Amy Stephens: Land | Reland
William Benington Gallery and Upfor Gallery
27 September - 17 November, 2018
Review by Sara Jaspan
A small boulder sits high upon a steel-frame stand in a paired-back gallery space, surrounded by the sound of London traffic. It’s positioned so high that its surface is probably warmed by the industrial strip light that hovers less than a foot above. Its presence in the room seems entirely unconnected to the visitor’s, as if placed there for some other reason.
It’s a rock that you wouldn’t notice in its natural environment. But singled out and elevated, its appearance takes on a remarkable quality; rippled with silver striations, pitted with charcoal pores and glistening slightly, as if embedded with minute shards of glass. It’s a ‘feather rock’; the product of a rare volcanic occurrence. Yet it exists in abundance in Oregon, America – an area of outstanding geology and home to St Helen’s, Mount Hood and some of the largest lava flows in the history of the world.
Abundance can often be a source of invisibility and in Oregon the stone is largely overlooked; trampled underfoot or sold as lightweight building material in local garden centres and roadside ‘rock stores’. It was from one such store that the British artist Amy Stephens rescued the rock that is now on display in her current solo exhibition – Land | Reland [London] at William Benington Gallery, a short walk from Tower Bridge. Extricated from its potential fate of becoming driveway gravel or a bio filter, it has been re-contextualized as an object of intrinsic worth, to be cared for and valued beyond anthropocentric terms. Stephens trained in art and geology and has a deep respect for both natural and man-made materials, as well as specifics of place.
She found the rock during a three-week residency in Oregon where she was making work for Land | Reland [Portland] (6 Sep-27 Oct) at Upfor Gallery – the concurrent exhibition to her William Benington show. The two presentations exist like portals, bridging the Atlantic.
At Upfor, a similar-sized lump of locally-sourced volcanic rock sits atop another towering architectural stand. A second sculptural assemblage featuring a small stainless-steel frame hangs from the ceiling by a rope, winch and hook, counterbalanced by the weight of a knee-high column of basalt, which Stephens sourced from the same store as the feather rock. Yet, here she references the distinctive columnar formations of Latourell Falls and the Columbia River Gorge. A number of Polaroids allow a momentary look into her many walks around the area, including a dream-like view in which a vast carpet of conifers give way to the faint outline of Mount Hood far away in the distance.
Nearby, a suspended succession of seven identical photographic prints sway gently in the air, displaying an image of an ilmenite boulder bound by a single shocking orange strip of Stephens’ signature neon gaffer tape (a carry-over from her time working within architectural practices and, simultaneously, her painterly beginnings as an artist). The ilmenite with tape ensemble was originally a three-dimensional piece developed in 2015 during a residency in Norway, where the extraordinary lunar mineral is mined for its titanium ore; a product used in everything from paints, plastics and paper to sunscreen, food and cosmetics. She took the image with her to Oregon as a starting point for her time there, along with a photographic diptych of a half-tonne ‘off-cut’ of veined white marble salvaged earlier this year from the quarries of Carrara in Italy.
Stephens’ practice is underpinned by travel but predicated upon exchange. Exchange both in terms of the conversations, collaborations and experiences she begins in each place she visits, but also the concerns, ideas and artworks she carries between them.
While Carrara marble hangs on the wall of Upfor, in London, the same white marble slab reappears in three-dimensional form as part of a piece that structurally echoes the steel frame-rope assemblage in Portland. A photographic diptych of the feather rock – captured from two different angles and green-screened against a pale blue background – sits just behind: framed by the suspended frame, doubling the images’ real-life progenitor located around the corner, and cousin to the Carrara twins on the other side of the pond.
Each work across both shows and throughout Stephens’ practice exists as part of an interlinking chain. She continually returns to and reuses ideas, allowing them to land and re-land, resisting the ossifying force of finitude and following the fluidity of nature’s endless cycles. It is a pragmatic gesture built upon preservation and longevity, principles that are also at the heart of her architectural practice through a concern for the environmental impact of the industrial materials she works with and their lifespan within in an urban context.
A multi-media triptych quietly tucked away towards the back of William Benington Gallery, above an assistant’s desk, draws these multiple dimensions together. On one side is a Polaroid image from her time exploring Oregon that speaks of nature and place; on the other, a striking piece of red cinder illuminates ideas concerned with the age, beauty and wonder of the Earth; in the middle of the arrangement sits an angular, artificial-looking wedge of flocked wood. Flocking is found everywhere; inside cars, overlaying wallpapers and upholstery, even resting on the branches of fake-snow dusted Christmas trees, yet, the application process can be toxic; exposing factory workers to small nylon particles which can cause a type of interstitial lung disease if inhaled.
Knowledge of this reminds me of the need to pay attention to the synthetic materials that now form the backdrop of our everyday lives. Dyed polyesters, acrylics and nylon that take an overwhelming amount of chemicals, waste and carbon emissions to produce. Concrete which demands copious amounts of cement to build; which is one of the largest global contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Even asbestos is still used, legally, in many parts of the world, including America.
Just like the steel stands and mechanical winches that punctuate both exhibitions; the flocked wedge serves as a reminder that Stephens’ practice goes beyond a simple celebration of nature. It’s rooted in a complex conversation around our relationship to the various environments we move through, construct and impact upon. It’s a call to be attentive to the minute details and to be aware of our place within the natural world; to take responsibility and to be respectful.