Butterflies are wonderfully beautiful and utterly intriguing . Mat Collishaw’s work with butterflies is stunning and takes my understanding of these creatures to a new level. I have just been to a major exhibition of his work at The New Art Gallery Walsall.
His large photographic images of butterflies create an altered sense of scale rendering the viewer far smaller than the insects themselves. I am in a temporary landscape where their wings outsize me and I can study their beauty as if looking through a microscope.
The butterflies have not been conventionally displayed for the photographs, wings outstretched in perfect symmetry as you might expect but rather squashed or crushed. I stood mesmerised by these beautiful images that captured life at its most perfect but ironically at the point of death. I sensed sublime beauty and a violent end, scales scattered by the impact , head and thorax pulled apart.
The colours are just amazing – I drink them in. Then I remember my daughter telling me that butterflies scales don’t contain pigment. They are not colours as we usually experience them. Their iridescence provides the clue catching the light in bright flashes as they move – or as we move around them. The brilliant hues are structural colours that come about from the movement of light hitting the wing and light reflected from the wing. ( I may be way behind on discovering this so apologies if this is a commonly known fact -I was probably daydreaming in biology lessons the day we learnt about it!)
So back in the room – or rather gallery – with Mat Collishaws’ wonderful images. The huge array of dazzling colour in front of me is making me think about precisely the opposite – the absence of colour – well pigment to be precise. I can’t think of many more wonderful things than collections of colour – exciting, stimulating. But remove colour and render things neutral and the subject of our attention becomes transformed, our perceptions changed.
I am currently making collages, using all kinds of materials that I have stored away in the studio over the last few years. Some I have kept for sentimental reasons – photographs, fragments of work. Pieces of fabric and found material too exciting to leave ( including a wonderful ball of ‘crimped’sheep’s wool caught up with vegetation). Other fragments purely functional – jay cloths and bubble-wrap.
After collaging fragments onto the canvas I gradually remove their patch-worked colours with layers of white emulsion in an act of quietening.
To reduce these fragments to a universal white seemed to take away individual characteristics, allowing for fragments to make connections, for new forms and associations to appear. And the absence of colour seems to bring it in to my close consideration – I’m not seeing it in the whitened fabrics but I’m imagining it – attempting to call it to mind for reference – “What was the colour of this delicate lace, strip of chiffon or fragment of paper, what did it relate to, what did it mean?”
Fragments of clothing take on powerful characteristics now stiffened and whitened with paint as if I can see them more clearly now. Just as Mat Collishaw’s images of butterflies once enlarged transformed them and brought a deeper understanding.
What we experience in our day to day lives is not so much the physical qualities of the external world as our perceptions of the things we encounter.
The whitened out textures and fragments are creating their own narrative and somehow the personal fragments, recently bereft of colour, become candidly revealing.
Mat Collishaw’s exhibition extends beyond the butterfly images encompassing themes of human beauty and terror and is truly inspiring.
His work All Things Fail is particularly powerful and should be experienced first hand!