Catherine Woo / Modern Alchemy

2008 - Peter Timms - Handle with care, exhibition catalogue essay

Posted: 1 March 2008 -

2008 Adelaide Festival of Contemporary Art, 1 March - 4 May 2008 -

Catherine Woo -

There’s a lot of weather in Hobart. On a clear, sunny day, clouds can sweep without warning over the mountain, changing the city’s entire complexion within minutes.

Weather is the perfect subject for Catherine Woo: immaterial, evanescent, ungraspable, unpredictable. Since moving to Tasmania from Melbourne a few years ago, Catherine has cultivated her weather-eye.

The composer John Cage (another artist preoccupied with changes) was fond of quoting Ananda Coomaraswamy’s dictum that art should imitate nature ‘not in her appearance but in her manner of operation’. Like Cage, Catherine sets up a field of operation, establishing limits within which things are allowed to happen, thereby giving nature a role in shaping the work. While she can predict, control (to an extent), and manipulate, what she is doing, basically, is engaging nature in dialogue.

In a complicated and work-intensive process (a result of the slow accumulation of a body of knowledge through ceaseless experimentation), natural materials such as silica, carbon, ash, clay and rust combine or repel each other, crystalise and solidify into patterns determined by what we today call the laws of physics, but which earlier generations thought of as Divine Law. Each painting is a chemical laboratory, a field of activity, a record and (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) a revelation.

Although changes in the weather are today a topic of political controversy—part of the modern world’s repertoire of fears—it would be too easy to see these works as mere commentary. Catherine uses the weather as a metaphorical framework to delve deeper into the abstract nature of transformation itself, from one state of being into another. She reminds us (and we need reminding) that climate-change is not just a political and social issue, but has a mythic dimension as a narrative of apocalypse. It is a measure of human folly that the weather should be the subject of attempts at control, as if it can be harnessed to our immediate needs.

The most striking thing about these images—with their swirling nebulae and rich, lustrous colours—is how wonderfully seductive they are, and how erotic. They might suggest (although they are not specifically depictions of) clouds, turbulent waters, or deep space. Their hard encrusted surfaces melt into dreamlike softness as we step back. A proper appreciation of their beauty is the key to understanding these works, for, according to the Greeks, Eros, the embodiment of love and beauty, is the power that makes transformation possible. When ancient alchemists talked about turning base metals into gold, what they were really interested in was the transformation of base human nature into the enlightened soul. They were searching for the underlying laws that governed all change.

Catherine Woo is a modern alchemist, exploiting chemistry and physics for non-materialistic purposes; reuniting science and magic. Her dialogue with natural forces has the power to reawaken the sense of wonder in nature’s ‘manner of operation’ that we all possessed as children, but which, in most of us, has dissipated over time, like clouds in the summer sky.

Reproduced with permission of the author.