Capturing what cannot be captured 

Karen Sewell

ATELIER Studio|Gallery 7 Oct – 11 Nov, 2023 


An existential exploration in two acts 

Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland based artist Karen Sewell is exhibiting her first solo show, since returning from exhibiting in Venice. Capturing what Cannot be Captured is hosted by Whakatū/Nelson’s ATELIER Studio|Gallery and I must admit to being somewhat star struck 

As you turn the bend in the stairs leading up to the gallery you are met by the rich, deep blue of Over the Waters, peeking through the curved window. Set against freshly painted, dark purple walls it draws you in, calls you to tumble through the night sky. Next to it, visibly imposing as you enter the gallery proper, is Red Morning, a sensory assault rushing off the wall to engulf you. These large paintings work in tandem, pushing and pulling to hold your attention. Large orbs suspended in the vast sky over monochrome Tasman landscapes, intense in both hue and size. Still, it is the smaller ‘Whisper’ paintings that capture my imagination. With a softer, graduated palette interspersed with shapes of solid colour they speak of those times of day when anything seems possible. The times between, the neither here nor there but teetering on the cusp of anything. A liminal space when, and where, the mind can’t help but wander towards the mysterious.  

But we are not invited to soar just yet. Versed in utilizing the entirety of the available space Sewell has added an olfactory element to the experience. A rich, earthy infusion rises from the floor, anchoring you in the physical world. We may stare into infinity in Whisper Daybreak as dawn blurs the edges of reality but, as of yet, we are firmly grounded. It is only as we walk towards the main gallery space that our feet begin to lose touch with terra firma and we’re lifted into the heavens.  

I was always the one with my head in the clouds. I would jokingly claim that my bare feet helped keep me in the world, but it was not said without a kernel of truth. I learnt early on that letting your mind wander too far was frowned upon in a society where the tangible rules. The second act of Sewells installation, unlike my younger self, does not ask anyone’s permission to travel among the stars. It scoops you up and deposits you on a planet of your choice or, if you prefer, on an interstellar wind. A collection of spheres, Stardust, dot the bright space, some lifted high on brass framework, others lined up on low shelving. A number of photograms hover on the walls above and around, with this astronomical Imaginarium topped off with a mirror sphere descending from the ceiling. Although the individual pieces are stationary there is movement, a stately dance of heavenly bodies where the many aspects are in continuous dialogue with each other. A light, airy infusion weaves through the air, intermingling with the gentle soundscape sourced from NASA. It invokes a sense of vastness, touching the untouchable. Here we are invited to consider the mysteries and reach for the intangible.  

Sewells attention to detail is what makes this experience. She forms each orb by hand, in the tradition of Japanese Hikaru Dorodango, or earth dumplings as they are affectionately referred to, before coating them with different minerals and pigment. The soil, clay and sand have been gathered by the artist throughout the region, creating the connection between the spheres of heaven and earth, Papatuanuku and Rangi. For the paintings she has used locally sourced dirt to create pigment, grounding her work in the place it depicts. Equal thought and care have been taken with the photograms, a process where objects are placed on photographic paper and exposed without the use of a camera house. Numinous Spheres were captured at dawn, painted by the rising sun. Utilizing polystyrene balls from a DIY planetarium the artist has created images reminiscent of early astro photography. Flat black field surrounding crisp white circles. Shading within the circles gives it form which, paired with the flatness, again has us hovering in the in-between. The photogram series are centred around the left-most image, presumably the sun, and invokes an almost childlike joy while contemplating the universe. 

For art historians there are references to be uncovered as well, further testament to Sewell’s commitment to her art. Drawing on her knowledge she brings western symbolic tradition into the present using her own contemporary expression. In this conversation with the past, she creates a framework within which the exploration of the numinous finds its starting point, albeit not the complete roadmap.  

This exhibition is, to this participant, all about the afore mentioned liminal space, where we are on the cusp of the mundane and the awesome. Sewell effortlessly moves between the two in what seems an intuitive understanding and connection with both. Moreover, she is able to translate this into tangible work that allows us as viewers to take part, to safely visit that space ourselves and tap into the wondrous. There is a particular spot in the hallway between the two galleries where the rich fragrance of the earth still clings to you, yet your eyes are already taken by the stars. In that spot, all seems possible. 

Linda Dimitrievski – Arts Writer