Breaking Horizons

Amber Koroluk-Stephenson

PHANTASM review

At a glance, the paintings presented for the exhibition ‘Breaking Horizons’ certainly appear innocent enough. The images evoke feelings of familiarity, perhaps even comfort, leading us to drop our guard.

From the words of Morpheus in the 1999 Sci-Fi film, The Matrix: “You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

You can certainly just take the blue pill of blissful ignorance, believing that this imagery is merely homely decoration- exactly what it seems. If you choose the red pill however, the artist takes you down the rabbit-hols towards Wonderland.

Scene from The Matrix, 1999

“We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.
-Christof

Amber Kuroluk-Stephenson (AKS) presents place as a construction. Alternate elements from alternate sources come together to form a compositional whole. Landscape scenes mix with interior constructs, while an amalgamation of props sit within and against the chosen backdrops. Architectural elements and artefacts range from impossible stairs, room dividers, isolated fences, sandstone blocks, sculptural plinths and designer chairs, to spherical globes, rubber gloves and framed paintings. Every object has a purpose.

The composition plays on contrasts, between natural and artificial, the wild and the domesticated, familiar and unfamiliar, between fiction and reality. The line between interior and exterior is intentionally unclear, the composition often oscillating between two and three-dimensional space. Idyllic landscapes are positioned well out of context; strips of shoreline become structural walls. Stairs lead to nowhere. Perfectly manicured lawn are laid on checkered, mosaic floor, while white picket fences are a barrier to nothing. These methodically considered, deliberately positioned elements share foreground, middle ground and background space; no one object necessarily the focus. The forms are rendered with a semi-familiar realism and sit uncomfortably within unfamiliar environments. As usual with AKS, the perspective is somewhat off, the lighting unnatural, soft, flat. Her choice of hues are pale and pasty, somewhat pastiche of the suburban houses in Edward Scissorhands.

Left : Screen shot of the suburban setting from Edward Scissorhands, 1990
Right: Screen shot from Blue Velvet, 1986

This is a more limited palette and conservative painting style than that of the artist’s previous works; gone are exaggerated contrasts and the use of dark shadow work. Instead, edges and lighting are diffused, considered, delicate. Each object treated to a soft, muted matte finish of intermediate saturation, consisting of paled baby blues, soft pinks, mints, lemons and lavenders. What could be mistaken as a peaceful palette is rather quite unsettling when the subject matter is fully considered. Instead of inheriting qualities of realism, objects posses a surreal, plasticine-like quality, with a sense of artificiality attached. Tranquility quickly dissolves as uncertainty sets in. This isn’t a Tim Burton inspired suburbia, rather, a David Lynch disturbia. 

“There’s no place like home”
-Dorothy Gale

AKS carefully considers her forms to suit her intent. Her choice of compositional design specifically aims to challenge traditional structures of painting, in particular, interrogating “the horizon line as a traditionally European measure of perspective” (1). Conventional European techniques typically stage the land as a centred subject, representing the physical world through a linear line of sight. 

Above: Pietro Perugino, Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter, 1481-1482. (Second image with perspective lines)

AKS understands and addresses the history and politics of Australian art and utilises cultural reference material as contextural weapons. This is highlighted with the inclusion of John Glover imagery, for which has been appropriated and placed throughout several of Amber’s works. Dubbed the father of Australian landscape, Glover romanticised the Tasmanian landscape through a colonists eye, the European born artist ultimately attempted to ”domesticate the foreign landscape by reference to home.” (2) In Amber’s works, framed Glover reproductions prop against European plants and local Australian gum trees, which prop against romanticised (possibly Tasmanian) landscape backdrops. AKS explores a plethora of complexities assertaining to cultural identities and mythological romanticisms surrounding that of the Australian landscape and its depiction, researching “divisions between cultural environments and meanings” (3) in her works.

