Whanganui artist Lynn Hurst is refreshingly candid. Francesca Emms visited her in the River City.
‘One of the reasons I started going digital is that I lost my studio in my divorce. So I started doing things that I could do in one place, with that much space,’ Lynn indicates a box with her hands, ‘and that’s how that got started. I was doing these terribly scratchy, depressing little drawings, and then blowing them up into these big, really public displays of sadness!’ She gestures widely and laughs at herself.
Lynn is a fan of Whanganui now, but admits that when she first arrived in the early 90s it was dismal. ‘It was pretty depressing, I was so isolated. And also, as an American you’re just too loud and you laugh at the wrong things and you make jokes that no one really thinks are funny.’ She says she missed so many things from home, ‘but mostly I was just really lonely and didn’t have a support system.’ She tells of her work The Deconstructed Self, a collection of life size paintings completed between 1995–98, which shows different parts of her body. Notes from the show explain that the paintings were a metaphor for personal, cultural or social alienation. ‘I was feeling cut off,’ says Lynn.
For this year’s Patillo Whanganui Arts Review Lynn submitted Red Spiral Vanitas. It looks like a studio photograph of a perfectly placed and moodily lit still-life, but it’s actually an elaborate digital fabrication. Rather than use a camera, Lynn ‘gathers information’ with a medical grade, flatbed scanner. Using this high-resolution scanner Lynn creates digital versions of objects and then plays with the size and composition through Photoshop. She says many versions of the same work exists, as she adds and removes items, or recomposes them, until she finds the perfect arrangement. It’s a labour intensive process, executed primarily on a computer.
The vanitas (vanity) genre flourished in the early 17th century. The earliest vanitas pictures contained only a few objects; usually books (symbols of arts and sciences) and a skull (death or transience). Later in the century other elements were included. The objects were often tumbled together in disarray and each item held meaning. In Lynn’s vanitas series she places throw-away, mass produced, objects, next to rare objects from ancient civilizations, specimens of nature, and images of death and war. ‘These works are memento mori, not in preparation for the afterlife but as an admonishment against the earthly destruction wrought by human greed and vanity.’
Lynn’s items for Red Spiral Vanitas reference fertility, mortality, seduction and earthly pleasure. An iPhone, its screen showing a nuclear explosion at a Nevada test site, sits half obscured. Lynn says this represents death and destruction, but is also a nod to the original vanitas paintings which often included expensive or difficult to obtain items. ‘It was a way of showing off,’ says Lynn. She mentions tulips, often used in vanitas’ by the Dutch painters in the 1600s as a symbol of wealth due to their rarity and cost. Two vases, both adorned with spirals, are either side of her scene. A red and white spiral ceramic mortuary pot sits among flowers and roots, and an old ceramic, Chinese amphora vase sits alongside another spiral, a conch shell.
Lynn has entered the Whanganui Arts Review every year since she arrived in New Zealand. For her first review she submitted a piece called Paradise Lost. ‘It’s a carved and painted relief juxtaposing images indigenous to the South Pacific - tapa, tattoo, and carving - with an image based on a European engraving.’ While the reaction from the arts community was mostly positive, ‘a few people warned that I shouldn’t be using spirals as it was an appropriation of Māori culture.’ However, argues Lynn, spirals feature in nature throughout the world and are important in many cultures. ‘I think I said “spirals are everywhere.” My intention wasn’t to exploit anyone’s culture. Spiral imagery has been found in almost every known artistic culture. Add to that the infinite spiral forms found in nature — dust devils, maelstroms, coiled snakes, and conch shells— you are ensured replication.’
Lynn’s Red Sprial Vanitas is part of the Patillo Whanganui Arts Review, at Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare O Rehua Whanganui, until 12 May. She has a solo show scheduled next year with Milbank Gallery, in Whanganui.