Su Blackwell

Su Blackwell: All the things I love are going to disintegrate

December 2-24, 2009
The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh

Su Blackwell constructs scenes from paper that provide us with snapshots of the literary imagination. The exhibition title, taken from the surreal novel The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington, alludes to the impermanence of paper as a material and the fragility of the imagination.

The two most successful works on display at the Scottish Gallery are her most recent: A Winter Story and Out of Narnia, both made in 2009. Each is predominantly black and white and hangs from the gallery wall in a deep, framed box of dark wood. Displayed in this way, the scene command undisrupted, focused attention. Illuminated lamps are set on street lamp posts and buildings are lit from within to create frosty nightscapes dotted with shadows. Set against the reality of Edinburgh’s dark winter weather outside these softly lit landscapes become all the more enchanting.

In contrast, The Wizard of Oz is laid open on a shelf. The scene is sprinkled with the glittery technicolour hues used to differentiate Oz from Kansas in the 1939 original of the film. The yellow brick road carves its way across three pairs of open book pages and an emerald tower beckons on the far right. Ironically, the presence of colour and absence of a framing box and glass window to separate the viewer from the work breaks, rather than seals, the spell by leaving less to the imagination.

Taking centre stage in the gallery, While you were Sleeping departs from the format of the book. The work is from 2003 and in many ways the magic it fails to conjure shows the journey Blackwell’s work has taken. Countless moths take flight from the skirt of a girl’s dress suspended on a network of monofilament that is too easy to identify. The literary tradition of magical realism is often described as the suspension of disbelief. Here familiarity makes it hard to suspend our disbelief and allow magic to take its turn.

Reading fiction has the potential to transport us to impossible settings. In Dreaming by the Book the American literary critic Elaine Scarry observes that narrative “consist[s] of monotonous small black marks on a white page. It has no acoustical features. Its tactile features are limited to the weight of its pages, their smooth surfaces, and their exquisitely thin edges.” Scarry goes on to consider how something so modest can conjure visions so vivid. In her own way, Blackwell tackles the same question. Her paper creations do not act as a substitute for reading. Instead they act as wonderful reminder of how vivid the imagination can be and how much we forget after childhood.

Embroidery Magazine (March/April 2010: 53)