The Elegance of the Maverick
Simone Witney

(extract of text from the catalogue to accompany the exhibition DARK AGES, Bermondsey Project Space, London, 2019)

In the middle of the journey of life, I came to myself within a dark wood” (Dante). Waking in the night I sometimes wonder if Kirsten Reynolds is in a wood somewhere or by a lake. Alone, dressed in black, melting into the shadows, she is setting up her long-exposure camera, putting her coloured lights to hand, sensitising herself to the energies, sounds and mysterious ambience of the place. Forget tree hugging and dancing with elves. What happens on such nights is physical philosophy.


The photographs she takes record her explorations of place and time through drawing. She weaves skeins of light before the lens, sometimes white, sometimes coloured. Her trajectory leaves traces whose shapes shift from transparent, through opaque, to sinuous, web-fine lines with the tensile strength of steel.  Sometimes the landscape is barely discernible, just a dense tactile space, at other times the forms drift over recognisable terrain like mist that is impossibly articulated, or a bolt of fine silk, each fold of which is impossibly crystalline, or a transparent titanium sculpture. They look like an extraordinary natural event: the aurora borealis, or freak electrical activity.

Of course it’s all an illusion. The shape has an elusive concreteness created by the passage of time. If you were there, you wouldn’t see it. That’s the point. Reynolds is fascinated by the idea of recording something which didn’t actually happen, not in that form. Yet it is a genuine record of energy and movement, of observed moments in time, and so not an illusion at all, but a beautifully defined and articulated exposition of intent, process and experience.

For this is no slick device to modernise the genre by slicing a rural landscape with urban neon light. There’s nothing whimsical or clichéd, but an endless improvisation informed by rhythm, pace and tempo.The forms are eerily graceful and tough, despite their fluid insubstantiality. They express an immense force, like the manifestation of an elemental spirit, rising up and tearing a way through space, the memory of its transience a residue in the air.

Decades of urbanisation have denatured the relationship with landscape for many of us, and our connection with the natural world is skewed by guilt. Reynolds’ neon colours symbolise this dissonance, while her forms suggest a symbiosis: a visual metaphor, a fusion of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Achieving a quality of engagement within which this is possible is not easy and requires careful mental and physical preparation. She spends a long time searching for a setting. Some places are chosen for their particular qualities of atmosphere or form, others for their lack of particularity, suggesting the liminal, or a choice of direction. (I’m thinking of those where a road or path is visible.) There’s a crucial period of attunement. She starts in daylight and as the dusk and darkness embrace her, the land grows accepting of her presence. Once she attempted to enter a forest after nightfall and felt a palpable and terrifying sense of being refused entry. So, a relationship of trust is implied here, which has to be earned through empathy and patience. It’s the kind of connection which is described so well in these words from David Waggoner’s poem ‘Lost’.

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you

Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

Must ask permission to know it and be known.”

There is certainly a subtle dialogue going on between Reynolds’ intuition for the landscape, the materials she works with and her refinement of the process. She has to rely upon this rapprochement of craft and connectivity with happenstance. This trust in mutability is itself a response to masculine patterns of structure and control which have marked the genre of landscape: it’s a feminine play of something less characterised by a patent organising structure, more focused on creating a coherence out of variable reality.  The very fluidity and transmutability of forms is a result of a delicate balance between intention and allowing the light to behave as it will. What she is recording is in part her openness to the moment, the atmosphere, the energies of the place, the qualities of light, as opposed to manipulating a set of learned skills with a specific end in view.

“it is an art which teaches to read well, that is to say to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously forward and backward, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate fingers and eyes.”

So said Nietzsche of philology, but it’s a good description of Reynolds‘ working method. She ‘reads’ the environment and her reading is informed by her experience as a musician, her intellect, her total commitment to her work, her acute sensitivity to our misuse of global resources, to political betrayals which shift and distort our day to day sense of reality. The quality of the images derives from this integrity and from her trust in the material and abstract ingredients of the creative process. These things are intrinsic to the quality of her work.

Nitetzsche’s reference to ‘delicate fingers and eyes’ is also a good description, in its focus on the non-verbal, of her aesthetic, one which lies on the borders of the manifest and the substantive. These drawings in light are a kind of thinking in which rhythm, the fluid articulation of dance,  the unpredictability of natural forces are the things which influence form. They come from a mental capacity which precedes language yet, unlike the limbic system, which is inaccessible to linguistic structures and is associated with outbreaks of violence, this kind of thinking finds form in a highly subtle and articulate abstraction. It is a kind of spell binding which employs pre-cognitive affects. While affect theory defines these experiences as imprinted on the body, here they are imprinted on the air. 

It is tempting to find multiple metaphors for contemporary life in the work, but given its source I shrink from the literary. I prefer to use a musical term and to describe these connections as resonances. The images resonate with experience, her own, deeply felt, which invites connection with ours.

These photographs are images of touches upon the air, informed by her sense of rhythm, her conversation with nature, her knowledge of the history of landscape art, her sensitivity towards contemporary political realities. They are powerful, rich, and ultimately as mysterious as the cosmos.