The word ‘unseen’ means to exist through a shroud of mystery and obscurity. The work of Surrealist and Occultist Ithell Colquhoun represents the unseen due to her preoccupation with the realms of the mental and spiritual. This is most evident within her occult practice (the word literally meaning ‘hidden’), as well as themes in her practice regarding communication of divine wisdom and earthly connection. Colquhoun was defiant and idealistic in her work and life; largely removing her from Surrealist dialogue. However, she is being rediscovered by contemporary audiences and newly observed through a feminist, surrealist and abstract paradigm.
Hayley Theyers was especially drawn to La Cathedrale Engloutie and with a meditative, dreamlike approach, explored its landscapes, contemplated its ruins and followed its runes. Working with water as a visual device allowed her to create the flowing, dreamlike tableaux commonly found within her practice. Hayley’s process is intuitive and open to transformation in post-production; much the same way a painter composes an artwork. She explores the unseen by depicting dream-states in literal form; that murky haze upon which we awake and remember moments of half-forgotten reveries. Hayley states ‘I found myself inside the island, floating to infinity and engulfed by the liquid medium of dreams.’
Colquhoun’s work is vocal of her reverence for the female experience. A woman’s thighs in bath water are at once cliff faces in the ocean and the mythological being Scylla. An abstract painting with a cavernous hole is the anatomy of a tree and the anatomy of the female body. Kate Rampling was immediately drawn to the way in which Colquhoun views the female body in relationship to the earth; they are one and the same, interchangeable and often unrecognisable from the other. Kate explored this through the female body mimicking the natural landscape, interacting with it and simply being present within it, in quiet moments of communion. She has reinterpreted Colquhoun’s abstract work into something identifiable, however, not completely without the element of chance, using automatism upon the photo negative surface.
In the later part of her life Ithell moved increasingly further away from her Surrealist practice towards purely colour-based expression. Her Taro as Colour works explore the archetypes embodied in tarot by eschewing the heavily symbolic and figurative iconography of extant decks and relying heavily on galactic bursts and swirls of pigment, informed by colour theory and the esoteric guidance of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Ithell did not intend these cards for divination, rather for transcendent spiritual contemplation. Mary Macgregor-Reid was captivated by this series of images and wished to filter her own figurative practice through the clarifying lens of Colquhoun’s sublime colour.
To interpret Colquhoun’s work requires analysis and a yielding of oneself to her inner world; an immersive, subterranean and rewarding experience. She commonly utilised double imagery, surrealist techniques such as automatism and decalcomania and shared secret, learned wisdom to those willing to unearth it. For Colquhoun, art was a form of communication that benefited the spectator and allowed the artist to attain higher states of consciousness. Communicating Vessels reiterates the role of the artist as a communicator of ideas and concepts, opens up dialogue surrounding our relationship to the earth and celebrates a female artist who has much wisdom left to impart on a contemporary audience.