Alice Wormald 'Inversion Scenes', catalogue essay by Lisa Sullivan

Alice Wormald’s paintings in Inversion Scenes originate in the richly printed images of diverse illustrated publications from the mid-to-late twentieth century. Wormald removes single pages from the books, excises certain subjects from their backgrounds, and rotates or inverts these cuttings for collages that are the source material for her complex paintings.

Chance, intuition and design are integral to the collage process: one side of a page’s imagery may determine what remains of the other; unexpected juxtapositions emerge as paper fragments are interchanged; or imagery is refined through further cutting, as the overall compositional arrangement develops. Dissociated from their original context, the paper fragments assume a heightened abstraction and allusive potential.

The idealized landscapes of Japanese dry rock gardens inform many of the works. Printed images from reference publications and personal travel photographs populate compositions that draw on the principles of garden design, including the use of negative and positive space, and perspectival depth achieved through the orchestration of various planes.  

Very little is left to chance in the arrangement of Japanese dry rock (or ‘Zen’) gardens. Rocks, sand and gravel are chosen according to aesthetic principles and their suggestive representation of features of the natural world. Each rock has a different texture (or ‘sabi’)—a sea, waterfall or mountain texture for example—and is said to be imbued with the essence of its place of origin. 

In Turning Over, the rocks and gravel of a traditional Japanese garden coalesce with found images of landscapes. In substituting found images for rocks that she has cut away from pictures of gardens Wormald sets up a compelling simultaneity whereby actual representation of landscape has a symbolic equivalent: essentially, the found images have an essence as intense as Japanese garden rocks are said to have.  

Printed books have an ‘essence’—perhaps even more so in a digital age in which their future has been questioned—as objects encompassing the peaks of creativity, imagination, emotion and human endeavor. Despite dissecting their pages, Wormald has a deep respect for books and a particular interest in the textural surface and colour qualities of pages printed decades ago. The process of offset lithography—by which the publications Wormald works with were likely printed—deposits separate layers of cyan, yellow, magenta and black inks in small dots, and in specific patterns and differing intensities that collectively give the illusion of a broad colour spectrum.

Early books printed in offset lithography often reveal discernible separation between layers of colour, and these idiosyncratic qualities inform Wormald’s painterly approach. In works such as Reversals of Dovetailings and Outside the Inside she mimics print qualities by layering the paint and exposing sections of underpainting: a reversal, or inversion, of how the paint might ordinarily be worked.

An artist’s ability to draw out the mimetic qualities of the paint medium to simulate various surface effects to deceive the eye of the viewer was—and continues to be—a key characteristic of trompe l’oeil painting (19th century American painter William Harnett, for example,  was particularly adept at simulating finishes such as wood, fur, metal and paper). Although deceiving the eye is not her intention, in works such as Thresholds and Prospects Wormald simulates the woven texture of fabric and incorporates cast shadows to create the illusion of objects floating above the background plane. She extends her interest in perception, introducing visual ambiguities—and inversions—in Reversals of Dovetailings and Outside the Inside in which our reading of the works shifts between interior and exterior, and negative and positive space.  

For Wormald, the slowness of painting is compelling, particularly in a fast-paced digital age; its labour-intensiveness and craftsmanship appealing when so many objects are mechanically produced in great quantities. The images in the books she works with have an aged, perhaps nostalgic character quite different to contemporary publications, or the screen-based devices through which we view a proliferation of images. In painting the printed pages of books and photographs, Wormald crafts a likeness of these images in a considered and meticulous manner at odds with the speed of their mechanical production. Through her works, Wormald re-invests value and authority in her source material, and seeks to understand more deeply the essence of things.