Robyn Penn on her largest cloud painting: “Epitaph”


Last week, Robyn Penn opened her solo show, Cloud of Unknowing, at DKP Parkwood. On the back wall of the gallery hangs a single painting, Epitaph (150 x 200cm). It is a giant depiction of a lone cloud and, like the other cloud paintings that surround it, Epitaph is a serious labour of love.  But, unlike the other paintings, this image has what Penn describes as a “disruption”.

Epitaph, oil on canvas, 2016

The energetic gold flecks that dance around the piece did not arrive by accident. Every aspect of Penn’s “disruption” to her polished oil painting was considered, from the consistency of the paint to the application of each mark.

Penn's daring use of thick, gold paint signals a bold conceptual move in Penn’s career as a painter.
Penn’s daring use of thick, gold paint signals a bold conceptual move in her career as a painter.

Penn re-ground the thick gold paint, mixing it with oil to achieve the consistency she wanted. She painted these bold gold marks onto the work at night, inhabiting a calm and focussed state of mind. Once the mark was made,  there was no going back as the underpainting was still wet so using turpentine to remove one mark would remove a whole area of the image.

Penn reflects on the moment of action: “The world was sleeping and there I stood in my studio. Paint brush in hand, I contemplated every mark. There was no going back. It felt very brave!”

Initially, Penn planned to ‘disrupt’ the painting by applying large brush strokes with red paint, but after testing this with a mezzotint proof she found the colour to be too stark.

For the artist, this is the work that ties the show together: “It creates a nice conversation between the paintings and the prints in a formalist way. My paintings are labour intensive. Like the seventeenth century oil painters, like Velazquez, I painted these clouds layer after layer to achieve a  strong luminosity of colour. My prints, on the other hand, favour the energy and immediacy of the ‘original mark’. This work brings my two different approaches together.”

Why disrupt the image?

“I wanted to disrupt the image as I like the idea of constructing a layer of separation between the viewer and reality as a metaphor for how we look at climate change. We see the blatant facts, the disastrous impact of carbon emissions on our climate, yet we ignore it as if we can’t see it. The gold brush strokes create this layer of separation from what is clearly in sight” – Penn.

While Penn found red flecks to be too strident in their visual impact, she decided to paint the borders a deep, bright red as a more subtle way to signal the dangers of climate change.

While Penn does not identify as a “protest artist”, she is unafraid to make a statement through her work: “I want to make people question themselves. We’re killing our environment. For what? So people can own 50 jackets made in Bangladesh?”

To view the works on show as well as Penn’s older works you can visit her artist page.

Cloud of Unknowing runs until 4 August at DKP Parkwood – 142 Jan Smuts Avenue.

Link to Facebook artist feature.