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Exhibition Review October 2023 Nelson New Zealand

Linda Dimitrievski

Visual arts graduate of visual arts, NMIT Nelson, Arts writer and practising artist

Capturing what Cannot be Captured

An existential exploration in two acts

Karen Sewell

ATELIER Studio|Gallery 7 Oct – 11 Nov, 2023

Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland based artist Karen Sewell is exhibiting her first solo show, since returning from exhibiting in Venice. Capturing what Cannot be Captured is hosted by Whakatū Nelson’s ATELIER Studio|Gallery and I must admit to being somewhat star struck. 

As you turn the bend in the stairs leading up to the gallery you are met by the rich, deep blue of Over the Waters, peeking through the curved window. Set against freshly painted, dark purple walls it draws you in, calls you to tumble through the night sky. Next to it, visibly imposing as you enter the gallery proper, is Red Morning, a sensory assault rushing off the wall to engulf you. These large paintings work in tandem, pushing and pulling to hold your attention. Large orbs suspended in the vast sky over monochrome Tasman landscapes, intense in both hue and size. Still, it is the smaller ‘Whisper’ paintings that capture my imagination. With a softer, graduated palette interspersed with shapes of solid colour they speak of those times of day when anything seems possible. The times between, the neither here nor there but teetering on the cusp of anything. A liminal space when, and where, the mind can’t help but wander towards the mysterious.

But we are not invited to soar just yet. Versed in utilizing the entirety of the available space Sewell has added an olfactory element to the experience. A rich, earthy infusion rises from the floor, anchoring you in the physical world. We may stare into infinity in Whisper Daybreak as dawn blurs the edges of reality but, as of yet, we are firmly grounded. It is only as we walk towards the main gallery space that our feet begin to lose touch with terra firma and we’re lifted into the heavens. 

I was always the one with my head in the clouds. I would jokingly claim that my bare feet helped keep me in the world, but it was not said without a kernel of truth. I learnt early on that letting your mind wander too far was frowned upon in a society where the tangible rules. The second act of Sewells installation, unlike my younger self, does not ask anyone's permission to travel among the stars. It scoops you up and deposits you on a planet of your choice or, if you prefer, on an interstellar wind. A collection of spheres, Stardust, dot the bright space, some lifted high on brass framework, others lined up on low shelving. A number of photograms hover on the walls above and around, with this astronomical imaginarium topped off with a mirror sphere descending from the ceiling. Although the individual pieces are stationary there is movement, a stately dance of heavenly bodies where the many aspects are in continuous dialogue with each other. A light, airy infusion weaves through the air, intermingling with the gentle soundscape sourced from NASA. It invokes a sense of vastness, touching the untouchable. Here we are invited to consider the mysteries and reach for the intangible. 

Sewell’s attention to detail is what makes this experience. She forms each orb by hand, in the tradition of Japanese Hikaru Dorodango, or earth dumplings as they are affectionately referred to, before coating them with different minerals and pigment. The soil, clay and sand have been gathered by the artist throughout the region, creating the connection between the spheres of heaven and earth, Papatuanuku and Rangi. For the paintings she has used locally sourced dirt to create pigment, grounding her work in the place it depicts. Equal thought and care have been taken with the photograms, a process where objects are placed on photographic paper and exposed without the use of a camera house. Numinous Spheres were captured at dawn, painted by the rising sun. Utilizing polystyrene balls from a DIY planetarium the artist has created images reminiscent of early astro photography. Flat black field surrounding crisp white circles. Shading within the circles gives it form which, paired with the flatness, again has us hovering in the in-between. The photogram series are centred around the left-most image, presumably the sun, and invokes an almost childlike joy while contemplating the universe.

For art historians there are references to be uncovered as well, further testament to Sewell’s commitment to her art. Drawing on her knowledge she brings western symbolic tradition into the present using her own contemporary expression. In this conversation with the past, she creates a framework within which the exploration of the numinous finds its starting point, albeit not the complete roadmap. 

This exhibition is, to this participant, all about the afore mentioned liminal space, where we are on the cusp of the mundane and the awesome. Sewell effortlessly moves between the two in what seems an intuitive understanding and connection with both. Moreover, she is able to translate this into tangible work that allows us as viewers to take part, to safely visit that space ourselves and tap into the wondrous. There is a particular spot in the hallway between the two galleries where the rich fragrance of the earth still clings to you, yet your eyes are already taken by the stars. In that spot, all seems possible.

Artist Statement

Capturing what Cannot be Captured

Sewell’s works explore relationships between form, colour, light, space, aroma, and sound contributing to conversations on connections between abstraction and spiritual experience. The work seeks to evoke the unfathomable mystery and beauty of cosmic phenomena, and act as a potential threshold into the terrain of the *numinous. The exhibition includes the use of spherical and circular forms in painted, sculptural and photographic works that reflect artist Karen Sewell’s interest in celestial bodies and sacred geometries. Capturing what cannot be captured was inspired by symbolic motifs in prints of 15th century Jesuit artists who depicted circular orbs, natural light-giving bodies, cosmic or celestial to signify the divine. This motif can also be found in a 16th century painting by Johannes Vermeer who was inspired by these earlier artists.                    

Sewell’s foregrounding of the everyday materials of her works’ construction also suggests moments of access between the material and the intangible. Paintings are made from pigments, local nelson soil and thousands year old water drawn from a North Island natural spring. Sewell makes her paint herself using natural and synthetic pigments, soil, powdered marble and binder medium.


Photographic works are photograms made in the darkroom and lumen prints made at the dawn of day. These recast found and everyday materials (polystyrene balls from a do-it-yourself set of our solar system and glass paperweights) as celestial bodies hovering in deep space. The resulting compositions evoke the cosmos, and for some, perhaps the earliest representations of our solar system. 

Sculptures, Hikaru dorodongos (earth dumplings) are an ancient Japanese art form and made from local Nelson soil, sand, clays, straw, pigments and encaustic wax.  The process of these works construction is slow and often meditative, a quality that Sewell enjoys. Dorodango’s can take anywhere from two weeks to a month to complete the hand polished, gilded or sealed surface. The hanging mirrored glass sculptural object has been created using a found object (glass globe) that has been hand-treated to a layered antiquing process.  

The sound component in this installation is created from NASA Voyager recordings made in deep space around the planets and moons of our solar system. This information, when sent back to Earth and decoded, can be heard as enigmatic and intriguing sounds from space – the music of the spheres. Sewell’s interest in levitation, a quality suggested by her suspension of forms appearing to hover in space, is influenced by ideas of ascension and transcendence, and conduits between the material and ethereal realms. She aspires to draw viewers’ attention to look and think beyond the material – and into the realm of feeling – in order to experience the possibilities of wonder.

For the aromatic component of Capturing what cannot be captured, (and its accompanying Nelson Arts Festival exhibition Luminary, presenting in the Nelson Cathedral 19 - 29 October) Sewell has commissioned and collaborated with Auckland based artist Juanita Madden Madden trained in the art of scent at Grasse Institute of Perfumery France, her work offers the experience of fragrance, and it's interaction with memory and the body.

Karen Sewell, Tamaki Makaurau Auckland, September 2023

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