New Normal Projects

I is another

Hosted by: New Normal Projects


This exhibition has already taken place

What's On / Past exhibitions / I is another

Past Exhibition Information

Oct. 11, 2023 - Oct. 15, 2023

Gallery 3

New Normal Projects

‘Make It New’ was the famous modernist slogan coined by Ezra Pound; but, in the twenty-first century, we have now such a glut of novelty that even the notion of ‘newness’ is old-fangled.

Perhaps, along with the I, estranged and freed here, in this manner, some other thing is also set free? – Paul Celan* 

This exhibition showcases two artists, the Cape Town-based Ruby Swinney and the London-based Harriet Gillett, who have a concern rather with the past than the future. Who are we after all without memory, without the past, without history? 

Instead, in the paintings of this exhibition, a strange image of the present is offered: not  something ‘new’ but a state of indeterminate becoming, a palimpsest of a layered past. If this were a slogan, it would say, ‘make it strange, make it other’, or to follow Rimbaud, je est un autre, ‘I is an other’.   

And indeed Swinney does seem to sublimate the self in her paintings. Known for her intricate oil paintings on silk canvas, and her  otherworldly natural landscapes inhabited by faceless figures. Characteristically, Swinney works in monochrome building  hectic shades of colour by  layering the paint thinly on these luminescent, light sensitive materials. These paintings are surreal pastoral scenes, often based on Cape Town’s urban landscape and its environs, though slanted just outside of the familiar, they are also an indeterminate location. 

The twilight people who inhabit these places, walk the gardens, bathe or look through the glass of the aquarium, are rendered with intricacy and detail, but are frozen in space, their presence seems vegetative, lost, fading into impalpability. They are the ones who suffuse these paintings with loss. Nonetheless all around them is this omnipotent depiction of vegetation painted with a scale and intensity that dwarf these ghostly people and make even the brutalist apartheid buildings, which so often are included on the periphery of her paintings, signifiers of a ruined and ruinous modernism.  

In Swinney’s intense depiction of plant life, of trees especially, the sheer multiplicity and vagaries  of their leaves, we find an expressive painting, where abstraction and emotional intensity is set free. It is through an almost personification with the foliage that they come alive, and seem almost moving on the canvas, bursting out of the confines of figurative realism.  

It is telling then that Swinney’s compositions are drawn to examples of a confined nature, as seen in aquariums, water parks, public parks and private gardens: the trees in a Victorian park feel as though they might envelope the quiet bourgeois scenes of the faceless figures below. And while this is all monochrome, the chosen colour of each painting is as much a material as the paint itself. Like Cy Twombly or Rothko or Joan Mitchell, colour itself holds an enormous charge of libidinal excitation. Though these paintings are restrained in their representations, controlled in their intricacy, their silk membranes delicate and fragile, they are blasted by a hoard of colour so disarmingly laid bare at times one feels almost a breach of privacy in looking. 

The scenes of Harriet Gillett’s paintings are, on the other hand, always interiors, they seem nocturnal and indeed the figures in her paintings seem transient spirits of the night. Faceless too, they are unidentifiable to any single time period: gowns and wide brim hats are at odds with Coca Cola and Guinness branding on the walls of pubs. And while they seem vague approximations of spaces these paintings also seem distinctively London.  

These are pubs, churches, live music venues, friends’ bedrooms in Victorian houses, candles on the tables, wine glasses, a man with a guitar, slow smoke gathering above the heads of the patrons. And yet it is not a straight likeness but a feeling, an impression of this.  There is something in the hazy luminescence of Gillett’s paintings that strives to push painting to a kind of representational limit and hold it there in a disconcerting betweenness. It is reality and a present,  but not something new, rather, it’s haunted by the past, a reality that has been affected in some way, slanted, made strange.  

