Robyn Penn’s News from Another Worldreveals a striking new calibration of the sublime in line with our contemporary relationship to the natural world. Penn’s work, which has long been focused on the realities of climate change, reveals an awareness that it is that natural beauty and wonder which first gave rise to the notion of the sublime in 18thcentury aesthetics and which would become foundational in the development of modern art – that sense of awe and fear in the face of the indifferent majesty of nature – which now finds itself under immense threat precisely because of our problematic relationship to it. When observing Penn’s large canvases depicting ice sheets and glaciers calving and crashing into the ocean, it is hard to suppress that familiar thrill of the sublime. And yet, one also remains aware – in a less trained, more conflicted corner of the mind – that the drama depicted is in fact unnatural, that it signals not the innate majesty of nature but the very corruption of that majesty through centuries of human negligence and greed. If the 18thcentury understanding of the sublime centred around the awesome invulnerability of the natural world, its indifference to us, we might say that the contemporary sublime, as explored in Penn’s work, reveals the fallacy of that understanding, painting nature to be in fact intensely vulnerable, and fundamentally interconnected to the actions of humans.
And yet, despite revolving around one of the most pressing crises of our time, it is striking how Penn’s work avoids slipping into tactics of doom and shock. There remains an air of hope and levity in the imagery and a playfulness and humility in the artist’s processes. Contrast and contradiction are everywhere: deft, light brushwork is used to depict the drama of a glacier calving; imposing canvases depicting glacial landscapes are contrasted and mirrored with minimalist depictions of everyday objects and crumpled paper. In creating these seeming juxtapositions, Penn traces the connections between our everyday actions and the drastic environmental events which seem to be unfolding in another world, far away from us. She reminds us that it is the same thoughtlessness which allows us to crumple up and dispose a piece of paper, to endlessly replace and upgrade objects as they become unfashionable, that has ultimately set in motion the widespread destruction of the natural world. But Penn does not pass judgement, nor does she provide easy solutions – rather, she continues to grapple with the element of the unknown, a theme which has been on-going throughout her career. In experimenting with new media and surfaces, welcoming in the element of chance in her creative process, Penn engages in a physical gesture which mirrors a conceptual foray into the known and unknown consequences of climate change and the deeper mysteries of time itself. Her work thus belies layers of significance for the contemplative viewer, interweaving beauty and despair in an acutely perceptive response to the realities of the natural world in the 21stcentury.