Sharon Singer is an award winning Dunedin based visual artist. Her work is held in private and public collections in New Zealand and internationally. She has worked with fairy tales and myth as the subject of her paintings since 2000, Invoking concerns such as narrative and meta-fictional awareness. In more recent years her work has addressed the themes of Global warming, the Earths spiritual meaning and consumer value, either as a vast mystery or a source of consumable resources. Underpinning all is an interest in the human condition in relationship to nature.
Scott Flanagan is an Artist/Poet living in Port Chalmers.
I read that one out of every ten Americans has dreamed of nuclear missiles shooting across a starry sky.
Roberto Bolaño, The Spirit of Science Fiction, Picador, 2019
If emotions are curbed clouds may disappear.
“I ate all my teeth this morning,” two young girls lean into each other obliquely (Friends, 2019), wandering down a country path sharing some private joke that maybe as absurd as that statement circulating in my head after I notice that one of the young girls is carrying a necklace of dried shrunken heads; it is more than just absurd—it is surprisingly funny, so very pertinent to this day, this great agglomerate of jostling confusions, outright lies and mendacity, the occasional moment of piquant reflection or any of the all-mind-bending realities that are the composite of being alive on the creaking edge of some immanent revelation or failure of the human experiment—this is some of how I feel being around the art of Sharon Singer.
There is a strong argument to be made discussing the Bureaucratisation of contemporary art practice. We now mark three decades of so-called “user pays” tertiary education, something has metastasised in Fine Arts departments around the country as per the globe. It is not simply a haunting by Veblen’s book Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), it is an actual instigation of his prescient wisdom; codified symbolic economic participation is made available, despite class origins, to all and any potential participant, on condition that the participant first pays for the privilege of being a contender by assuming debt.
It can sound like the opening refrain of a Fairy Tale, but there was a time when Artist’s placed some pressure against society, it is well documented and discussed. Now is not one of those times. Now is a time where powerful, self-interested actors are placing a lot of pressure against artists and as a collective we artists buckled, sincerely and quickly without even a whimper.
One of the gorgeous, generous contradictions that circulate around the bureaucratisation of art is that the shear weight of numbers, the dense mass of people “graduating from recognised tertiary providers”, this imbrication of potential obscures the very same necessary potential that art requires to evolve along the same continuum as its parent host; and the Idea is showing cracks
—One Hundred years later and Duchamp’s witticisms, become de rigure, are too thin a veneer to hide the Unqualität of art practice.
Sharon Singer is perfectly timed and sits across the cusp of some soon to become change. And Singer’s work is in part an answer to a question (it certainly felt to be more than mere rhetoric, conveyance) proffered by Edward Hanfling (a new migrant to this mythical place from which I write, that place south of an outpost): ‘why don’t they just make paintings, with humility, sincerity and a modicum of pictorial invention?’*
*Art New Zealand, No.125, Summer 2008-2009, Exhibitions—Auckland
Attempting to ascertain if Singer is a ‘good’ painter or not is to miss the resonance issuing from her work. Earlier in her studies, while still an undergraduate in the North Island where Singer completed her Bachelors of Visual Art and Design, Eastern Institute of Technology ,Napier 2001, one can see how the paint is worked to the point that all hues and tones pivot into each other in ways smoother than a scumbler would find satisfactory. There was a conscious and concise effort to integrate mid-, fore- and back-grounds, to have the painted plane cohere; this is a base-camp art students seem to pass through and the middens surrounding them are testament to the shear bureaucratic weight of artistic pursuit being generated by this latest manifestation of a leisure class.
Something certainly changed for Singer when she drifted South (past Christchurch) and entered a Masters programme at Dunedin School of Art, 2005. Bringing with her a strong foundation of studio practice developed during her undergraduate studies in Hastings, an academic interest in the role Fairy Tales have in social constructs, and a unique relationship with one of the leading scholars in the field of Children’s Literature, Dr. Jack Zipes, Professor of German at the University of Minnesota.
It is worth mentioning that it was not a definitive change in ability, not in anyway. The traces of the earlier Singer are still very evident in the work that was to develop during, and especially after her Masters degree. I think the change is one that happens to all artists persistent enough to keep opening that studio door, to keep diligently crossing that threshold. It is a change in confidence. And this is quite difficult to view on the canvass, without having actually experienced this change oneself.
I first noticed it in singers painting Industrial Candy Croc (2016), where the jaundiced discharge coming from the factory in the background, just where it is emitted from the chimney stacks, how this discharge was portrayed was manifestly inconsistent with how the paint has been applied throughout the rest of the picture plane. It caused me to stop and shake my head and wonder ‘why would someone make such a critical error as to allow this lumpy paint to agitate against its cohort’? But this is the exact site that the confidence resides! To leave that lumpy yellow in such an obvious, incoherent state is a courageous vindication of trust in ones intuition. More so than the pink crocodile, or the day-glowed faces of the two adolescents, or the brown holes in the atmosphere, the carefully rendered perspective of the imposing industries, arrayed along the horizon line (telling a story of inevitable replication as it recedes over that very same line,) all the gathered narrative threads of this work would have failed miserably if Singer had chose to render the yellow spume in the hushed, soft brushwork that makes up the majority of the picture plane. This is the confidence that I am attempting to address. The one aspect that makes it most unsettling is the one aspect that allows it to so generously succeed: and one cannot think their way to this conclusion in the studio, one can only trust that those decisions, that seem in appearance arbitrary (stop now!), will out.
