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Photographic artist Emma Bass and the nature of beauty

Bass’ new collection, Embellish, will open at Smyth Galleries in St Mary’s Bay on November 9th. The photographs, says Bass, are “richer, darker and more atmospheric” than Imperfect, which featured bruised or decaying blooms set in decorative white vases against pale backgrounds.

Ok, yes: they’re photographs. Of flowers. But they’re also strangely engrossing.

While exploring London’s National Gallery, Bass became fascinated by the still life floral works of the Dutch Masters. In Embellish, she continues her investigation into the nature of beauty in a photographic play of shadow and light that reflects the dramatic style of those Dutch Masters.

“The Cuckoo”

“This new body of work is about illusion,” explains Bass. “It asks questions including whether the act of embellishment amplifies beauty, or makes something less palatable, or can it create another way of seeing the world entirely?”

As bizarrely interesting as Bass’s flowers are, all is not as it seems. Look closely, and you’ll notice that some of the flowers are real, while others are faker than a $3 bill. There’s a reason for this, Bass says. “Does something have to be authentic to be beautiful?  When it comes to embellishment, where does authenticity stop and illusion begin?”

Then there are the embellishments themselves: buds that drip with gold paint, petals spray-painted black or blue, and more. Bass says she even hand painted the petals of tulips to resemble long-extinct Dutch varieties.  

“The Memory”

Bass has also included ‘fictitious additions’ in the arrangements, many of which are practically invisible until you get up close and personal with the work. Some embellishments are inanimate objects such as wedding rings, plastic bugs or miniature soldiers from her son’s toy-box. Others are living creatures.  A praying mantis that happened along at shoot time became a natural part of one composition, for example. In another instance, Bass’ pet cockatiel did a number of star turns, and Bass also nurtured Monarch butterflies from caterpillar to pupa to new-born adult to speak to the entire lifecycle portrayed in some of the works. 

During the creative journey, the personalities of the various arrangements became more and more obvious, Bass says. She adds that they communicated a time, place, event or quality that exists in all of our lives and shapes how we present ourselves to the world. This led to an exhilarating collaborative naming process with landscape designer Xanthe White.  Names such as ‘The Alchemist’, ‘The Speculator’ and ‘The Beloved’ emerged from this collaboration.

Bass is intent on exploring the different facets and facades of beauty. Embellish is bigger, bolder and more complex than Imperfect, and the works are a confident progression. Art writer and critic Warwick Brown sees metaphors of mortality in the exotic, impossible displays. “There is a lot more to Bass’s photography than meets the eye,” says Brown. “Decorative and seductive it may be, but it poses challenges to the thoughtful viewer.”

For her part, Bass hopes that the new works, to be exhibited in November, will inspire and bring joy. “British philosopher Roger Scruton argues that beauty matters. It is not just a subjective thing, but a universal need of human beings. If we ignore this need we find ourselves in a spiritual desert. We should risk everything to see it and find it.”

Embellish by Emma Bass will show at the Smyth Galleries, 41 Jervois Road, St Marys Bay, Auckland, from November 9-30.
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