2020 has been a challenging year for creatives, as it has for the rest of the population. While some artists have found it difficult to respond, however, others have been inspired to create whole new bodies of work that react to and converse with the current state of the world. Without a doubt, TNG Member Sarah Needham falls into this second category.
Born in Holbeach, Lincolnshire, Needham is a London-based contemporary artist engaged in research into the history, geology and chemistry of pigments and the metaphoric potential of those connections. She is particularly interested in the way pigments leave traces of colour across human cultural history and interconnectedness: in how these material traces are more open to interpretation, resonance and echo than written narratives, being both more ancient and less didactic.
Needham uses pigments for their metaphoric connections. She makes abstract paintings with handmade paint, playing with visual cues and natural energy to create a sense of space to fall into, get a little lost and remember.
One of Needham’s ongoing projects, “From Alchemy to Chemistry”, explores the period in the late 1800s and early 1900s during which synthetic versions of many traditional pigments were created through chemical analysis. Needham explains, “I am currently researching the pigments concerned, madder, indigo, the ochres, carbon blacks, oak gall ink and the synthetic versions, and wondering about both the science and the thought processes behind them, and how they relate to now – to our relationship with the earth, with our past, and ideas of continuity and departure, passing things on, fertility of biology and of ideas, distillation, purity, and methods of production.”
During 2020, Needham has made a series of collections reflecting on these peculiar times. In the pre-Covid era in the UK, Needham was engaged in producing her ‘Alchemy to Chemistry’ collection using natural pigments and their synthesised equivalents produced in the Industrial Revolution. This formed a natural jumping-off point for the artist’s new series, Responses. “Relating to earlier work also featuring gyres” Needham says, “this series seemed to walk into the studio, work its way out and then walk out again.”
Organic indigo (used in a number of Needham’s collections due to its relationship with colonial violence and the transatlantic slave trade) was synthesised by German chemists in the era when abolitionism was growing in Europe. Needham spent time considering the happenstance of these two events, and also the notion that within the new there are remnants of the old.
A series currently in the process of being catalogued, Responses consists of over 100 works on paper and four oil-on-canvas paintings, all responding to the events of 2020. Needham describes her approach to this collection as “gestural”, the artist working with imagery that was “always on the edge of going out of control” despite continually seeking balance.
Needham produced Responses following the arrival of COVID-19 and the killing of George Floyd, initially using carbon blacks and ochre – the oldest recorded pigments in human visual culture, and universal across the globe. Playing with the idea of gyres, circular forces which can tip into chaos at any moment.
She then produced a subset of work called ‘Trench’, reflecting on the way in which social attitudes are so entrenched and difficult to shift. The series was created using indigo, a product of the slave trade, and communicates Needham’s grief at the continued necessity for the Black Lives Matter movement. The work seeks to remind its viewers that money that was used to build our society and set off the Industrial Revolution had its roots in colonialism and the slave trade.
Later, in spring, Needham shifted focus and started working on some small, elegiac pieces in the collection ‘My Uncle’s Farm’. Using pigments sourced from the farm, rust from farmyard objects, ochre from the land where he roamed his sheep and earth pigments collected in Dorset, the work references the one great adventure made by Needham’s uncle; a motor bike ride from Lands End to John O’groats made in his twenties, and which he still spoke about in his 90s.
The pigments and paint used in ‘My Uncle’s Farm’ were hand-processed by the artist. Work from the series will be shown in the exhibition Water|Land at Irving Contemporary in Oxford. Also featured will be Needham’s piece Walsingham Field(2019), which was made using soot collected from a wood fired chimney in Corby Glen, processed and ground into pigments.
Water|Land will be launched online (due to the forthcoming lockdown in England), and then move to a bricks and mortar opening by appointment in early December. Those interested in attending the exhibition are advised to contact the gallery. For more details, see below.