Emma Stibbon: Melting Ice | Rising Tides

Emma Stibbon, Sea II (2012) (detail)

Her ink froze. Emma Stibbon was on the deck of the Antigua, a barquentine sailing boat forging a course into the arctic waters above Svalbad, Norway. The waters were rough as well as cold, and the artist was alleviating sea sickness by staying out on deck and drawing. Some works from this endeavour contain tiny spines of colour where the ice flakes have shaped the marks she was making in her sketchbook.

Melting Ice | Rising Tides is a show resulting from a) field trips to both arctic regions and b) time spent looking at the coast of East Sussex. It is hard to imagine a more coherent yet far reaching exhibition. It has purpose: to bring home the effects of global warming. And equal weight is given to the plight of Greenland, say, and the erosion of the Seven Sisters, not far from the gallery. And it has consistency: water colour and ink washes build to create a prevailing mood of monochrome coolness, where blue, green and lilac tints add nuance to the overall picture.

These drawings are better seen than photographed. They are beautiful: how sublime are the pale bergs upon the dark sees! How complex and enthralling is the foam atop a wave! In each of these drawings one feels the dramatic attempt of hand and eye to encompass extremes of nature and express the magnitude of the climate emergency. There are no human figures anywhere, yet our carbon footprint is everywhere in these stark and treacherous vistas.

Along with acrylic, watercolour and ink, there are plenty of innovative materials. Stibbon uses cliff chalk and sea salt in her preparations in a gesture that blends her works with their subject. On the crest of waves, there is delicate tracery left by evaporated water; she uses seawater in some of the works. Elsewhere aluminium powder gives her ice floes additional texture and grit. The labels in this exhibition repay cross referencing with the works. This must be the poetry of fact.

Such poetry, hardly to be expected from what is ostensibly a vast observational drawing exercise, is everywhere: breaking waves captured with impossible detail and care are mesmerising; coast guard cottages on clifftops which will eventually collapse are overwhelmingly lonely; the discovery of a local landmark in Seaford called Hope Gap results in a vertiginous study of a set of steps plunging down into a roiling sea. 

At the heart of the show is a full scale recreation of a cliff fall, complete with chalk boulders, rocks and rubble, plus and an eight metre wide drawing of a Sussex cliff. In any other context this site specific monument would be the show stopper. Indeed, it is perfect the way that Stibbon has brought the local downland shoreline, so often celebrated here at Towner, into the white cube environment. The immensity of her subject and her theme both perhaps call for it.

But scaled right down to a modestly-sized blackened intaglio print, Stibbon is at her intense best: capturing a chaotic wave-scape which is of course completely ephemeral. Sea II (2012) is just one example of the artist’s ability to pause time. If only our species could do the same, these impending disasters may not all come to pass.

Emma Stibbon: Melting Ice | Rising Tides can be seen at Towner, Eastbourne, until 15 September 2024.

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