Simple Forms for Complex Times

Essay by Penny Grist, 2024

Each day, artist Leeanne Crisp went to her studio some distance from the homestead on a small farm in the Shoalhaven catchment and followed her daily mediation by making one brushstroke. The big brush she used was purchased on a trip to China. The paper lay on the floor. The stroke was red. She mixed the pigments, Quinacridone Red, Magenta, and Rose, fresh with water every day. She has worked with watercolours for more than 40 years. Different colours have dominated her work at different moments in her life.

When I first saw the title of the series, ‘Simple forms, Complex Times,’ that this practice would slowly bring into being over three years, I remembered a 2015 book I was introduced to on a public service course. It was called Embracing Complexity by Jean Boulton, Peter Allen, and Cliff Bowman who give an account of a worldview that has emerged in Western disciplines from physics to ecology to economics (although not unfamiliar concepts to ancient cosmologies across the world) – complexity science or complexity thinking. Emergent from relationships and networks where change occurs constantly and unpredictably, but not chaotically, is how they explain this understanding of the world’s intricately connected systems. In the way that art has of expressing intangible notions of perception and experience, Crisp’s simple forms elegantly and disturbingly embody these ideas.

Some days in her studio a single brushstroke would assert its own immediate completeness. Some days a single brushstroke would join the dried marks of the days before, gradually accumulating towards a form. Splatter from hard wet contact, deep soaking into the paper, islands of bright white, and thin washes of pink, and thick gestural sweeps asserted themselves and their meaning.  The marks felt sometimes like flesh and organs, sometimes like petals or cut agate, sometimes like the sun and moon seen through smoke, and sometimes all of these: Blood, flowers, and sky are one natural form, one complex system, in these works. As these forms gradually appeared in her studio, Crisp experienced drought followed by fires, and the global pandemic.

Crisp’s studio has large windows overlooking a valley. Some days she could see flames two hills away, sometimes along the valley. Dense smoke enveloped the days and nights. The ‘lockdown experience’ of being forced to fall back on the imagination treads a well-worn track within Western literature: Mary Shelley created Frankenstein during the ‘year without summer’ in 1816 caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora; and evacuated children during the London Blitz found a world in a wardrobe, to take just two examples. These ‘exceptions’ buy into a mechanistic worldview – the idea that the world is usually controllable, predictable, and inexorably progressing. Crisp’s works admit no such usual.

Generated by instinct and impulse rather than deliberation and control, the marks this artist makes carry the weight of the times. They do not live only in these times. Dance of life, A Rose of Sharon Olds, and Folding the Womb are the earliest works and carry, what the artist sees, as ‘a different feeling, a benign quality.’ The forms later became more contemplative and carry ‘knowledge of mortality’. I asked: ‘Why these forms for these times?’ Crisp told me that her strict Methodist upbringing exposed her to imagery only in stain-glass windows in church and backdrops for church concerts. She attributes the scale at which she works to these isolated early influences, as well as the importance of asserting that ‘the scale of my watercolours wasn’t ‘women’s work’. Crisp plunges into the visceral and tactile – perhaps, she speculates, another deep reaction against a Methodist’s denial of the body and rejection of touch. ‘It is about connecting to the body and being a bit unnerved by the red.’ Together, forming themselves into a complex system of feelings, memories, process, and description, the forms function as a whole – like a body or a forest.

‘Simple forms, Complex Times’ reads as a poem. The white ground of the paper, its size, edge, texture, and depth are all crucial to each form being, as Crisp put it, ‘isolated in space’.

Blood Moon, Crisp explains, ‘is the colour of the moon during the fires – blood red and black’. Wheel of Time carries the figuration into the metaphor that finds the stanza’s landing place back in the body in The Seat of the Soul. The title of the latter being a reference to American poet Sharon Olds’ casting of the cervix as the seat of the soul. In the works to come, the sun and moon burn as roses emerge from mark after mark. In the celestial bodies of Sun, burning earth and the protective breast of the moon (After the Fires) the description and metaphor unite. The quiet, feminine, drop-like or tulip-like – Containment – firestorm, earth and sun (After the Fires) – harbours a lava-like inferno at is heart – it is difficult to comprehend this work as just one mark. Enigma completes a stanza of the poem, resolving in three or four marks into a lotus, sun and moon. The rose and the fire emerges a little later, like a coda.