At the western edge, with Atlas
by Jack Smurthwaite
The world as a body, personified as Gaia, could be read as flawed anthropocentricism – projecting the form of the human onto something altogether more complex. However, it does inject a bodily, corporeal essence into our understanding of her. Through the lens of bodies of work that explore the interconnectedness of life –Aimée Parrott’s recent works being one example – we have to ask ourselves about the world not as deity but as a body, with its fevers and diseases, and creeping declines. Bodies are messy things. Pulsing under our skin, organs have a fleshy otherworldliness to them; slippery and morbidly soft. Plunge your hands into the loam and that is a messy, dirty business too, full of life replete with the rhythms of the world and densely knotted ecosystems. A bodily ecology insists on an empathy between bodies, and an understanding that each is pregnant with vulnerability.
Humans exist in symbiotic (dis)harmony with countless other organisms. Each one of our microbiomes is as unique as our fingerprints. We are universes within worlds. And those worlds are richer for attempting to draw connections with non-human life. The beauty of Parrott’s most recent works, as they roll out of their predecessors, is their complete yielding toward figuration, a fearlessness of depiction. Overlapping, pulsating openings evoke insects and landscapes as much as they do the creased caves of cupped hands or gaping mouths. The boundaries between what we recognise as a depiction of the non-human and what we feel as recognition of ourselves are as blurred, as soft, and as porous as the trailing lines that spiral Parrott’s canvases. A broadening of the organic and an insistence on the human participant are central to Parrott’s work.
As above, so below (2019), offers us clear bodily forms, which escape the frame and we can imagine melting into air. A bisected the image, the southern half is populated by determined brushstrokes, frenetic, penned in, and scrambling to articulate something to us. They sketch a skeleton, frustratingly emphasise a blind and eyeless head. It seems to take us into the deep. Crustacean forms weightlessly float from the lowest reaches of the canvas. And then the illusion is broken. The mirroring of the above and below, the human and the other is betrayed by their joining, their literal stitching together, held within a seed, which focussing our attention on a navel at its centre. It is a proud scar that holds within itself a symbol of birth.
Rocky knees, which jut above the canvas’s horizon, appear again and again through Parrott’s latest paintings. From the most figurative watercolours, the forms are simplified and abstracted while being given weight and presence through their decisive outlines. Hovering in the background, haunting the monotypes, are spectres of previous works. The form of the seed pod reoccurs repeatedly stretching to an almond-like eye, sometimes contracting to a near perfect circle. They are whispered reminders of the slow trudge forward and the necessity of (sometimes convergent) evolutions.
Parrott’s monoprints are built upon and embellished. The traces they contain are immutable and impervious, scarred. Looking at them, I am reminded of Joanna Pocock’s recent book Surrender, in which she explores the American West through the lens of a self-proclaimed mid-life ennui. It is an exquisite rumination on the inevitability of change and the fragility of both landscape and the body. As with the immutable imprints of Parrott’s monotypes, our bodies and landscapes bear the traces of the pressure of heavy of hands.
We view nature, conceptualise it and distance ourselves from it, through our individual corporeal lenses, with our creaking limbs and short attention spans, and our cataracts. Laying in the bath, looking down at herself, Parrott’s self-portraits reference those of Ithell Colquhoun, another reluctant surrealist exploring the material of the body – its weight and its gestures – as it sinks into the ground and is submerged to become part of nature, once again.
Reading these works, seeing them laid out serially as evolutions rolling out of one another, you can read the gaps between them and think of them not in terms of comparisons, or as catalysts for isolated self-recognition, but collectively as a body – something that is changing, and shifting, and responsive – an ecosystem that draws you in and, often, gives something back.
James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis proposes that the Earth is a closed and self-regulating system. It states that our biosphere controls its own atmospheric and oceanic makeups, that the life that populates and contributes to this richly complex system continues to evolve with and influence its environment. The humility to respect the non-human and to understand a contribution to a system that is so vastly interconnected, more complex than any machine we could blueprint, is inbuilt into Parrott’s practice. In curating All that the Rain Promises and More… at Arusha Gallery in 2019, Parrott sought to explore “…what new potential for art might lie in an attentiveness to the interdependency and complexity of all living things.” Her painted works seem to both condense this impossibly nebulous challenge into small-scale frames – packing in poetic references, semi figurative evocations, and abstracted symbolism together – and also extrapolate them.
In the recent Matrix (2020), a portentous swirling infinity symbol spirals toward the canvas’s edges and then gravitates back to the centre of the image again. A quintessential depiction of rebirth, regrowth, and connectedness, it is a steadfast foundation, stronger for its composite make up and fine textured brushwork, while disparate elements collapse into a deep crimson strip of calico stitched along the bottom, snugly tucked into its thin wooden frame. Like a tornado through Kansas, this infinity symbol carries everything along with it; it has force and a gravity that wills its clay talisman into renewal.
Unlike something like Yelena Popova’s Window Cleaners video work (2013) or her 2014 performance, where a fat monochrome ouroboros is squeegeed away into pristine clarity, Parrott’s works evolve. They grow, they occupy space, they make connections with the viewers and the works around them, and – ultimately – delineate their own space. Like the weighted pendants magnetically sucked into Matrix’s orbit, we find ourselves part of its macrocosm.
I think about the atmosphere we inhabit while in the presence and dialogue with these works. As their swirling currents mingle with the air of the gallery or the shallow illumination of a computer screen, we breathe with them. Stained floating forms soak into the porous surfaces of some of Parrott’s larger works, the fading formless edges attune our attention to the fact that we see through and with these pieces. As has been noted about Parrott’s works before, there is a materiality, a tactility, and a weight to her works, but I – romantically – want to get swept away with them. Tulle, a material usually reserved for necessarily breathable veils and shrouds, hangs over solid frames, capturing and ensnaring them. The subtle ripples and waves brushed upon these shawls, which are so clear and structured until our eyes follow the overhanging drapery to its edges, suddenly become part of the fabric of the wall. Even at their most violent and bodily, marked by stitched eddies like tumbling gyres that endlessly flow over one another, we understand that these stand-in skins facilitate flow and exchange. They are catalysts for renewal.
Kenneth J. Hsü’s questioning of Lovelock’s hypothesis, from which Parrott’s exhibition takes its name: “considering Gaia as a self-organising system, we could ask if she has a kidney?” makes the Earth and Gaia’s body incredibly visceral. When it is alive, the kidney regulates our lifeblood, processes salts, and filters our waste. It has that slippery otherworldliness, a below ground/under skin messiness that is quietly off-putting, weirdly morbid, and essential. Parrott’s works tap into an understanding of ecosystems and bodies, of our own corporeal nexuses, of different forms of consciousness, and how the multifarious exchanges and interchanges across life can be understood with the sensitivity they necessitate.