Intense vibrations of colour

Georgie Hill’s luminous paintings invite us to step across the threshold between public and private, entering enigmatic interiors that suggest shifting time and spatial boundaries.

Chromesthesia, the title of Georgie Hill’s recent exhibition of paintings at Robert Heald Gallery in Wellington describes a type of synesthesia in which a person can see a colour when they hear a particular tone. It’s an entirely apt title for paintings that operate on an intense sensory level, filled with luminous colours and an almost obsessive attention to surface detail and texture in counterpoint with loose, feathery blurred areas of paint which swirl and bleed as if the artist has partially relinquished control and let the paint express its inherent instability.

These alluring paintings take as their starting point strangely foreshortened interior spaces which look like stage sets filled with domestic objects—books, curtains, tartan blankets draped over glass geometric structures, which could be empty modular display cases, and curious items of antique furniture. Some of these objects seem ultra modern, others much older and less familiar.

In contrast to Hill’s earlier works—where the figures were peripheral to the main action—in some of her recent paintings they’ve come out of the wings and asserted themselves centre stage. Clockwork (2011-2012), for instance, is a dizzyingly kinetic painting of a dark-haired woman swept up in a vortex of jostling colour and pattern. The mesmerising blue, black and white spots on her dress are expanded and repeated in the background, making figure almost indistinguishable from ground. The kaleidoscopic effect is further amplified by the rippling swathe of tartan blanket in the foreground, which adds yet another layer of texture to the complex, interconnected patterns in this work.

It’s tempting to read Clockwork as a self-portrait—by an artist who delights in the play of opposites and who’s constantly experimenting with camouflage and concealment, exploring and messing with the boundaries between the private world of interiors and the exterior world of nature: shimmering clouds, rippled water and the concentric pattern of wood grain.

Georgie Hill, Clockwork
Georgie Hill, Clockwork, 2011–2012, watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper, 35.5 x 27.5 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Heald Gallery

In Hill’s work there’s a captivating tension between control and chaos, stillness and movement, modernist geometric shapes and more organic, formless areas of paint. I ask her if the impulse for control has given way to an increased spontaneity in works like Clockwork and an earlier work, Chromesthesia (2011), which gave her recent exhibition at Robert Heald Gallery its title. “In some areas of the work I needed to experiment and use the paint in new ways for this series, which I started after relocating to Auckland after the Christchurch earthquake last February. Even in areas where I let the paint bleed, it’s still controlled within boundaries,” she says.

The title of the exhibition is taken from Nabokov’s Ada, a novel in which there’s a blind character who has been diagnosed with a singular case of chromesthesia, which allows him to perceive colours when he touches objects.

“I was interested in the thought of this alternative kind of sensory perception,” says Hill. “The novel’s protagonist, Van Veen, examines the relationship of one’s personal experience of time to the sense of being in and of the world, the play of time, space and memory. I think the evocative nature of the language in this novel has influenced my work—the sense of intense colour and movement.”

Georgie Hill, Pale fictions 2
Georgie Hill, Pale fictions #2, 2012, watercolour and pencil on paper, 27.5 x 20.5 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Heald Gallery

Having won the Olivia Spencer Bower Foundation Award in 2011, Hill was in Christchurch when the February 22 earthquake struck. She had only been in the studio/apartment in the Christchurch Arts Centre for two weeks, and when it was damaged she was forced to move back to Auckland. However the Olivia Spencer Bower Foundation continued paying her award stipend and she worked on a series, which became the exhibition True Time Lurks at Ivan Anthony in October 2011.

In April and May this year some of these works were shown in Breathing Space: Georgie Hill and Zina Swanson—part of Christchurch Art Gallery’s ‘Rolling Maul’ series of month-long exhibitions held outside the gallery and designed to give Christchurch artists opportunities to show their work during difficult times when many galleries are closed or inoperative.

Hill describes some of the changes seen in this series in the gallery’s Bulletin (B.167): “The architecture of the space is less apparent; the focus has closed in on the body—and furniture and other objects are no longer visible. A painted frame holds the body and an elusive backdrop. There is a new sense of movement butting up against stillness, and an intense vibration of colour. Even though I have been away from the aftershocks for some time now, I still seem to have a heightened sensitivity to vibration, certain sounds and movements, and I think this is showing through in the work.”

Georgie Hill. Photo: Sam Hartnett

“I have continued to explore ideas of private and protective spaces—the control or meaning created in our lives through our relationship to spaces and objects. I am slowly bringing back the depth of the interior space, the architecture and other objects into the work.”

