Moray Gallery

Rocks & Roots: new directions

1-27 April 2017

Jenny Longstaff

The mixed media works in this exhibition are a creative response following a difficult time, encompassing themes of hardship and identity, loss and longing, discovery and renewal, the rough and the smooth. 

The healing power of nature, cross-cultural connections, and an awareness of the mind / body / spirit balance of the artist's own nature are evident as influences in the creation of these works. 

Some ideas are presented as shadow-box 'shrines' reminiscent of memento mori or reliquaries; others are depicted in paintings, photography, and assemblage 'offerings' of touch-stones and zen zones. 

The deeply personal feelings explored here are not unique – they mirror the universal human experience and centuries-old contemplations of philosophers and poets throughout the East and West.

Commentary by James Dignan

Artist, writer, and art reviewer for the Otago Daily Times

2016 was something of an “annus horribilis” for Jenny Longstaff. An overwhelming accumulation of unexpected events dismantled the artist’s sense of self, testing her emotional resilience.

Longstaff used these setbacks as a signal to reconnect and reground herself, to authenticate a place to stand. There has long been a connection to the landscapes and townscapes of Dunedin in her art, but now, feeling mentally stripped back by situations and their consequences, there was a need to embrace a more basic level, connecting with the very stones and roots which form the land.

As a result, Longstaff has taken a step away from the kaleidoscopic photographic works for which she has been best known in recent times, in order to rebuild her practice literally from the ground up. Single patterned stones now become central to her art, the works becoming a deeply spiritual homage to nature and to a sense of inner being. An offering is made to the beach which is the source of many of her stones, and miniature zen gardens become the focus of contemplation and reflection.

Reconnection and contemplation is often a cathartic experience, and one which is reflected in Longstaff’s exhibition in an extended narrative created from miniature tableaux, each of which reflects a stage in the artist’s life story. The patterns and positions of the stones employ Longstaff’s private symbolism, revealing and concealing moments of joy and pain, lost hope and ephemeral dreams. Motifs of the heart, the eye, the star, and the key occur and recur, as do Australian aboriginal dot patterns and roots forging a strong foundation within the earth. The pieces become a personal metaphorical and metaphysical journey of frustration, growth, disaster, and joy, and yet are universal in their content. They bear similarities with the idea of memento mori, with its themes of living in the shadow of mortality, and with Mexican votive retablo paintings, offerings to fate for help through times of trouble.

Through all this, the artist is asking questions about art and nature. We are presented with works that in style owe much to low art - to cheap souvenirs and decorations - yet which aspire to high art status. But high art works themselves are simply mimicking and attempting to copy the far higher art of nature. And it is this ultimate natural art which forms the basis - by way of pebbles - for the low art keepsakes. Yet each pebble symbolises and contains infinities. This circular paradox mirrors our attempts to create meaning and something important from our lives, set against the near-infinite magic of existence itself - nature in all its complexity is greater than any great life scheme we may aspire to. The unknowable complexity of nature is represented in the exhibition by the two large banner works in the exhibition, with their myriad-faceted tangles of branches and stones - works which lead the artist back towards her reflected and fractured photographs.