Natasha Bieniek > Halcyon

Natasha Bieniek’s landscape paintings are exquisite. It is hard to imagine how such precision and detail have been achieved. They shine, seemingly with an inner light, and with a vibrance that beautifully conveys the artist’s deep appreciation for the gardens and green spaces she depicts. The technical brilliance of Bieniek’s meticulous practice is matched by the care and consideration given to every aspect her creative process, from conception to display.

 

The experience of viewing the works evokes a lot of the same feelings and emotions as visiting one of the gardens depicted. There is a calming sense of tranquillity as well as a vibrant celebration of nature. These qualities are also encapsulated by the title of the exhibition, Halcyon, a word that is often used to describe times of peace and happiness.[1]

 

Bieniek considers the slow process of working with oil paint to be an antidote to the bombardment of images that is experienced as part of contemporary life. She describes oil as being a medium that is “smooth and buttery”[2], allowing her to bring a poetic quality to the images. A master of this medium, Bieniek deliberately includes painterly marks, some just a few brush hairs in thickness, as well as being able to seamlessly blend gradational tones, for example in the sky of Biophilia, 2015.

 

The process of making these works demands a very steady hand, limitless patience, and razor-sharp concentration. After taping off the area to be painted, the artist begins by putting down several layers of gesso (a white primer) to make the surface very smooth. Then a loose drawing is made in paint. The works are built up slowly in “layers of information”[3], with more detail being added in each layer. Dark tones are added first with lighter colours and shades added over the top. The margin for error in such minute works is close to zero, with even an error of 1mm throwing out the proportion of the composition. Even the smallest works take weeks, if not months, to complete.

 

Alongside the traditional methods used to produce oil paintings, Bieniek also embraces the advantages of using new technology to inform her process. The paintings are transcribed from photographs taken by the artist, which are digitally manipulated to get the right colour balance and composition.

 

Bieniek’s work is an incisive and complex blending of past and present forms. The paintings have been made directly onto Dibond, an aluminium composite panel more commonly used for objects, interior design or architectural construction. The Dibond is sleek and glossy, reminiscent of a piece of technology. It has a sterility that sharply contrasts with the lush green painted images of nature. The white frames have also been specifically designed to be as minimal as possible. They have been lazer-cut and have no perceivable joins. Their corners are slightly curved, which is a clear reference to the design of some of our most common smart devices. Overall, the works have a distinctly futuristic appearance, though their focal points, the paintings, have been forged by a process that is centuries old.

 

When Bieniek first started painting miniatures, about eleven years ago, she was inspired by sixteenth century miniature portraits. These were popular in England and France, before the advent of photography, usually being commissioned as a keepsake and often kept within a decorative encasing, like a locket or brooch. Bieniek was interested in reviving this tradition in a modern context. Images of people are again now often viewed in a reduced scale, as we scroll through social media feeds for example, we see a stream of tiny portraits.

 

When viewed on a screen, Bieniek’s works can seem photographic in their verisimilitude, but when viewed in real life, their subtle painterly qualities can be seen. When encountering the works directly, there is an unavoidable intimacy between the viewer and the works. Firstly, because it is necessary to get very close to the work itself to see the extraordinary detail and superb execution, and secondly because the metallic frames capture the viewer’s reflection. This creates a tension between the viewer and the work, with the implication that we must also take a moment to reflect on ourselves.

 

The highly reflective surfaces, particularly in the case of the larger frames, bring motion, movement and life into the otherwise static images. In effect, their appearance is governed by their environment. The works therefore combine a very controlled element in the form of the paintings, with the completely unpredictable aspect of mirroring whatever happens to come into proximity. Similarly, Bieniek has described gardens as “living, breathing artworks”, in that they grow and mutate and have a life of their own, yet they are also manipulated and shaped; their colour and patterns are controlled, pruned and planned. The interplay of the dynamic and the static is an important part of what makes the work so compelling.

 

The contrast between the natural and the man-made has inspired both the physical form of the works and the conceptual core of Bieniek’s landscapes. It is important to note that Bieniek has mainly selected images of Botanic gardens and green spaces that are man-made, inserted into cities and designed to provide relief from built up environments. These include the Royal Melbourne Botanic Gardens, St Kilda Botanic Gardens, Mount Coot-tha Botanic Gardens in Brisbane and Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. 

 

The artist recognises the vital importance of having direct experiences with nature and organic environments for mental wellbeing, particularly for those living in dense urban landscapes and cities. Humans are connected to nature at an evolutionary level. We are bio-centric by design, though we are increasingly detached from natural systems and surroundings. Gardens offer respite. Days spent in nature are halcyon days; fortunate times characterised by nourishment and peace.

 

These works celebrate nature with a sincere reverence, yet there is a poignance that lies in the tension between their sterile encasings and the lush foliage and flora somehow trapped within the small spaces to which they have been allocated. The exhibition title, Halcyon, also carries a slight lament. Halcyon days are better times, but they are always placed in the past, not to be revived. These works deftly shift between the past and the future, the natural and the technological, the dynamic and the static. But most importantly, they encourage us to recognise our innate attraction to plants and green spaces, and they prompt us to ask how or why we have become so enmeshed in the unnatural, and maybe how we can find our way back.

 

[1] A halcyon is described in the Oxford English Dictionary as “A bird of which the ancients fabled that it bred about the time of the winter solstice in a nest floating on the sea, and that it charmed the wind and waves so that the sea was especially calm during the period: usually identified with a species of kingfisher, hence a poetic name of this bird.”

Source: https://oed.com/oed2/00101589

[2] Natasha Bieniek in conversation with Juliette Hanson. Interview conducted 21.4.21

[3] Natasha Bieniek in conversation with Juliette Hanson. Interview conducted 21.4.21

Text courtesy of Linden New Art