Paradoxical beauty of toxic minerals

Published Jul 24, 2014


EXTRACT: oil. An exhibition of paintings and drawings by Jeannette Unite at Youngblood gallery until August 3. LUCINDA JOLLY reviews.

“We are walking, talking minerals”, said Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky, Russian scientist.

Abstract surfaces of industrial-sized painted panels and charcoal drawings make up the exhibition Extract by Jeannette Unite.

Sometimes they hold their own and sometimes their particular earthiness merges with the ravaged raw brick walls of the Youngblood gallery. Colours range from a spectrum of pale ochres, off-whites and the blistered black of earlier works to the introduction of dark brights of purply ultramarine and China red a-shimmer with metallic highlights.

The visual content of the panels suggest the shapes of seepages, spillages, stains and water marks. In later works are lists in embossed gold letters spelling out the names of minerals or stock market shares pertaining to precious minerals.

Superficially, and perhaps at first glance, the panels could read as a kind of grainy homage to the transcendent colour fields of Mark Rothko. But Unite’s homage is not to tube locked pigments.

“Tubes are boring,” she says. Her homage is to the alchemy of mined substances such as strontium, pyrite, even gold dust, and her unguarded fascination, understanding and interpretation of them.

The exhibition is held against the background of the concerns around fracking and the unstable political, social and environmental impact of the mining industry in general.

In spite of her intrigue with mined substances, Unite takes a stance. She has made it quite clear to the captains of the mining industry, from which she retrieves the substances that will become her pigments, that she is not a sycophant. But she is deeply fascinated.

She is moved by mining terms, language, the absurd name “tea cup” given to gigantium smelting cups, machinery, by tables and grids, the fire, the hot sweaty process of it all, finding “the industrial sublime sexier than sex”.

Her fascination, however, is coupled with a clear-sighted recognition that “we are all complicit in the cycle of extraction, devastating environmental degradation, global production, social consequence, consumption and waste... it’s an ‘ore-gy’.”

The industry operates on demand and as she says, “we drive it”.

To demonstrate, she unscrews a glass jar and pours a stream of glittering, black sand-like substance on to the lid.

“The most dominant pigment on the planet,” she pronounces like a female incarnation of Merlin.

The black sand is a titanium-iron oxide called ilmenite which when blasted with either chlorine gas or sulphur gas becomes white.

It’s the pigment which has replaced poisonous lead used in everyday white paint.

“It’s the white you see everywhere – it’s beautiful,” she says.

Evidence of our complicity is in the panel titled Admission of Guilt Mineral Revolution of Fracking Cocktail. It comprises three vertical panels in colours associated with diluted blood and ochre.

Unite has used the chemicals involved in the process and embossed the names of the minerals in gold on to the panel’s surface.

The starting point for Extract took place 14 years ago on a long West Coast walk.

Not just any walk. It was a geological walk of the forensic kind in which her then fiancé, a geologist, examined sample pits made by De Beers in the 1960s, four years before Unite was born.

She was fascinated by her fiancé’s total absorption and curious to know its source. It was also a walk that signified the end of one relationship and the beginning of a long-lasting romance with mining matter.

Her expectation of a plant being able to grow in such conditions after all this time was misplaced. Unite understood then that these pits did not go away and the earth did not heal unless supported.

For this particular piece of earth it was too late, but a germination of another kind began for Unite at a time when she was producing abstract paintings and pieces involving sentences.

Although she knew what she had experienced was important, Unite had no idea what to do with it or how to express it. It would take another five years for the drawing titled Earthscars: Text Response, a seminal artwork to the process which gave rise to this exhibition.

We meet at Unite’s studio. Its outside walls are a blaze of intensely saturated ultramarine. The studio is a curious combination of old world grand – large mirrors, banquet-tall candlesticks and delicate, spindly legged Rococo-styled tables, and photographs and art works of modern mining and extraction.

The entrance hall has a wall of cubbyholes housing the solid mined substances that make up the elemental table.

There is a scatter of artworks in process on tables, and glass pieces, paintings and drawings cover the walls. Unite’s enthusiasm, passion and curiosity light up the studio in the same way they infuse her work.

Like a contemporary magician she holds in one hand a jagged piece of shiny black volcanic glass we call obsidian, once used by prehistoric man for tools, and a feather-light piece of silicate from the lakes used to filter beer in the other.

She explains that both minerals are found in the gorge in the Great Rift Valley. I have a sudden image of the ancient Egyptian schematic tomb drawings of the weighing of a man’s soul, or was it heart, against a feather.

Unite is not an activist – well, not in the traditional sense, or even in intention, but contextualise her work and the visual outcome opens a space of potential dialogue without the finger-pointing approach.

Look out for Extract: Oil, a series of six charcoal drawings of mammoth machinery rendered in fine but tensile lines which appear to vibrate like some industrial-sized musical instrument and work as a delicate counterpoint to the large panels.

Check this out and experience the tactile beauty of toxicity.

l Call 021 448 1049.

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