Bliss Talks: Emily Allchurch 'Painting with Pixels'

Bliss Talks: Emily Allchurch 'Painting with Pixels'

Exhibit title:
James Freeman Gallery
2nd - 25th November 23'

Emily Allchurch’s collaged worlds capture atmosphere. Using historical works of art as templates or inspiration, she pieces together her photographs of the world around her, creating contemporary narratives within historical scaffolding. The historical works provide a framework for Allchurch’s own creativity to emerge: ‘I follow in the footsteps of the Old Master, finding my own voice along the way.’ Each piece is approached differently, some with a strict composition to follow and others with an inspired aesthetic. Her Tower of Babel series is an example of the former. Inspired by Pieter Bruegel’s painting of the same name, Allchurch finds contemporary examples of the architecture and motifs in the original painting, using it as a map and a guide. Through the construction, a new story is revealed.

‘The Old Testament story of ‘The Tower of Babel’ has been used by artists throughout the centuries as a lens to discuss their own times. Bruegel used the motif to respond to the religious unease he witnessed in 16th century Antwerp.’ Allchurch’s 2015 version, investigates the ‘architectural hubris’ of the London property boom. Whilst wondering through the city, Allchurch noticed an excess of half-built constructions and posters signalling ‘new luxury apartments,’ the centre of the city awash with fresh developments. She therefore decided to depict the capital as a monumental building site, with the shiny new towers on London’s skyline protected by a barricade of hoardings and CCTV surveillance, making them unobtainable to all but a few.

Other works look further afield for their influence. For instance, her Arts Council-funded project ‘Mirrored Cities’ (2019-2021) takes inspiration from Chinese Court painting, as well as 16th century Venetian narrative painting. The series combines imagery from either end of what was the Silk Road, drawing out symmetries and synergies between these historically ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ locations. The idea of depicting these parallel places was inspired by the fictional travel writing of Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’, and had a direct influence on her compositions for Mirrored Cities I and II (2019)

In the book, Marco Polo describes Valdrada to Emperor Kublai Khan as 'two cities: one erect above the lake and the other reflected, upside down… Nothing exists or happens in the first Valdrada that the other does not repeat… every face and gesture is answered in the mirror.’

In these two works Allchurch presents mirrored architectural scenes of Venice and its counterpart locations, Suzhou and Fenghuang, in China, to comment on these places today, once hubs of industry and trade, which now all primarily rely on tourism. The pair will form part of the upcoming group exhibition ‘Unreal’ at James Freeman Gallery, in London, from 2 – 25 November 2023.

More recently, after her move from London to Hastings, Allchurch has become interested in exploring environmental concerns. Her series Closer to Home (2021), was created throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and captured her immediate surroundings of East Sussex. Revisiting her interest in the 19th century Japanese woodblock artist Utagawa Hiroshige’s, ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo’, which she updated through photography in her 2011 Tokyo Story series, for Closer to Home she adopted the same vertical format, but applied it to her own compositions of her home county.

She created a different piece for each month of the year, revealing a gentle overview of time passing through the changing seasons. Instead of only focusing on natural beauty, the contrast of human intervention is visible in these works. Barbed wire, construction signs, detritus from a summer picnic and discarded facemasks are visible, becoming a point of difference to the sublime beauty of landscape. As well as a celebration of nature, this series shows its fragility, the way the man made encroaches and changes the environment, editing and adding in equal measure.

Allchurch originally trained as a sculptor and her way of painstakingly building images reflects this. Time is taken with every piece, each potential building-block turned over and considered. Photography is a material to Allchurch, much like stone or plaster. It is manipulated, smoothed, cut and positioned just-so. Allchurch mentioned how this meticulous process is entirely different from the instant image-making of AI. For her, the making itself is the art, just as much as the final image.

‘I am taking something that was a painting on canvas and then using pixels instead of pigments to recreate it. There is something very painterly about using Photoshop, it is a tool that makes the images feel seamless and believable. I relish the time it takes me; the process is where the learning happens, the building where the narrative emerges.’

Her process begins in the locations she wants to depict. Whether this is wondering through the South Downs or travelling across China, she spends an intense period gathering material with her camera. She absorbs the impression of a place: the architectural details, the landmarks, the feeling emanating from the inhabitants. From this observation, the comment she might want to make about a place or time will reveal itself. Allchurch’s re-configured images reflect the feeling of being in the space rather than an accurate representation of location. As a result, her work buds with atmosphere. They are dream-like spaces: surreal and distorted parts of a well-known landscape. When looking into these portals, recognisable landmarks will glint at the viewer, whilst others are changed and repositioned to create something entirely new. These are works which absorb attention: the eye taking journeys through narrow streets, darkened windows, winding through cliff-tops and searching in the undergrowth. The viewer is encouraged to find their own stories within these pieces, these landscapes and cities blended and altered so we find a new perspective.

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