As I wandered through Vera Möller‘s new exhibition on a warm Brisbane afternoon, it seemed a mask and flippers might have been more appropriate attire than the street clothes I was wearing. Möller‘s latest suite of paintings, the largest of which (the Slow Indigo of the exhibition title) is over 4 metres in length, has transformed Philip Bacon Gallery’s upstairs space into an aquarium-like experience. At any moment you expect a tropical fish or other marine creature to emerge from behind one of the transparent layers of paint. Working with a limited palette of primary colours in a range of tones that unsurprisingly includes the indigo of the title, these striking canvases instantaneously transport the viewer into Möller‘s undersea world.
Always fascinated with life below the sea, Möller is well known for her artistic career in various media and, in particular, for her sculptural installations and related two-dimensional representations of simulated biological hybrids. The outcome of a residency at Heron Island on Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef, these paintings retain some of the surreal and science fiction elements of the past, but favour a more abstract representation.
The room is radiant with colour. In addition to the anchoring tones of blue-approaching-black, Möller employs contrasts in swathes of creamy pale yellow, bursts of red, folds of orange and the occasional splash of green. Some individual paintings like the trio of Zinobara, Zanzibara and Nerovolo disclose less ‘real’ features, but in this sweeping display the viewer becomes convinced that these scenes, always teetering on the imaginary, are dreamy underwater stills of living organisms and ocean ecosystems. Captured in fictional slow moving currents, the paint is leisurely dragged in a performance of upward movements, left to right, right to left, bottom to top suggesting that the ocean, rather than the hand of the artist, is responsible for their creation.
A member of a growing international (but mostly unofficial) group of women artists whose work is concerned with overlaps between nature, technology and human intervention, German-born Möller is a trained scientist and microbiologist. In the context of its showing in Queensland, this exhibition is both topical and quietly political given the numerous current threats to the Great Barrier Reef from climate change, illegal fishing, coastal development and mining as the fight continues to protect it for future generations. Möller’s work doesn’t moralise or carry heavy-handed warnings. Instead these gorgeous canvases remind us of the beauty of the submarine world while simultaneously sounding a warning of the dangers of meddling in the natural environment.
Like smaller dioramas within a large theatre, sheer veils of paint hang like curtains from the edges of each canvas alternately disclosing and hiding as much as nature allows us to see, while Möller’s panels of pale yellow – often centred – beckon the viewer further into the painting. If only I had the right gear, perhaps I could swim through to discover what lies beyond.
Vera Möller: Slow Indigo, Tues to Sat 10am-5pm until 2 May 2015, Philip Bacon Galleries, 2 Arthur Street, Fortitude Valley; (07) 3358 3555, philipbacongalleries.com.au