Review of Sarah Gillespie: A Love as Old as Water, Beaux Arts, London

There is a tension in Sarah Gillespie’s work between an otherworldly stillness and the innate energy of nature. Landscapes, birds and insects are captured with a sense of detail that arrests the passing of time, giving a glimpse, as if through a surgeon’s eye, into the inner workings of life. Her practice is currently celebrated at Beaux Arts, London, in Sarah Gillespie: A Love as Old as Water.

Gillespie’s work is all about restoring to humanity the ability to look, to observe the minute detail that so often gets lost in the electronic age. A tangle of branches, the hairs on a moth’s body, reflections on still pools of water and the glint in a blackbird’s furtive eye are all depicted with a surprising vitality. Gillespie’s pallet is principally black – a deep, intense black of nothingness – with golden glimmers of detail here and there. This provokes the viewer to search the mass of ink or charcoal on the paper for subtle variations, accents and hints of movement which Gillespie embeds in her drawings. The result is a body of work that takes an intimate look at the natural world, drawing the viewer ever closer into a human relationship with nature that is built upon respect, love and wonder.

The materials and techniques are marshalled with great skill, care and attention to detail; sometimes, you cannot discern the point at which charcoal and watercolour, for example, meet, but it is in that subtlety that Gillespie’s drawings find their life-force. Swan at Stackpole (Upon a Darkening Flood) (2014), a large watercolour and charcoal work, shows a gleaming white swan on a lake so black and uniform that the swan appears to be floating in mid-air. This abstraction creates a space in which to contemplate the swan, the ruffles of its feathers and the strength of its legs, as a force of nature. It is this focus, with all extraneous details blotted out, that gives Gillespie the ability to capture the pulse of the living world.

The charcoal drawings of landscapes call to mind photographic negatives with their intense black and white contrasts. The ripples of the water, apparently illuminated by a fading moon, behind the branches in A Tale the Woods Told Me (and How It Ends) (2014 ) shine from background to foreground. There is something eerie in these images, as if the dark secrets of the woods are simmering through the surface but remain subdued by their inherent tranquillity.

The gold dust moon in Annunciation (2014) is so subtle that it almost recedes into the pitch black sky, but present enough that you want to break through the reeds to touch it. It is interesting that these drawings of the energy of nature are made from charcoal, a substance that, after all, is made by burning wood and starving it of air, as if sacrificing the very matter of the landscape is the logical way of capturing it.

Sarah Gillespie: A Love as Old as Water, until 28 February, Beaux Arts, 48 Maddox Street, London W1S 1AY.

Daniel Barnes

1. All that I Have is a River, 2014, Charcoal on 356gsm Saunders, Waterford Paper, 26 x 40 inches (66 x 101.5 cm).
2. Annunciation, 2014, Watercolour, Charcoal and Gold Dust on 638gsm Saunders Waterford Paper, 13 x 20 inches (33 x 51 cm).