2011 Colliding Worlds

 Colliding Worlds is a fusion of experiences of time spent in China and the Australian bush. Developing themes explored in Chasing Tumbleweed where issues of land, history and personal narratives are intermingled. A 2010 Red Gate Residency in Beijing provided a glimpse both into the scale of change in the planet in a time of shrinking national borders.


This body of work was made over 2010-11 the paintings & sculptures shown at Depot 11 Gallery, Danks St. Waterloo and later in Gallery 1, Anita Traverso Gallery, Richmond. The actual painting 'Colliding Worlds' was then selected to be in the Charlatan Ink Art Prize 2011 at the Carlton Arms Hotel, NYC

Photograpghy by Brenton MacGeachie 

Catalogue Essay 2011_Colliding Worlds


While looking at Gabrielle Courtenay’s star speckled paintings the fragmented phrase, “To see a world in a grain of sand…” is gently unmoored from the depths of my memory and drifts unbidden into my mind. At first, I’m not entirely sure where it came from as this line, and others, from William Blake’s early 19th century poem Auguries of Innocence has seeped into our collective subconsciousness through steady repetition, quoted and misquoted by everyone from Agatha Christie, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Sting, to fictional Tomb Raider Lara Croft and Nobody from Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man. In an instinctive moment of clarity, fed by a neat mobius strip of ever circulating influence in which literature, filtered through popular culture, finds its way into art, I’ve realised that the works in Colliding Worlds are visual poems.

Blake’s words highlight for me the poetic structural strategies of Courtenay’s paintings: the use of symbolism and metaphor, the judicious intermingling of fantasy and reality, the ability to evoke a certain slippery, intangible, yet powerful emotional response. But the first stanza of Auguries of Innocence, “To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour,” also brings to light some of Courtenay’s underlying themes.

In Courtenay’s paintings, the world seems to have been reduced, in more ways than one. Colour has been drained away until all that remains is almost monochromatic: subtle shades of silver, grey, white, black and lavender. And in her imagery, whole planets appear to have been compressed, not in to grains of sand or wild flowers, but in to floating tangles of twigs, fish-eye landscapes studded with power pylons, or yawning voids full of glittering stars. Courtenay’s worlds are stripped back and miniaturised. Just as Blake describes, they read like microcosms of the larger macrocosm reflecting a Platonic notion, popular in European philosophy of the Middle Ages, which tried to theorise the place of mankind in the universe and acknowledged the interconnectedness of all things.

The title, Colliding Worlds, also provides an insight in to Courtenay’s concerns. It speaks not just of the cataclysmic impact of crashing planets, but also of the clash of civilisations and the devastating repercussions of our ongoing struggle for dominance with the natural world.

In early 2010, Courtenay undertook a residency in Northern Beijing. There she encountered a bleak, wintry landscape that is translated in her reduced colour palette. Her studio, adjacent to a power station, was covered everyday by a grimy black film of grit. She soon realised that this continuous sprinkling of pollution could easily have started its carbon cycle millions of years ago in Australia, first as living organisms, then as coal ripped from the earth and shipped across the seas. Burned as fuel in China, it settled as dust on the skin of an Australian a long way from home. Everything is connected and all actions have consequences.

Courtenay channelled this awareness in to her work. In her Great Wall Meets Rabbit Proof Fence series, she freely interlaces imagery gleaned from China with impressions from the Australian outback. Elsewhere, she seems to allude more generally to the disastrous and long reaching effects our actions can have in an interconnected eco-system. In Heed the Hesperides, the title, as well as a bold graphic symbol in the upper right quadrant, signals a warning. But just exactly what we need to look out for isn’t clear. The painting depicts a gnarled, leafless tree intertwined with a small boat, floating on grey water. Is the boat a parasite sucking sustenance from the body of the tree: culture greedily feeding off nature’s bounty and draining it dry? Or is the tree sprouting from the boat: nature vanquishing culture, reclaiming territory and starting a new cycle of life? Are we being warned against the hubris of humanity or the inexorable omnipotence of nature? Perhaps both.

The message in this painting, like the others in Colliding Worlds, is ambiguous. Gabrielle Courtenay uses symbolism and visual metaphor to elicit impressions that have a nebulous, shifting quality. Her artworks have embedded narratives, but they are not pedagogical. They don’t just tell one story with a predictable linear structure of beginning, middle and end. Rather, her paintings act as a catalyst, a trigger for the imagination. As in poetry, the viewers must complete the chain reaction by adding their own potent mix of emotion and intellect in order to create something ephemeral, volatile and mercurial.

Tracey Clement

Sydney, 2010