Top left: John Glover Marchington Woodlands, 1836
Top right: Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, Echo, 2020 (detail)
Bottom left: John Glover, A corroboree of natives in Mills’ Plains, 1832
Bottom right: Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, Circle in the Sky 1, 2020 (detail)

The positioning of these reproductions is calculated and in no way coincidental, (either scattered or propped) nor is the inclusion of artworks by early modernist painter, Hilma af KlintBoth of European origin, Glover and af Klint hold strikingly opposing legacies, one, a male colonist painter, synonymous with realism, figuration and landscape. The other, an innovative female, who’s geometric and patterned works have been posthumously identified as the first examples of Euopean abstraction, pre-dating pioneers such as Wasilly Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. These juxtaposing forces of European influence form a dichotomy of ideas relating to cultural identity, where lingering old structures and worn out tropes, (Glover) intertwine against the limitless visual and formal potential of abstraction. (af Klint) Now, recognisable landscapes and landmarks are cropped, their original meaning cut, familiar architecture, objects and nature are copied and new meanings are pasted. Each piece of imagery carries with it specific meaning. Once a source is divorced from it’s original context, a transformation takes place. 

Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, Circle in the Sky 1, 2020 (detail)

For example, the inclusion of trees native to both countries represents both Australian and European land, two places at once, yet neither. Certain sources link to the past, or have been plucked from contemporary life, each displacement shifting terms of intent to that specific objects as well as facilitating a state of re-reading to the overall allegory. This process of creating non-linear, personalised narratives allows the artist to search for an additional individual sense of identity and belonging. Imagery oscillates between two and three-dimensional space, morphs from the realistic to the artificial, jumps from the past to the present and creates a reciprocity of diverse meanings. Breaking horizons allows AKS freedom to comment on the illusionary nature of painting itself within the context of Australian contemporary art and to openly challenge traditionalist epistemologies of painting. The stage is set. Indeed, we aren’t in Kansas anymore.

“Oh, you can’t get out backwards. You’ve got to go forwards to go back”
-Willy Wonka

Breaking Horizons recognises the importance of the past in regard to contemporary Australian painting, never forgetting to consider Australia’s identity as a shifting, shared notion, who’s understandings are in a constant state of flux. Including references to that of Hilma af Klint (in contrast to that of Glover), not only “shifts terms of reference between different culture and history”, (4) but also speaks of what is missing within Australia’s cultural histories. This is primarily evident with the appropriation of af Klint’s Swan series from 1915. The swan, a species inhabiting both northern and southern hemispheres, is a symbol of high spiritual value, prominently used in both Australia and Europe. In alchemy, the swan represents necessary opposites, underscoring the qualities of light and dark, male and female, life and death.

In af Klint’s The Swan no.1, black and white images of ‘yin/ yang’ swans float against a mirrored background to convey the idea that contrary forces are in fact, complimentary. The canvas is broken into two contrasting sections; the horizon line potentially occurs over and over. A sparatic use of soft yellow and light blue on each swans beak both yearns for harmony between the sexes or confirms the struggles of union. The beaks meet in the centre of the composition where the horizon line breaks, opposing forces again, compliment and contradict, as the union of opposites or representational antagonism. In Swan no. 2, We see the dissolution of representational work morph into abstract form, one swan looks back to the past, the other looks towards the future. Simple, yet symbolic.

Left: Hilma af Klint, The Swan no. 1, Group IX/SUW, 1915
Middle: Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, Echo, 2020 (detail)
Right: Hilma af Klint: The swan no. 2, Group IX/SUW, 1915

If we consider af Klints The Swan no. 17, figuration gives way to abstraction and symbolic power completely. Harmonious, sliced circles float centrally within a flat colour field, not dissimilar to the ‘target’ design works created some 40 years later by Jasper Johns.

Left: Hilma af Klint, The Swan no. 17, Group IX/SUW, 1915
Right: Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, Circle in the Sky II, 2020 (detail)

Swan no. 17 and similar works of this series are compiled with feminine touch and a soft, considered palette when compared to the machismo aesthetic and drive that later came to prominance throughout the early 20th century. Af Klint‘s examples show us that history is unbound, new paths and understandings, unrestrained. Similarly to af Klint, AKS explores the possibilities that go beyond the visible, using symbolism to convey complex allegory. She appropriates imagery from af Klint’s repertoire (predominantly, the swan for which holds strong personal significance) and combines these with her own distinct motifs, such as the glove prop: transformation, or checkered floor: duality. (5)

