Artist's Statement: Edward Chell on silhouettes of plants at The Beaney in Canterbury

Edward Chell interviewed by Ben Miller | 20 June 2013

Artists's Statement: Edward Chell has made an installation of 60 silhouette paintings of woodland and verge plants at The Beaney in Canterbury. He tells us more...

A photo of a man standing in front of various illustrations
“Eclipse comes out of my fascination with motorway landscapes and the micro-world of the roadside verge.

These sites are full of native species, including some rare ones, and there’s an affinity between woodland and verge.

They share common flora such as buttercups and wild herbs. Thistles and teasels will just as easily appear in the central reservation as in the wood.

And both verge and woods are left over ribbons and pockets of habitat in our intensively farmed and developed landscape.

In our rat-race society we rush through, we rush by. What is left by the side is an edgeland, not forgotten but not quite remembered either.

When you stop and look there is a world of complexity there.

Most of the plants I’ve painted, nettle, bramble, cow parsley, are very common, but when you get up close they’re such surprising forms, the way they flower, form seedpods and grow leaf structures.

They are incredibly rarefied and beautiful things and this encounter is transforming.

In woodland, when I’m zeroing in on this microcosmic world of a simple plant the universe of the wood can open up. You can almost hear a spider spinning its web or a caterpillar tramping along a leaf.

It’s like tuning in, and if we get the frequency right there is a whole world to be drawn into.

I’ve painted 60 panels because seeing so many together heightens the feeling of temporality, of each of these plants being single stills from a potentially infinite proliferation.

The sense is like slow film panning, or moving through and catching glimpses. The series becomes a kind of virtual verge or woodland species pool.

The silhouettes are painted on hand-made gesso panels. The lacquering process gives them a lovely vellum-like quality.

The varnish has its own yellowing, straw-like colour. Once painted, they are further lacquered all over so you lose the brush marks.

These images are like photograms – they are completely flattened. This process, while revealing the subject absolutely plainly is at the same time completely abstract.

There’s an absence in there as well. It reflects the ‘truth’ of a photograph but also an index of ‘not something’ – something not being there.

The panels appear ‘toxic’. The plants are sandwiched between layers of varnish, so there’s an impenetrable sheen and the thing itself is almost like a pressed flower.

You can’t get in at it. You can’t touch the image, there’s a sense of everything being just beyond reach.

With a silhouette you are looking ‘into’ something – your brain is doing a lot of work to construct a three-dimensional image, so the sense of them being objects is enhanced by the silhouette.

Being sign-like gives them a visual density, so we’ve reproduced 40 of the plant images in an artist’s book which could be taken to the woods and verges and be used as an identification guide.

There is a strong relationship between these silhouettes and memorials. There is a link here, I think, with the 18th century penchant for silhouettes that were often mementoes of loved ones, kept on a dresser or in lockets.

The small cameos of Josiah Wedgwood are like this. This series echoes Linnaean systems that, like the cameos, carry notions of extinction.

The panels in Eclipse are being shown in a museum. Museums contain lots of  ‘dead’ objects that have been taken from other places and belong elsewhere.

They are about holding onto something and making it still – forever.

Compared with the Linnaean explorations of the 18th century, today our engagement with plant species is premised on conservation rather than discovery – recording extinction, even.

These plants remind us of something fundamental about our being – we couldn’t exist without plants. These commonplace things keep the environment going, perpetuating change and preserving life.

Museums are places of preservation, but they are trying to preserve by eliminating change and the mutability of organic life.

So when these plants are presented in a museum they are suddenly this poignant paradox is thrown into relief.

In a setting that is about memory and preserving, these plants, because they are commonplace, act as touchstones for the fragility that underpins our existence."

  • Eclispe is at The Beaney from June 22 – September 8 2013. Edward Chell discusses his work at the museum on July 6 at 11am and 2.30pm. Admission is free but booking is required.

More pictures:

An image of a black ink illustration of flowers against a light brown background
Crocus Crocus pupureus© Edward Chell
An image of a black ink illustration of flowers against a light brown background
Eclipse_Gorse or Furze Ulex europaeus© Edward Chell
An image of a black ink illustration of flowers against a light brown background
Eclipse Creeping Buttercup Ranunculus repens© Edward Chell
An image of a black ink illustration of flowers against a light brown background
Eclipse_Bramble or Blackberry Rubus fruticosus© Edward Chell
An image of a black ink illustration of flowers against a light brown background
Bluebell or Wild Hyacinth Endymion non scriptus© Edward Chell
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