Janine Mackintosh makes carefully structured mosaics from found natural materials. These assemblages are intricate observations about the unique shapes and patterns to be found in nature. Without the accompanying clues of the gallery context and didactic panels, the works somehow elude categorisation; they are simultaneously land art, op art and museum artefact.
Inspired by early botanical collections, such as those at the Museum of Economic Botany in Adelaide, the works grew from a response to traditional methods of museum display. The artist uses a linen thread to bind the materials to the canvas, similar to the early examples of preserved botanical specimens. In this way, she playfully apes pre-ordained structures whilst creating her own template for display. It comes as no surprise then, to learn that the artist’s partner is an entomologist. Her practice is a parallel exercise in collecting, sorting and ordering. The artist’s relationship with nature is informed by this scientific knowledge of insects, especially the ways they inhabit and re-configure leaves; the collections are based not only on different species of eucalyptus leaves, but also how they are re-shaped by insects. She describes how, “The leaves which display the activities of insects certainly inspire me the most… they have more visual interest and it also shows the interconnected nature of our biodiversity… It’s incredible how specific certain insects are to particular plants and the triggers of weather and seasons.”[i] Just as a viewer is enthralled by the painter’s deft handling of paint, here the artist’s attentive treatment of her materials translates for the viewer into an abiding respect for nature. Mackintosh’s expansive knowledge about the properties of such plant life enables a greater means of understanding and perceiving these objects.
Much Land Art is an exercise in contemplating aspects of nature, and isolating these for re-consideration in an industrialised world. Yet when we think of Land Art, it is easy to think of large scale endeavours throughout the sixties and seventies by Robert Smithson and Richard Long. Although located within a much smaller two-dimensional context, Mackintosh’s work shares much with Richard Long, particularly the desire to wedge irregularly shaped natural materials into circular shapes. Of course, the spherical configuration itself recalls many natural elements and Long has seized upon this shape to make an extensive body of work; clay hand prints, concrete poetry and stones, all carefully slotted into circular patterns.
In a more contemporary context, Mackintosh’s work fits well with the patterned installations of both found and natural materials by Lauren Berkowitz. For an exhibition in 1992 at Realities Gallery, Berkowitz also used eucalyptus leaves. The artist gathered “leaves of various species from the nearby native-bush areas of the Yarra River in Kew and scattered them over the group of a small courtyard garden of the gallery.”[ii] Berkowitz employs a similar material to a more performative effect, where visitors directly experienced the smell and sound of the leaves. We see in both artists work an interest in the fluid contexts of art museum and museum of natural history and a capacity to make work that is located outside of any discernible era.
These visually jarring patterns also address the tradition of Op Art. The works literally pulse with the patterns of the leaves and the white spaces in between. The artist describes her experience of the work as a “sound” which chimes with an interest in synaesthesia expressed by many op artists. At times the leaves create a circular pattern which appears to unfurl like a flower; at other times the jagged edges create a band of vibrations around the composition. The circular patterns are combined with subtle gradations of colour. In Memory a band of leaves start at grey to end in deep brown –the effect recalls the soft-edged abstractions of Howard Taylor.
There is a always a performative element to an artist’s practice and when we see these swirling patterns of leaves carefully stitched onto canvas, we marvel not only at the visual feat, we are also admiring the life choices made to create such work. In 2000 Mackintosh committed herself to collecting these materials on a heritage reserve on Kangaroo Island, South Australia. The project began with the intention of collecting and documenting natural materials in the area and grew into an art practice. The process of collecting is idiosyncratic and complex. At times the artist will gather materials in one session, particularly if they’re seasonal: “if I see a eucalyptus tree flowering, I’ll look to see the flower caps on the ground and if I like them I know I’ll have to collect them quite quickly, before the tree stops flowering and they decay.”[iii] At other times the artist will collect materials for years before embarking upon a work. One can’t help but think of a museum archive when learning of the vast wall of labelled cardboard boxes in the studio.
The process belies a desire to create order in an otherwise chaotic world. It comes as no surprise that the artist was no fan of jigsaw puzzles as a child. “It seemed that you spent a great deal of time putting together someone else’s completely restrictive pattern, to arrive at something that wasn’t very surprising or beautiful.”[iv] Instead, Mackintosh preferred to play with ordinary objects such as buttons or seeds and work out their own order, based on size, colour or kind.
These are enigmatic works which sit just as comfortably as an ancient artefact or as contemporary art. Mackintosh gives us a rich visual experience that is borne not from a sense of ownership of natural beauty. Instead, she celebrates the rewards of paying close attention.
[i] Correspondence with the artist, June 2011
[ii] Charles Merewether, Lauren Berkowitz, Craftsman House, 2001. p.19
[iii] Correspondence with the artist, June 2011
[iv] Correspondence with the artist, June 2011