Above left:Aphrodite riding swan, date unknown.
Above right: black/ white checkered floor, Currier and Ives, The masonic chart, 1876 

For the artist, this domestic glove has always represented the worn out gender roles and constraints previously placed on female artistic achievement. Generally limp, the figure symbolises the death of a stereotype and a desire for change. In the kaleidoscope like works Encounter I & II and Gaze I & II (2020), gloves and swans combine to form symbols of transformation. The colour palette is reminiscent of that used by af Klint in Swan no. 1 & no. 2, the male/ female symbols clearly apparent. 

Above left & right: Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, Encounter I &II, 2020
Below left & right: Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, Gaze I & II, 2020

In Dividing Light I & II, (2020) swans transform into designer bentwood chairs in front of four cropped landscapes. The picture is accentuated with a light maya blue, soft pink and light cadmium yellow checkered boarder. The statement is made: af Klint’s designs should not be “depicted as mere decoration.” (6)

Above left & right: Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, Dividing Light I & II, 2020

“It’ll be just like in the movies. Pretending to be somebody else.”
-Betty Elms

Glover and af Klint are not the only sources of reference and inspiration, Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte feature heavily when considering Breaking Horizons. AKS mirrors Italian artist de Chirico in form and intent, particularly echoing ideas the artist produced throughout his metaphysical period from 1909. Here, de Chirico uses sharp contrasts of light and shadow in almost threatening ways to assign recognisable objects and surfaces conceptual value beyond their simple aesthetic. The glove motif epitomises this, most notably in The Love Song. The glove is un-flesh like and limp with no life, paired with a mannequin head and ambiguous spherical ball. The uncanny union of dissimilar objects within an unknown setting creates an atmosphere of anxiety, a mood of menace and melancholy. He explores the implication of human presence in spaces that are devoid of it, “painting that which cannot be seen.”(7)

Above left: Giorgio de Chirico, The Love Song, 1914
Below right: Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, Circle in the Sky III, 2020
(detail)

AKS mirrors de Chirico’s system of assembling incongruous objects together that do not otherwise belong, expressing something of the reality she sees hidden beyond outward appearance. Just like de Chirico, she displaces and acquaints, using the glove motif, the spherical ball of ambiguity, empty plinths and other uncanny assemblages to create a dislocation in time and space, leading us into a false sense of security.

Above: Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, Echo, 2020

One of Amber’s most effective symbolic devices is the painting within a painting technique. De Chirico utilised this technique in his work, The Great Metaphysical Interior from 1917, where a claustrophobic room houses several paintings, the images of which reference the artist’s appreciation of classical architecture and designs of the past. The artist suggests themes of nostalgia, sorrow and disorientation in recognising that the clash of the past and present produces incongruent results.

Above: Giorgio de Chirico, The Great Metaphysic Interior, 1917

Just like de Chirico before him, René Magritte employs the same technique throughout his oeuvre. The Belgian surrealist rarely gave us a traditional landscape or figure, rather, presents us the uncanny. In his landscapes, he would often use a balistrade, section of wall or window- a threshold to cross, the viewpoint often placed indoors looking outside into the unknown. Magritte makes us aware of indoor and outdoor spaces, ultimately challenging art observers pre-conditioned perceptions of reality.

In The Human Condition I, (1933) the landscape image depicted on the easel matches the ‘actual’ landscape behind. So the question arises: “if we take the canvas away, will there be a hole in the landscape?” (8)
In the 1935 work, The Human Condition II, the artist teaches us that what we are looking at is in fact a painting of a landscape, not really a landscape. He wrote:” we see it [the world] as being outside ourselves, although it is only a mental representation of it that we experience inside ourselves. In the same way we sometimes situate in the past a thing which is happening in the present. Time and space thus lose that unrefined meaning which is the only one everyday experience takes into account.”(9) 

Above left: René Magritte, The Human Condition I, 1933
Above right: René Magritte, The Human Condition II, 1935

This logic is evident in Evening Falls, (1964) which reveals what we see through the window is not real landscape, rather, a painted image, mere representation. The glass containing the landscape image shatters along with our reality.

