To make a pattern, un dessein, an arrangement of shapes, is on one level a response to the fundamentals of life. The Egyptians had both a literal and figurative purpose in painting tables of food offerings and objects on the walls of tombs. Literally, the painting of food kept the Ka, or soul, nourished in the afterlife; figuratively the paintings were metaphors for the existence of the individual in perpetuity. Julia Farrer’s Twin-Twin Towers and floating Helical Knots, entwined helical rings, are both literal and figurative forms, literal in the sense that the DNA molecule formed of two intertwined helices is the building block of life, figurative as an embodiment of an ideal of beauty in function.
The helix is a shape that permeates our existence and our environment: regard the new buildings rising out of London’s Square Mile, the skyscrapers of the Arab Emirates and the Far East – designs prefigured by Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, 1919–20, which though it exists only as a model was meant by its creator as a modernist visionary structure symbolizing the power of collective effort, a spiral staircase to a socialist heaven-on-earth (and a propaganda instrument). The fact that it was never built does not obviate the strength of its visionary impulse: the idea exists in the present in the form of its geometric transformation.
Farrer starts with a rough geometric idea developed in sketches which are transposed to the computer screen, manipulated and distorted, and which then take physical shape in the form of laminated ply, cut and routed and painted (in her hands, ply seems pliable as pigment): at every step the idea is played with, improvised: “Form changes in the making,” she says. Her pieces are realised visualizations; they display the imaginative fervour and the generative impulse of the visionary. This impulse is channelled into a disciplined drive, combined with the operation of chance, to bring out the potentials of the imagined shape in three-dimensional structures.
The end result, for instance A Knot of Time (the title from García Lorca’s poem ‘Cada Canción’) and Random Knots, is the culmination of the imaginative expansion of a geometric image perceived at first as through a telescope: faint, mysterious, it’s gradually brought into focus, comes forward as a planet does, hovering in sky-ground, girdled by its rings and held in its moment of movement: Each star is time’s stillness a knot of time.
Bachelard wrote: “Poetry (the work of art)… can only be more than life by immobilizing life…. It’s in order to construct a complex instant, to bind numerous simultaneities onto this instant, that the artist destroys the simple continuity of time.”
Farrer’s sinuous, helical abstracts comprise numerous simultaneities; fixing the instant, they enable us to perceive the simultaneous images of existence: her art represents both the ideal and the existential. Her panels are somewhere between sculpture and painting. Their colours are svelte, subtle and, though seemingly hard-edged, what strikes me is their softness: they are hard soft objects. They are carefully and deftly delineated; the colours flow imperceptibly into each other. Precise as they are, they exhibit a sense of mysteriousness, their whirling geometries spilling their energies from their open ends like spiral galaxies. They are linked coils of energy. The energy that went into making them is recapitulated by the energy potential of the images. If they’d been made a hundred years ago we might call them Vorticist, though they’re composed of curves rather than sharp lines and wedges of force. I’d say they share a kinship with Naum Gabo’s linear and spiral constructions: complex, economical, elegant.
With their ornate curves and twirls, the Rococo Variations present another dimension of the bundled energy motif. Here the shapes are stretched and elongated, become abstractions of the upright human figure or, in the case of the horizontal Variation II, the reclining figure, expressed in Arabicinspired calligraphic swirls. Just as handwriting, the Russian Cubo-Futurists proclaimed, is a component of the poetic impulse, so the stretched calligraphic signs of these Variations express the poetics of painting. I find in Julia Farrer’s work an intense poetic response to both the structural and human imagery of our lives.
Text by Robert Vas Dias