[There] are some comparisons in the art world that will fit around Singers work. The first and obvious is Seraphine Pick, whom looms large over the continuing development of painters from the nineties forwards. But saying that, Picks overt sexuality is something more hidden in Singers work and the comparison is like that of Angus to Mayo. I will draw attention also to what is not there, apropos there is not the studied naivety of say, Saskia leek, or the wilfully ‘bad art’ of that generation circling around De la Tour and Dan Arps and Nick Austin.
A case can be made of the recent paintings at St Paul Street gallery, in an exhibition titled “Two oceans at once”, by the artist Ayesha Green, of some adorable Maori kids dressed up as princess, prince, and knight of the realm. Fairy tales can be useful in the contextual fulcrum as we all settle down to an immanent decolonised future. The implicit korero is engaging between the two artists.
Likewise, James Bellaney’s methodology nests cleverly and closely with Singers, I especially think of the creation myth panels at the plaza entrance to the Dunedin City Council chambers.
I’m particularly interested in a conversation that is both material and psychological between Singer and an Irish artist, Genieve Figgis. currently doing well in NY City.
Among the various motifs that Singer distributes through her works—pet transporter; crocodile; astronaut; pink flamingo; albino deer; meteor/ite; basketball sneakers; young dark-haired girl; volcanoes; parrots; birds; fecund nature—one that resists being made structural, being rendered anthropomorphically, being assigned sign and therefore through gestural application being codified a symbol, is an emotion I often associate when viewing Singers work, it is that of being startled! I am often shocked or surprised, and I have come to associate a visit to Singers studio with a heightened emotional sate, the intellect creeping along sooner or later. Odin’s Wood (2018), particularly encapsulates this emotion. It is there, present a mere fraction of a second before viewing the painting, something makes the picture plane aware and tense, and that is what we view, a moment just prior to that moment when everything is aware and the hurried frenzy of motion changes every instant thereafter. It is 8:15:59am, 6 August, 1945 and the entire living organism that makes up the vast panoply of life on this planet has this premonition. That is what actually exists in Odin’s Wood.
The fecund garden—that proscenium arch apparent in Tongues Do Wag (2017) —the verdant belt between the bruised and graying background sky and the mercurial fore-ground spotted with hematomas; the garden constructed of human imagination as has been tradition from the deserts of Persia to the Ha Ha’s of Hanoverian England through to our own hyper-real arboreal jungles cascading through Malls around the privileged nations. The garden, nature, gives life to our world, where that other of the consistently recurring motifs, the meteor (and its attendant conclusion, the Meteorite!, also nature), reminds us of death and unavoidable immanent change. Singers garden, though pastiche, carries with it the fear of nature inherent to us all, that fear which may have been a pertinent factor in how fairy tales developed from an oral story telling of peasants to become instructional records of memory for middle and upper-middle class children.
Is it likely that the title of this painting refers to the parrots arrayed along with the three figures? The parrots, parroting all the small stories, the little lies we tell ourselves to feel better about just “being a part of nature”, instead of the heroic Biblical narrative of command and conquer. It is a painting for our time, a painting that portends an immense change, a change that is unknown much like the figure on the right, shrouded and obscure, there though vague, a transhuman element, something that has evolved from crocodiles and a biomedical experiment lost control of because we lost control of the environment in general because we thought we could, our hubris. The young girl, with her gypsy-fair headdress, staring straight at the viewer, engaging us to sit at the table, to hear what the parrots are saying, to hear the lowly murmur of the liveried sailor whispering shanties and rhymes of mariners, to participate in the gossip of the age, because that is what we humans are good at, standing back as calamity reigns, chatting blithely with our neighbour about some inanity while the wealth of the nations pour from the table we’ve set and are set upon by voracious, carnivorous seagulls, themselves on the edge of extinction.
The denouement which transforms Singers work form merely didactic transposition of already well understood fairy tales towards something like a science fiction hybrid (akin to Atwood) is a motif replicated throughout many of Singer’s signature works, is the meteor (or is that meteorite?). That harbinger of change that has literally transformed this world multiple times in its existence. To remind us all of our conceits, to remind us that no amount of bureaucratic wrangling will protect us from being an actual part of existence.
One of the great appeals about Singers work is that the fatalism of contemporary society is disbursed obliquely, it is perverse and so difficult to perceive, as the fatalism is one of hope for the Human. Singer indicates that as we are of the environment (about as anti-modernist as one can get) then let us relinquish our ill-perceived control and try to discover what place we have left within the enormous changes underway.
Sharon Singer is represented by The Artist Room, Dunedin.