Above: Above: René Magritte, Evening Falls, 1964

Above: Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, Circle in the Sky I, II & III, 2020

AKS echoes the surrealist ethos of providing thought-provoking, non-linear imagery to inform her conceptual drive. She acknowledges these strategies and philosophies executed by de Chirico and Magritte, her arrangements blur the boundaries between pictorial and representational space. Similarly to Magritte, she paints the implications of an object, structure or landscape. Her subjects are real, but not real at all. The key here is perhaps the spaces in between, the things not included, the meaning beyond the frame. What is absent or out of sight; what has been omitted or overlooked by the mainstream. How the artist feels alienated in existential ways and her place of belonging in an ever-changing world becomes apparent. The initial idyllic facade shatters on true inspection, now, a sense of distress concearning modern life and a defiance of social conformity rears it’s head. The further you look, the further you are from where you want to be. Just like Alice, we are tumbling down the rabbit hole. 

Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, Breaking Horizons I, II & III, 2020

“Building a dream from your memory is the easiest way of losing your grasp on what’s real and what is a dream”
-Dom Cobb

Amber’s images are reminiscent to that of the dream experience, everything makes sense at the time of the dream, yet feels scattered and even absurd upon waking reality. While masters such as Dalí focus on the unconscious, (paranoic critical method) AKS is wide awake, her deliberate arrangements methodical in their consistency. Her paintings have the fragmented feel of actual dreams,” the imagery habitually depicts “flashes of partly recalled, barely understood imagery whose meaning is just out of reach.” (10) 

Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, Breaking Horizons Installation view

AKS certainly creates her own alternate, dream-like worlds, where concepts of logic are briefly suspended in time and space. Shimmers of the familiar briefly shine through, weaving in and out of the narrative between troubled geographical distinctions and purposely loaded symbols .

The picture planes are impossible. A carefully considered optical illusion disrupting, mimicking and fragmenting reality. This is uncanny and tense; something is about to happen but we aren’t sure exactly what and it is easy to get swept away with the undertow of pervading melancholy swirling under the surface.

Amber Koroluk-Stephenson, Breaking Horizons Installation view

It isn’t all doom and gloom, ambiguity and deep symbolism allows optimism- AKS strives to be an agent of change. Her objective: liberating the shifting credit attributed to that of female artistic achievement. Amber acknowledges the past, remains lucid in the present and looks forward towards new horizons. Always evolving in her intimate introspections, she writes her own script using her art as a stage or theatre set, props of which have percolated in the recesses of her mind. Breaking Horizons pulls back the curtain and invites us backstage.

PHANTASM review


1. Burke, Eliza (October, 2018) Middleground. Retrieved August 02, 2020, Exhibition review for Bett Gallery Hobart

2. Hanson, David (2005) John Glover and the Colonial Picturesque, Tasmanian School of Art in Picturing the Wilderness Symposium

3. Burke, Eliza (October, 2018) Middleground. Retrieved August 02, 2020, Exhibition review for Bett Gallery Hobart

4. Burke, Eliza (October, 2018) Middleground. Retrieved August 02, 2020, Exhibition review for Bett Gallery Hobart

5. The mosaic pavement in an old symbol of the Order, representational of the ground floor of King Solomon’s Temple. It is emblematic of human life, checkered with good and evil. Its party-colored stones of black and white have been readily and appropriately interpreted as symbols of the evil and good of human life.

6.  Hawthorne, Lucy (July 2020) Breaking Horizons, retrieved 10 August, 2020

7. Conway Morris, Roderick (9 February 2007). “De Chirico: Painting landscapes of the mind”International Herald Tribune. Retrieved August 2020 

8. Gottlieb, Carla. From the Window of God to the Vanity of Man. A Survey of Window Symbolism in Western Painting. New York: Abaris, 1981

9. Quoted in Torczyner, Harry, Magritte: Ideas and Images. New York, 1977.

10. Harper, Andrew (2016) It’s hard to look away, TasWeekend, The Mercury, April 2-3, 2016 p.21 Exhibition review for Outside the Garden Wall, Bett Gallery, Hobart