Never let it feel like a cliché to say nature is amazing. We say it because it’s true and is essential to remember. When we’re caught up in the relentless, fast pace of life’s daily demands, it’s important to remember the world has more to offer than this routine; wonder and beauty are built into its essence—even the most prosaic elements.
This is what Paul Kenny achieves in Seaworks. He reveals the wonder of the world not by focusing on its awe-inspiring enormity but rather on its almost incomprehensible detail. Kenny’s technique is to arrange onto glass plates the materials he forages from beaches which he then scans and enlarges into works, which appear as photographs, or are backlit on light-boxes. The results capture a spectacular microscopic level of detail, and the distinct textures of each element. The artworks feel different to a more standard photography, like a process of collaboration with materials: Kenny is a composer, and the outcomes are ultimately in the hands of nature and what it provides him.
Accidents such as the breaking of a plate are embraced as part of the work, part of the process. In these light-box works illumination adds vivacity. Colour is amplified and hyper-defined and yet this somehow emphasises the organic qualities of the subject; they retain the essence of the material: water is blue, rust orange. While observing the patterns running across the pebbles of ‘Scrimshaw No. 2’—a term usually reserved for the whaler’s art of carving into bone—one wonders how the human hand could ever improve on these patterns of nature.
Kenny’s presence is possibly most felt through titles. Some are simply the names of the places these pieces have been built from, locations across the tempestuous coasts of Ireland, Scotland and Northumberland. Elsewhere a mood is set by a musical reference, as when ‘Heaven, or Las Vegas’ gives an arrangement of pebbles a deeper atmosphere. However, when he refers to a particular landscape or natural feature, we must be on our guard, for as we seek these shapes out for ourselves, we should remember these are in fact imaginings based on Kenny’s personal associations and recollections. The scattered depictions of a moon or mountain range are the closest Kenny comes to inserting himself directly into the work. They’re markers of the places, objects and memories which must be important to him. In doing so, Kenny reveals his personal connection to nature.
It’s easy and instinctual to get lost in the awe-inspiring intricacies of his subjects though the titles’ suggestions of specific places and objects bring us back to the fact that all this dazzling beauty is not actually all that other-worldly. These were born from the very real realms of Earth’s nature, which are a wonder in themselves. You may never have seen a droplet of sea water look more beguilingly like a whole new dimension than it does in ‘Blue Moon Over Cheswick’ but the awe is rooted in the realisation that it actually depicts an everyday element of our experience. To contemplate the journey from the beach to this work is to consider our own place in nature: how have such droplets and stones shaped our own experience and what do we gain by taking a more focused perspective on them for a while?
Kenny uses the word ‘transience’ in both the exhibition literature and a personal statement about the artworks. Certainly there’s a sense of fragility that resonates through Seaworks. It’s there in the very way these images have been composed. They never quite overcome the sense that their composition has been delicately managed, as though their structure may still be upended at any moment by a single, subtle motion. Transience is further explored, to great effect, in ‘The Bottom of the Sky’. Stepping round the corner into the viewing space may give you the first impression that this is a film but Kenny prefers the description ‘moving stills’ and it’s easy to appreciate the difference. One single image morphs in front of our eyes; its structure never changes its details do, constantly. Look away for a moment and the whole thing may be entirely new, although it never feels stuck in transit. It’s rather a constant flow between complete works, in which almost every frame feels finished in its own right. As a visitor, you may be aware of this work before you step into the viewing space due to waves of sound from the work’s gently inspirational soundtrack by Richard J Birkin, occasionally washing over the whole gallery.
In places there are hints that all is not well in this world, that other substances encroach on this unspoiled beauty. ‘Plastic Sea No.3’—a photograph capturing a composition of aqueous blues and rippling textures—is blended in such a way that it takes a moment for the presence of artificial wrapping filmto register. ‘Sea Metal Plastic’ is much less subtle, its toxic green and orange palette contrasting alarmingly against the vital tones of the other works. These artworks are necessary parts of the story for Kenny’s sites of investigation, reminding us that the effects of our plastic crisis interrupt the rhythm of even the most wondrous views. However, Kenny’s approach to an environmentalism, such as it is, focuses more on employing visual pleasure as a strategy to make us properly admire nature’s marvels. Seaworks brings into focus the smallest elements of the sublime, not only bringing their beauty to our attention but revealing and demanding a deep love and respect for its subjects as it does so.
Julia Johnson is a writer based in Liverpool
Seaworks by Paul Kenny continues at The Atkinson, Southport until Saturday 23 October 2021.
This review is supported by The Atkinson.