Whenever she travels, Armidale artist Leah Bullen likes to visit gardens.
In Biophilia, her exhibition opening at the New England Regional Art Museum on Friday, she has used watercolour monotypes, a risky hybrid process, to recreate London's Kew Gardens, Paris's Jardin des Plantes, or, closer to home, a local dahlia enthusiast's garden.
Her painterly prints pulse with life, dense vegetation rendered in vibrant detail. They elicit the feeling of being in a space, rather than being photographically correct; spaces are bent, bowed, or seen through a fish-eye lens, rather than in strict perspective.
"When we look at a garden," Dr Bullen explained, "we don't look at it with one eye, like a camera does. We walk around; we bend down; we look around a tree, or up at the ceiling. We see the world in a different way from a camera."
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The title comes from the American biologist Edward O. Wilson's theory that we are genetically hardwired to be attracted to other forms of life. Her exhibition investigates how humans like to recreate nature in artificial, even highly curated, environments.
"A garden isn't nature," Dr Bullen said. "It's highly curated, different from going into a woodland or bush."
Dr Bullen uses gardens as a departure point, NERAM director Rachael Parsons said. "She looks at those manmade constructions of nature, which are very beautiful, but at the same time have an organisation and structure which you don't find in actual nature."
Ms Parsons admires the density and the dynamic movement within the paintings. "There's so much in them; each time you come to the work, you notice something different. The detail is fantastic."
To create these engaging works, Dr Bullen uses a technique that sits between drawing, painting, and print-making.
She paints in watercolour and gouache onto plastic coated in detergent and gum. The detergent stops the paint from adhering to the plastic, she explained. Once the watercolour has dried, she lays a wet piece of paper over it, and puts it through a press.
"Watercolour monotypes are a high-risk technique, because you only have one chance to get it right," Dr Bullen said. "Once you put the plate through the press, the image is gone. If you mess it up, you don't get another bite of the cherry."
With painting, one can always print over the top; with other forms of print-making, artists can wipe off the ink and try again.
It's that calculated risk which appeals to Dr Bullen. She enjoys the potential for experimenting with visual effects. "You never know what you're going to get," she said.
The technique makes the paint almost translucent, with a pointed pixellated effect, Ms Parsons said. "It's quite a special and different way of working."
Dr Bullen discovered the technique while completing her PhD at the Australian National University's Research School of Art and Design, Canberra. Since her return to Armidale, she has been a keen member of the Black Gully Printmakers, based at NERAM, while one of her works, on display in this exhibition, was shown at the Art Gallery of NSW.
"She's a fantastic local artist, connected to the museum, so we're really excited to have works on display," Ms Parsons said.
"The local art-lovers will really enjoy this exhibition. She has exceptional talents, but we love gardens in Armidale, so I think they will really respond to the subject matter."
Biophilia opens at NERAM, 106-114 Kennedy Street, this Friday, June 21, and runs until July 28.