I have a friend (you know who you are) who occasionally accompanies me to art exhibitions who is a complete menace when it comes to touching stuff. I am always on tenterhooks, ready to hiss ‘don’t touch it’ and fearing that we will be told to leave in disgrace. Of course I understand the temptation; if a work is intriguing you want to feel the texture as well as look at it, so it was refreshing to be invited to touch Jill Rock’s small sculptures at her open studio in St Leonard’s on Sea.
Rock who has exhibited widely, in the US, South America, China and Australia as well as in the UK and many other European countries, works with found objects, pieces of bark, roots and the odd kind of object that can get washed up on the beach, a dead bird, a child’s sandal. She manipulates them, adding colour or arranging them in different juxtapositions so that they are transformed. “I see them like puppets, ” she said; “they can be used in different ways.”
Originally a painter, her interest in the objects that people disregard dates back to 1997, when she spent time in the Australian outback and got to know some Aboriginal artists. On her return to London she found herself re-connecting with nature and on finding some birch bark decided to paint it. While the Australian experience was an influence, her works could not be confused with indigenous Australian artefacts; “after all” she told me, “I am not an Aborigine.” There are other influences there too – Buddhism for instance, maps and manuscripts as well as the very different climate of northern Europe.
Showing in the studio were a selection of small works seductively laid out on pink cloth. The blue and yellow bark paintings were originally created for an exhibition at the Royal College of Pathologists and were titled Evidence of the Death of Krishna at the age of 125 in a Hunting Incident. According to legend, Krishna was seated under a tree when a hunter saw his legs move and thinking it was deer let loose an arrow. Rock explained that the bark is painted Indian Yellow, a colour which was traditionally created from the urine of cows fed on mango leaves, and in these paintings signifies Krishna’s yellow trousers while the indigo parts reference his blue skin. All the pieces are anthropomorphised; they could be a finger, an elbow, a piece of forearm, a breast plate or an eye.
Elsewhere on the table the works had different colours like this piece below which is fascinatingly and intricately painted and represents a map. Rock explains that the earliest maps were created on birch bark and in this one the flatter parts are the paths where you walk, while ridges and indentations represent the contours of the land.
On the wall, the map stopped being one of the mind and became real – fittingly a map of St Leonard’s where Rock has recently bought a small seaside retreat. Attached to the map were bramble roots, partially painted white giving the impression of chaotic human activity.
I told Rock how much I liked being able to handle the pieces. “I let people touch, whenever I can,” she told me, “whenever I visit exhibitions; I want to touch and have to keep my hands firmly behind my back. But my practice is based on touching; I find pieces on the ground; I pick them up and clean them and then I paint them and all the time I am touching them. Touch communicates so much.” My friend would have approved.
Jill Rock’s studio is also open next weekend. 10th and 11th September from 11am to 6pm as part of Coastal Currents and is at 56 Warrior Square, but the entrance is through the green garden door from Church Road. Her website is http://cargocollective.com/JillRock