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May 8 to June 9, 1991

Fragile Existence

Roberta Sutherland

Our prolonged abuse of land, air and water has brought the earth to a crisis of survival. The forces of nature are being turned against itself through the corrupting impact of “civilization.” The deserts of Africa are growing, animal species are lost daily, and the tropical rainforests are being cleared and burned for the sake of pastureland which is virtually useless after three years. Our avarice is slowly killing us.

Roberta Sutherland’s work deals with these same issues of environmental protection through exploration of prehistoric imagery. At a time when civilization has reached its most advanced and environmentally destructive stage, she has chosen to investigate the most primitive forms known in the history of painting.

Her work is intended to carry us back to a time when we existed at a very elemental level. Dealing primarily with animal imagery based on the Palaeolithic cave paintings of Lascaux, Fontgaume and Cap Blanc, Roberta Sutherland attempts to rediscover the inextricable bond between Mother Earth and the creature which inhabit it. To Sutherland they also represent a powerful record of the first ways of seeing and the beginnings of visual expression.

Sutherland has spent a great deal of time in Spain and Southwestern France studying these ancient paintings, and has learned to capture the essential colour and mood of the originals. By concentrating on these images she hopes to raise a sense of concern for the environment and to create a sympathetic awareness of its fragile nature. Unfortunately, the cave paintings, like the earth itself are suffering from the effects of humanity. Deterioration is being accelerated by exposure to artificial lighting, necessitated by the tourist trade, and by air-borne pollutants.

The cave paintings which act as prototypes for Sutherland’s work represent artistic expression manifest for the sole purpose of perpetuating life. The religious/shamanistic value of the originals testify to the desire for survival, whether one believes in the theory that they were created as part of a rite intended to bring success in the hunt, or that they were made in supplication to the “life force” for the perpetuation of the animal species upon which humanity was dependent. The elemental nature of the work, its textures, colours and patterns evoke a sense of life, harmony and regeneration.

Working with acrylic paint and gouache on paper, Sutherland achieves a layer of transparent and opaque elements which recall the spirit of their prototypes. Palaeolithic artists used the shape of the cave walls to determine the number of images positioned in a particular space, arranging the animals in various combinations without regard to portion or horizon. The animals were always interconnected and images were painted over with sections showing through. This interlacing of figure echoes the need for coexistence and careful nurturing of the environment, and reinforces our understanding of the interdependence of life forms. The paint was applied by blowing dry pigments onto the moistened surface of the wall through a hollowed section of bone. The pigments were drawn from the earth and were comprised primarily of ochre, red oxides and raw titanium, literally lending the work the richness of earth tones.

A sense of movement is translated to images through line and gesture, representing very refined powers of observation. Sutherland writes: ”I am convinced our ancestors knew an aspect of life we have forgotten. They experienced themselves in balance with nature, part of a great continuum. This is evident in the accurate gestures, the direct and vital energy this Palaeolithic art conveys. I observed the majority of animals to be pregnant. Fertility was valued; life was sacred.”

Her animal images are somewhat generalized, reminding us of the loss which has already been sustained, and act as a warning for us to be mindful of the future. Essentially Roberta Sutherland is creating art which demonstrates a respect for the tenuous nature of existence.

Lynn Beavis, Curatorial Assistant, Kamloops Art Gallery

Two Rivers Gallery > Experience Art > Past Exhibitions > 1991 > Roberta Sutherland: Fragile Existence

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