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Layered ‘Abstraction’

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Ella Sutherland, Keys to The Book of the City of Ladies, 2020 (installation view, Reeves Road). Inkjet billboard prints, commissioned by Te Tuhi, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. Photo by Sam Hartnett Ella Sutherland, Keys to The Book of the City of Ladies I, 2020, commissioned by Te Tuhi, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland.

Sutherland's billboards indicate an interest in modernist abstraction, being a sort of visual synthesis of Gordon Walters and Lari Pittman (with their carefully positioned flattened formal elements and repeated curved motifs), but also incorporating a fifteenth century passion for symbolism sparked by an enthusiasm for the author Christine de Pisan, a very early feminist presenter of significant women from history whom she included in illuminated manuscripts.

Te Tuhi Billboards

Pakuranga

 

Ella Sutherland
Keys to The Book of the City of Ladies


6 September - 29 November 2020

Ella Sutherland is well known for her linear graphic contributions to many tabloid format artist publications, often in collaboration with colleagues like Matthew Galloway. She is not so well known for an interest in colour, tone or shape, which is why her presentation on three Te Tuhi billboards on Reeves road (and Parnell Station) is a bit of a surprise. These indicate an interest in modernist abstraction, being a sort of visual synthesis of Gordon Walters and Lari Pittman (with their carefully positioned flattened formal elements and repeated curved motifs), but also incorporating a fifteenth century passion for symbolism sparked by an enthusiasm for the author and poet Christine de Pisan, a very early feminist presenter of significant women from history whom she included in illuminated manuscripts.

De Pisan’s most renowned work is The Book of the City of Ladies, where she champions the female contribution to civic culture, ‘civic’—visually represented by blocks in a wall—being a term for co-operative human endeavour within a city. Sutherland shows a couple of large vertical keys (of her title) and an arched door with keyhole of a solidly walled medieval town. The images are heraldic, using six colours, bold simplified shape, and a flat modernist picture plane.

The keys and tall barriers clearly refer to male thwarting of women’s awareness (now seen as a global phenomenon), standing for blocked access to education, knowledge and power. Other images include cascading bending scrolls of rippling paper, open pages of a standing book, a checkboard table top, and drops of water flying off a steep roof (ignorance?). The billboards (as always) are a large size—with impact—intended to be mentally absorbed by passing drivers as well as pedestrians, although the coded political content is not self-evident.

Sutherland makes lovely graphic images, and I’m a sucker for formalist abstraction anyway; so it is a thrill to encounter her gifts on the streets. Her feminist message though—and interest in de Pisan—only becomes clear if you have access to the gallery brochure or website. Another level that comes if you are sufficiently beguiled to find out more when you get home.

John Hurrell

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