Gillett is also interested in a restricted colour palette, often only reds and blues, but with the inclusion of bright, almost fluorescent spray paint, which is painted over, and developed upon, so that the brightnesses break through and give the paintings an indistinct, nebulous quality. It’s as though the figures and objects in the paintings were made of gases or smoke, a trick of the eye, still settling, as when one’s eyes adjust to the dark. The paintings are executed too like the thickening of smoke, with a wispy, loose line, encouraging haziness and darkening into silhouettes, shadows which recall Munch for example, or the comfortable but disorientating darkness of pubs on winter evenings.  

Gillett’s painting can be seen as a continuation from drawing,  which she insists is central to her practice. Many of these preliminary drawings are from life, taken at gigs, or at pubs or around a campfire. Incorporating surrealist techniques of autonomous drawing such as blind drawing and free drawing, she transcribes quick fleeting impressions and scenes of her everyday life. And in the space between life and art the imagination grows like feathers. It’s in this space that the imagination has ‘freeplay’.  

The paintings of this exhibition are not paintings to remember the past as such, but perhaps to suggest a map-in-progress, an age of sad forgettings.  Sad, because none of us noticed the memories tumbling away until they turned in the chilled air like violins shifting just a semitone:  

This exhibition of new works by South African Ruby Swinney and London-based Harriet Gillett, marks the first meeting of these two painters whose themes, concerns and painterly preoccupations are so similar. And yet they have never met until now. One might offer it as an example in fact of a mutual becoming, an aparallel evolution or a capture of code, which speaks perhaps, like the trees in Swinney’s paintings, of far deeper shifts in a wider universal consciousness.  

*The title of this show is taken from a letter from Arthur Rimbaud to Paul Demeny, 1871. 

The prefatory quotation is from Paul Celan’s ‘The Meridian’ speech, 1960. 

Text written by Noah Swann.

About the artists

Harriet Gillett (b.1995, East Yorkshire) is a British artist based in London, working predominantly in painting. 

Taking reference from the charged vibrancy of post-impressionism and the devotional nature of Western religious formats, her combination of traditional subjects with contemporary materials enables her to playfully tread a line between multiple perspectives and time periods. 

In 2022, Gillett completed her master’s degree in fine art at the City and Guilds of London Art School. Her accolades include being shortlisted for the Ingram Prize in 2020 and being selected as one of the 2023 New Contemporaries artists. In 2024, Gillett will be participating in the esteemed Palazzo Monti Residency. 

Gillett’s art has been featured in numerous group exhibitions, including ‘You are Here’, Mapa Fine Art, London (2023); ‘Down to Earth’ Badr El Jundi Gallery, Madrid (2023); ‘Babelle’, Spazio Musa, Turin (2023); ‘The Picture’ Brooke Benington, London (2023); ‘When 

I was walking on the edge of a teacup’ Roman Road, London (2023); Power to Emotion, Tart Gallery), London (2022); The Places We Go, Soho Revue, London (2022); Synthesis (curated by Delphian Gallery), Saatchi Gallery, London (2022). 

Ruby Swinney (b. 1992, Cape Town) is a visual artist who works primarily with oil on silk and oil on tracing paper. 

Swinney uses vibrant monochromatic colour to find form, employing painting as a medium not only for image-making but also world- making. Her work transcends into a parallel world where strangely obscured and distorted figures inhabit timeless landscapes. These surreal and immersive recreations of natural environments depict the precariousness of human existence within these. Swinney’s paintings evoke our present uncertainties and our yearning for a vanishing natural world that is growing darker and more unfamiliar. 

Since graduating from the Michaelis School of Fine Arts, Cape Town in 2015, Swinney’s work has been exhibited in multiple presentations locally and abroad, including a solo museum exhibition at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Arts Africa (MOCAA), Cape Town, two solo exhibitions with WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town and two solo exhibitions with Akinci Gallery, Amsterdam. Ruby Swinney’s work forms part of various private and public collections, including the Zeitz MOCAA collection, Colleción SOLO Museum and M&C Saatchi Abel Collection. 


Image credit: (detai) Harriet Gillett, It's 13 degrees but the sun makes it warm. Courtesy of New Normal Projects.

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New Normal Projects

New Normal Projects

Based between Cape Town and London, New Normal Projects was founded by Kyle Hutchings and Lisa Truter.