbed off the canvas because, by making the image so unclear and distorted, I create a different reality, cinematic maybe, out of time’. The layers create a veil and the stripes physically separate these worlds. As Tolstoy writes in his diary: ‘Art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul, and shows to people these secrets which are common to all’.

Responding directly to the venue, Fiona Grady will make an intervention on to the large windows of Lewisham Art House, creating playful yet meditative moments that appear and disappear with the ephemeral summer light, opening up visitors’ eyes to spot as yet unseen intricacies of the familiar space. Her large vinyl drawings map the movement of light, capturing and creating shadows, repeating geometric motifs and offering multiple, alternative views. This unbalancing act – one of stepping back and re-viewing, of gaining an ‘overview’ – ultimately instils a deeper understanding of the object or location at hand.

Henrietta Armstrong similarly works with an almost sacred geometry, creating large-scale digital prints from photographs of pylons. Mirrored and manipulated, these impending Brutalist structures acquire a serene beauty, a mandala-like quality. ‘We see the sun in a blue sky,’ notes shuttle astronaut Jeff Hoffman, ‘but up there, you see the sun in a black sky… You are seeing it from the cosmic perspective’. This is something Armstrong’s work shares. ‘I’ve been looking at the idea of future civilisations or aliens looking at these weird structures without knowing what they were for,’ she explains, ‘like they were totems or deities to worship or offerings to our gods’.

Hayley Harrison’s plastic bags hang at different heights, somewhere between painting and sculpture, and invite viewers to literally adopt alternate points of view. By layering the fragile structures with clear gesso; filling or coating them with paint, which cracks and slides, building craters and valleys; and sometimes sewing into them with fishing lines to give form, Harrison conjures collapsed and deflated planets out of the detritus of human life. ‘Art is not Nature, art is Nature digested. Art is a sublime excrement.’[4]

Unfortunately, most of us will never have the privilege of going into space. Research scientist David Yaden argues, however, that one needn’t travel that far. ‘We can experience a little bit of the Overview Effect on mountain tops or by viewing a beautiful sunset. There are a lot of opportunities for these experiences that are all around us,’ he says.[5] And that is what the artists here seek too. By stepping back and establishing a different perspective, they acquire their own vantage point and their own overview.

[1] Pat B Allen, introduction, Art Is a Spiritual Path (Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, 2005)
[2] Frank White, The Overview Effect — Space Exploration and Human Evolution (Massachusetts: Houghton-Mifflin, 1987)
[3] Jean Cocteau, The Paris Review, summer-fall 1964
[4] George Moore, Confessions of a Young Man (Tennessee: General Books LLC, 2009. Originally published: 1889)
[5] Cited in Jessica Hullinger, ‘The transcendental revelations of astronauts’ in The Week, 28 April 2016. Available online at: [Accessed 15 May 2016]

© Anna McNay, May 2016

Published to accompany the group exhibition:
The Overview Effect
Henrietta Armstrong, Miranda Boulton, Fiona Grady, Hayley Harrison, Katya Kvasova
Lewisham Art House
8-19 June 2016

installation shot from Artists' Talk and Tour, Lewisham Art House, 18 June 2016
© Katya Kvasova

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