Spectral beings populate Ember Fairbarn’s paintings. They manifest as amorphous forms beneath layers of transparent colour, inhabiting a liminal state of presence—gentle and phantasmagorical, as though of another world. From one painting to the next, these spectral beings appear as slightly altered forms, as though having jumped across the frame and transformed in the process: a delicate orange hourglass (North Wind) metamorphoses into a stalactite (The Forever Home) and then a small mountain (Sharp Fangs Holy Mouth Ecstatic). Indeed, the exhibition’s title The Forms Rearrange Themselves embodies the conceptual underpinnings of these transmutations. That is, the notion that the past, present and future are all connected through a process of constant remaking.
The spectre is perhaps the most fitting entity for abstract painting like Fairbairn’s. It resists any sort of concrete structure or identity. Fairbairn draws out the speculative logic of the style by way of a distinctive layering technique, applying whisp-thin strata of oil on to birchwood boards. The birchwood resists the paint. As a result, the wood’s grain coalesces with Fairbairn’s brushstrokes which both remain visible on the surface. This creates the first of many ambiguities that culminate in Fairbairn’s phantom-like works. A sense of time is embedded in this visibility but it is an indistinct time registered by the coming together of Fairbairn’s body and the wood, indexing two completely different histories.
Fairbairn allows her viewers to make what they will of her paintings. This mutability is perhaps the most critical aspect in this body of works. She purposely confuses planes, plays tricks on the viewer’s vision, transposes forms and shields sections as though protecting them from prying eyes. What manifests as a mountain to me might be a mound of dough for the next viewer. By layering paint in translucent, dream-like films, Fairbairn takes the ambiguity of her abstraction to the next level. The spectre is, after all, ambiguous.