The winter murmuration of starlings over the skeletal ruins of Brighton’s West Pier can halt you in your tracks. First, there’s wonder at this mass of single entities rising above the sea as one organism. Perhaps this natural spectacle will spur you to consider other kinds of interplay between part and whole too: how this is no isolated island shoreline but an element in an ancient network of seasonal habitats for the migrating birds. That it is a system oblivious to the brief glory of the now burnt-out pier, though not to manmade climate change, which has seen starling numbers dwindle.
Aimée Parrott has long explored this bleed between the micro and the macro —be it the individual and the collective, the present moment and deep time or the universe within our brains and bodies and the one without. These kinds of encounters within East Sussex’s coastal landscape resonate through the liquid imagery in her exhibition, ‘Waterborne’. Pulsing waves, whirlpool spirals, fish, birds in flight and clouds of washy blue, green and mauve are evoked with the loose brush marks, dots, dashes and quick squeegees of pigment that go into in her painterly prints. Paired horizontal or vertical planes of patterns and abstract mark-making call to mind sweeping expanses of sea, land and sky, but she zooms up close too. Coiled or unfolding shapes often trailing tentacles of pigment might be cells, seeds, shells, a womb, a foetus.
Lately, questions about birth and evolution and have been on the artist’s mind, including what happened when the earliest lifeforms emerged from the sea. They’re suggested by the small appliquéd ghost prints that float upwards like shells, wings or leaves from a floor of receding waves in Spring tide (2022-23). In its divided landscape, they rise from watery dark rivulets to an upper plane where a stark white square contrasts with moody purplish blue. It’s as if they’re transitioning from breathing water to air, a less-porous environment in which, as she says, we imagine ourselves as ‘sealed beings, miniature vessels’. Yet shadows of a more fluid existence remain. Silhouettes can be seen on the grey waves. We leave our traces everywhere just as our environment leaves its mark upon us.
A challenge to that notion of individual self-contained wholeness is crucial to the thinking behind Parrott’s hybrid of painting, printing and textile-work. Her finished pieces suggest the immediate handiwork of a brush or sponge but are prints realised in one smooth swoop of the press on absorbent unprimed canvas. Interrupting the monoprint’s flat amorphous imagery however are the naked spaghetti traces left by intrusive thread. They remind us of the bare canvas beneath the coating of acrylic. The little monoprints appliquéd onto the canvas that suggest patchwork or quilting create yet more ruptures, as do the stitches where paired panels are sewn together.
This back and forth between our internal flow and life’s intrusions extends to how forms and imagery emerge in Parrott’s paintings. She explains that she lets things come intuitively from her subconscious, like the fish-shapes that appear amid rivulets of paint as if they were taking shape before our eyes. Her work also speaks to the conditions in which it comes into being. The rapid squeegeed lines of paint for instance, are testament to the urgency of making under pressure, which as she notes, is a widely shared experience for time-poor artists, typically juggling more than one job. In this case though, her hours have been crunched and consciousness altered by the sleep-deprived first year of parenthood.
In ‘Waterborne’, Parrott’s own experience of pregnancy and becoming a mother to twins has fuelled her long-standing concerns with the relationship between part and whole, self and world, and led to a more directly autobiographical strand in her work. The rhythmic lines and fogged abstractions found throughout the exhibition, suggest the way the invisible new life of a baby beneath the mother’s skin is tracked through hospital scans in the run-up to birth. In Ultrasound iii (2023) for instance, an unplumbed mysterious blue is framed by blood red lines that seem to hum like sound waves. Elsewhere, she evokes the ongoing, complicated process of unity and division, be it splitting cells, the growth and birth of new bodies or the interwoven identity of mother and child. Delicate shapes recalling sycamore leaves, petals or fishtails might be swimming towards or away from the floral bloom in the flesh pink Pulse (2022-23). The rose-hued form that fills its canvasses to the edge in the twinned monoprints Embryo and Bud (both 2023) might be a seashell, a little clenched fist, a crowning infant’s head emerging from a vagina or a bundled baby. In one of these works, where we might expect to see a child’s face there is a circular void, a blank, unknown negative space waiting to be filled. (This void crops up throughout the exhibition, at times suggesting celestial orbs or orifices, which seem to be imagined as if seen from within the body as much as beyond it.) Parrott’s many centrifugal forms push out but also pull in, like the simultaneous expansion and contraction of self and world that motherhood involves; a new territory that is both electric with unknowns and first times, and yet slower, more contained, be it by the limitations of a buggy or a baby’s needs.
A new aspect of Parrott’s work, painted lampshades, evolved within the darkened and stilled spaces of night feeds and daytime naps. Taking abstract art from its usual “stand-offish” place on gallery walls into the practical realm of the home, they provided visual stimulation for her developing infants. Created on two translucent skins of thin cotton with the underside only visible when illuminated, the lamps delicately manifest the artist’s concerns with overlapping, co-existing states. They’re covered in a kaleidoscopic proliferation of coloured dots and dashes, of a piece with the half-understood shapes and lights that a child first sees. As is so often the case with Parrott’s art though, the evocation of an infant’s bounded world soon opens onto wider vistas. Her swirling shapes suggest those soaring flocks, the starry cosmos or teaming oceans, wonders that prompt our thoughts to take flight.
Published on the occasion of the exhibition Aimée Parrott: Waterborne, 26 May – 22 July 2023.
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