Martin Basher Birds of Paradise | 13 April – 14 May
Martin Basher’s latest solo exhibition at Starkwhite introduces a new body of work to a New Zealand audience. Large-scale paintings build graphic layers of hard-edged and linear botanical shapes into stark, sumptuous forms hovering somewhere between floral still-life — that traditional genre of painting steeped in allegory and moral contemplation — and hybridised, layered abstraction. Incorporating the gradient-based abstractions Basher is best known for, while pushing out into new territories of figuration, the exhibition takes his work into places the artist describes as some of the most ‘pictorially challenging, tenuous, interesting and exhausting I’ve been in for years.’
Basher weathered most of a tumultuous 2020 living and working in New York City, his adopted home for the last 20 years. And this new work has been born of these unstable times. Just as the pandemic saw the foundations of the world were being tested, he says, ‘so too my practice, my understandings of form and surface, of content and really, my very assumptions of the world itself’. Indeed, across this suite of new work, Basher has reached for spaces of pictorial precarity, wrangling images of intense poise and tension, of a tenuous, crystalline depiction of nature that suggests how far we already are from a world of balance and equilibrium.
Though Martin Basher is an unabashed producer of beautiful, incandescent pictures, an undercurrent of unease has long run through his practice, much of it focussed on the gossamer currents of desire and longing that weave together our increasingly consumerist lives. The flip side of all that consumption inevitably runs to its deleterious spiritual effects, and from there, an anxiety, even a grief for all the damage we have visited on the natural world. This is not to say Basher’s work is polemic, however, more that his work holds its subject at remove, framed by our collective imagination and hubris. In this exhibition, Basher remains intently engaged with beauty, but his depictions of nature arrive with a degree of remove, with a sense of memorial to something lost. Basher approaches the still life tradition in a graphic, elegant, and sparse manner, offering black and white landscapes super heated with flaming orange. Across Basher’s canvases a garden of motionless, unreal perfection unfolds. Abstracted stiff, oblong leaves borne on long petioles create strong verticals before the iconic Bird of Paradise erupts, its blue and orange crane-like flower giving the plant a bird-like morphology. Highly stylised and at times almost minimal, these works draw on the tropical Bird of Paradise plant to create botanical silhouettes interrupted by geometric shapes, watery drips and abstract marks. Joined by a selection of his signature, ultra-saturated, hard-edge abstractions and flawless gradients , Basher reflects on cultural as much as natural processes, nodding variously to Ikebana flower arrangement, and to the dystopian speculative fictions of J.G. Ballard.
Basher’s compositions mostly build out of monochrome shapes layered on flat surfaces. Bold contrasts are formed with dark and light and these are punctuated by the closely observed renderings of the Strelitzia flower. But the Ballard-ean, post-apocalyptic tenor of the exhibition here extends to the depiction of these hyper-real elements. Describing the Bird of Paradise as “otherworldly, a signifier of the natural but so alien and perfect,” Basher in fact paints these flowers from cast plastic replicas, not the real thing, adding a further layer of distance between the paintings and the nature they depict.
In her book Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future Elizabeth Kolbert deals with the enormous impact people have on the planet we inhabit and the species we share with it. From ‘assisted evolution’ including efforts to save coral in Hawaii and the Great Barrier Reef to science-fiction like concepts including scattering tiny particles into the air to filter solar radiation and cool the planet, she details how human intervention in the natural world also includes the struggle to repair damage caused by mistakes along the way. Such visionary — or perhaps terrifying — attempts to re-engineer the planet could either end in flames or in a new vision of paradise, Basher’s work seems to suggest.
Martin Basher wishes to convey special thanks to Creative New Zealand, who provided significant fiscal support in the making of this new body of work, with a CNZ COVID Continuity Grant.