Catching the ferry to Cockatoo Island from Circular Quay, you pass through the coves of the harbour. Glimpses of low headland, rocky shores and tidal ebbs give way to leafy stretches and old docks. Coming down the heart of the harbour you see pictures of Sydney. Each view framed by the distance the water sets.
Viewing Emma McNally's Choral Fields as part of the 20th Biennale of Sydney isn’t dissimilar. Her works are exhibited in a bright second floor ‘mould loft’ that forms part of the old ship stores on the upper part of the island. The 12 images are presented on stands, each sitting at the edge of a catwalk. The floorboards of the building are heritage, so we find ourselves on a wide walkway, all odd angles cutting down the length of the room. Entering the space, the drawings facing in from different sides and corners of the walkway felt to me like the hour before, on the ferry. The walkway as the harbour, the artwork as the view.
McNally describes her drawings as 'middle spaces, sites or fields of activity where I am attempting to find passage, to feel my way'. Each piece is 214 by 304 cm, a broad scope to take in, the graphite images coming to you as shadows and light. Dusky natural landscapes that 'probe, touch, excavate, navigate, plumb'. The haze is, at times, interspersed by geometric lines – faint histories and constellations of symbols beneath the depth of the graphite. Charcoal-like smudges are layered with dotted lines, perforated references to the man-made and the modern overlayed by the sweeping drama of landscapes and mindscapes.
With each work, there’s a sense of being drawn in. As you move closer, the detail and intricacies hint at the complexity of the artist’s practice, the layers of meaning and formula underpinning her world and ours. Etched out in perfect detail across the page there emerges order and structure. Radars, aerial maps, coding and charts transpire from beneath the shadow, a confusing mess of fact that is the architecture of each piece.
To step back is to lose sight of the order, to be swept up in the emotion. It’s hard to believe the same lines make up the whole. Inky mountains and an ominous night sky clouding over in parts, the pieces loom over the viewer. There’s a wonderful sense of movement, of being taken by the weather and storm of each piece, taken by nature.
It is the balance of McNally’s works that allows them to sing. They are considered, both a conscious exploration of the parts that make the whole and a study of the space between.