The painting Right-hand window (still life with Ruhlmann ‘Fuseau’ Vanity), included in the Robert Heald Gallery exhibition, features a dramatic piece of furniture designed by Frenchman Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann in the art deco style of the 1920s. The vanity in Hill’s painting has dramatically attenuated legs and a round, empty mirror frame through which the fragments of a trellis and a window are visible. I ask Hill—whose father is an architect—about her interest in architecture, design and furniture.

“I think that Ruhlmann’s work is highly unusual in its shapes and precise use of detail. I’m interested in the opposition between the characteristics of art deco and the modernist movement, which turned away from ornamentation. The tension at this time between tradition and modernity, the decorative arts and architecture. I’m particularly interested in the work of Eileen Gray who was both a furniture designer and an architect, and worked to break down distinctions between architecture and decoration, as seen in her house E.1027 in southern France.”

“I’ve depicted pieces of domestic furniture as they are objects that share our interior spaces. The Ruhlmann vanity is an object of a former time, and in some way acts to signify time. In this work it’s no longer capable of serving its original function—the mirror glass has been removed and it has become a frame to look through.”

The spatial ambiguity in Hill’s paintings is further heightened by the contrasts in the way she handles paint, using a tightly restricted selection of colours, and juxtaposing impossibly crisp, fine lines and white voids with diffuse areas of colour.

“I like to see what I can achieve with a restricted colour palette, simple spatial devices and an arrangement of a small number of objects that interact with each other,” she says. “There’s always a tension or contrast that’s set up between very controlled or very fine marks and more moving, wave-like or bleeding paintwork.” For instance, the grid in the foreground of Right-hand window looks like a tiled floor, and within it are richly patterned, swirling areas of red paint traversed by hair-thin pencil lines and blocked-in areas of pencil, which reflect light and suggest the veins in flower petals or ripples of silvery water running across rock. Seeing these works in the flesh, you become aware of incredibly intricate textures and details, which are impossible to see in reproductions of Hill’s paintings.

“The small, enclosed spaces in my work use very simple perspective devices, such as the tiled floors, to suggest spatial depth, and in some way the spaces resemble stage sets or facades. These qualities have been influenced by my interest in Fra Angelico, especially his frescoes in San Marco. In these paintings the architecture’s spatial depth reflects early ideas of perspective, and the compositions have a theatrical, stage-set-like simplicity that intrigues me.”

Georgie Hill has talked about her interest in patterns and camouflage, such as the patterns found on a moth’s wing, which make it almost invisible to predators, and 
her 2010 exhibition at Robert Heald Gallery was titled Protective Colouration. “I’ve been thinking about protective colouration as a form of visual deception and looking at animal colouration and striking natural patterns as well as man-made camouflage designs over the past few years. ‘Dazzle’ is a means of confusing an enemy or predator with a moving conspicuous pattern. ‘Disruptive patterns’ are strongly contrasting markings which break up an animal’s outlines.”

Georgie Hill, Still life with Eileen Gray dressing cabinet, 2010, watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper, 32 x 24 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Heald Gallery; Flower Bed, 2009, watercolour and pencil on paper, 46 x 33 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Ivan Anthony

The way Hill leaves areas of her works unpainted to create negative spaces is reminiscent of the work of painter Michael Harrison, who also plays off positive and negative spaces, creating ambiguous yet allusive forms for the viewer. Hill and Harrison belong to a growing number of New Zealand artists interested in exploring the potential of watercolour and gouache on paper.

“The qualities I can achieve with watercolour are very important to the work. It’s a very evocative medium which works well with my interest in interiority and privacy, protecting and concealing or revealing. In some aspects of the work I let the surface of the paint lead me—in the areas of red paint I make small, fine repetitive marks over the top with pencil. The brush marks in the paint surface and areas of light and dark lead the mark making.”

The works require a slow and highly focussed process and Hill likes to concentrate on more than one painting at a time. They seem to belong to a cohesive series in which changes and new developments unfold gradually over time. “Sometimes I need to put work away for periods of time, then look at it again with fresh eyes so I can make decisions about what else is needed. This decision-making is crucial as with watercolour on paper you can’t change things or cover them over as you go along.”

/ Virginia Were

Georgie Hill’s next exhibition is at Ivan Anthony, Auckland, in April 2013

Published in Art News Spring 2012

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