Shoreline: Stephen Inggs & Vanessa Cowling

Barnard Gallery is pleased to present Shoreline, two solo exhibitions of new photographic and video work by Stephen Inggs and Vanessa Cowling, which run concurrently from 17 July to 14 August. Sharing more than just a title, each ofthese shows responds to the current resurgence of interest in the unstable relations between sea and land, and the social tides such environmental boundaries implicate. For both Cowling and Inggs, these are strange seas for strange times.


The ocean is certainly an apt metaphor for our anxious age. Overfished and acidifying, it testifies to the sheer scope and longevity of mankind’s impact on the natural world. A vortex of trash the size of Russia floats in the north Pacific while South Africa’s own coastline is littered with refuse – by weight, there will soon be more plastic in the water than marine life. Yet this polluted sea has lost none of its power, nor its allure. It draws us in, it may even cradle us, but it can just as easily swallow us whole. Inevitably, it inspires humility. The shoreline is where we meet the sea in all these many contradictions, confronted with its vulnerability, its beauty and its dangers.


Sensitive to such ambivalences, Stephen Inggs situates his work between his own love of the sea – for a lifelong surfer, it is a site of pleasure and belonging – and the greater environmental issues that circumscribe that love. He pares his seascapes down to their formal properties; here the seam where water meets sky, there a fringe of pale foam barely distinguishable from the sand beneath it. While at times this practice of distillation verges on abstraction, it also evokes the calculated luminosity of Romantic landscape painting, making atmosphere and form equally important. Seen through Inggs’ eyes, even the debris cast ashore by the tide is highly aestheticized, almost jewel-like. The viewer is invited to reconsider these ordinary expressions of human intervention, or at least resist the impulse to normalize them.


For Vanessa Cowling, too, the shoreline demands meditative contemplation and painterly description. Both Inggs and Cowling riff off the many languages of painting. Her beaches are often idyllic, bathed in the faded colours of a childhood snapshot and populated by crowds of holidaymakers who lounge beneath their beach umbrellas. The anonymity of these figures makes them oddly weightless, however, just as the hazy colour lends an unreality to the landscape. This impression is enhanced by Cowling’s choice to pair her more domestic scenes with large, minimalist and near-monochromatic seascapes. Next to the sublimity of this other ocean, hinged as it is around a seemingly infinite horizon, the beachgoers seem very fragile. But Cowling’s coupling of human activity and unpredictable nature doesn’t elicit fear. In her photographs, as in the hushed waves of her video installation Salt, she is more interested in what it means to recognize our proximity to, and intimacies with, the sublime.


For both Cowling and Inggs, the attraction of the seashore lies in its status as a material and symbolic interface between nature and culture, the familiar and the strange. Perhaps as a consequence, there are many different seas in the twin shows that make up Shoreline. But whether wide, wild or freighted with trash, the ocean is always deserving of our attention, the artists insist. And our awe.