Stepping into Robyn Penn’s exhibition is a celestial experience as you find yourself surrounded by depictions of clouds. Everywhere you look around the Barnard Gallery are floaty white suspended entities. She comes at this subject through a variety of mediums and processes. It’s the oil paintings that invite your gaze. Large canvases are dedicated to this ambiguous natural phenomenon.
Superficially, she appears to conform to painterly representations of clouds. It helps that she is a superb painter, able to capture the soft contours and infuse the paintings with all the subtle tones used to describe and highlight this white, ephemeral matter. Indeed in paintings such as Goya’s Cloud, she pays tribute to the masters whose renderings she admires and mimics.
Clouds have been a recurring motif in art. However, they have functioned as understated or peripheral elements to evoke the heavens and describe the unseen world of gods, angels or the dead living parallel to the living, observing them from a great height, judging them even.
Penn subtly disrupts this tradition in her exhibition, Paradise Lost, though through her art, she too aims to weigh in on humankind’s activities. She is not so much interested in paying homage to the art canon than she concerned with touching on nostalgia – alluded to in the title. What is this ‘paradise’ at the centre of this elegiac exhibition? It is not the erosion of the tradition of painting she mourns – as she demonstrates that can be revived with a brushstroke.