Roger Palmer: Winter Garden

Roger Palmer: Winter Garden

Curated by Kerry Harker and Zoe Sawyer, Atrium Gallery, The Tetley, Leeds
22nd January – 6th March 2016  

Accompanied by the essay ‘This is Not a Palm Tree’ [1] by Kerry Harker (featured below)


On the vast white wall of the Tetley’s atrium gallery, reaching upwards from the grey resin floor towards the glazed skylights high above, the artist Roger Palmer has created something approximating a palm tree; at least, the image of a palm tree, or a picture of a palm tree. It forms part of the artist’s solo show at The Tetley, which also includes a series of photographs of palm trees, and a collection of the artist’s photo-books. This particular specimen of palm, an example of Acanthophoenix Crinita (as opposed to Cocos Nucifera which bears the coconut fruit) has matured and reached its full height, normally 8-10 metres in the wild and represented here on a scale of 1:1.

Visitors to Winter Garden [2] may find that this epic, enigmatic vision speaks to them in the warm and reassuringly familiar tones of a thousand holiday adverts proffering escapes to far away places. The kind of advert that proliferates immediately after the Christmas holidays as the retail focus shifts. This evocative image carries us away to the desert island of our dreams where the sea is warm, the sky azure blue, and the balmy southern breeze gently wafts the pendulant fronds above as we sit below in the shade, staring out to sea. Our worries are forgotten.

Visitors who know their art history may well enjoy running through connections to other works, as the palm tree is a kind of leitmotif in contemporary practice: we could think of Rodney Graham’s seminal 1997 video Vexation Island with its looping narrative of a coconut falling onto the head of a seventeenth-century sailor as he stands beneath a palm; Eva Rothschild’s Wandering Palm, constructed of jesmonite, aluminium and leather for the opening of The Hepworth Wakefield in 2011; or Anselm Kiefer’s 2006 monumental installation Palmsonntag (Palm Sunday) in which a 30-foot long palm tree cast in fiberglass and resin lies prone on the gallery floor at the centre of a cycle of 44 framed paintings, also of palms. Palms resonate strongly in Christian imagery and some still carry palm branches during processions on the Sunday before Easter, recalling Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

Roger Palmer cites two other works as important in formulating Winter Garden: in 1966-67, Hélio Oiticica made Tropicália, in which visitors are invited to enter spaces that form part of a ‘tropical’ installation referencing Brazilian favela architecture and including live parrots as part of the work. And in 1974, Marcel Broodthaers made an installation titled Un Jardin d’Hiver (A Winter Garden) for a group exhibition at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. Un Jardin d’Hiver comprises framed 19th Century prints of animals and insects in their native habitats, a group of potted palms and several fold-up chairs. A closed-circuit monitor and camera were installed in a corner of the gallery with each visitor appearing as an image on a tiny TV screen.

These are merely a few examples of individual works featuring palm trees, but Palmer has focused on them in a more sustained way through recent photographic projects. For example, in 2014 Palmer spent 18 days as a visiting artist on Nauru, the world’s smallest island nation, lying 60km south of the equator in the western Pacific Ocean. A resulting series of 47 colour images was published in book- form later that year as Phosphorescence [3] (included in this exhibition) and in only six of the images are palm trees, or parts or reflections thereof, not visible. In one of these six, palm trees still conspire to make an appearance, in a crudely-painted mural within a building interior. Palms also grace the front and back covers of the book and these images form part of the series In the First Hour of Daylight (2014-16) showing here at The Tetley. The island and its palms are one and the same it seems, intertwined and inseparable from each other.

Elsewhere in Palmer’s oeuvre, palm trees crop up frequently. In the photo-book Circulation, [4] published in 2012, palms and their painted alter egos appear regularly in images from Egypt, Malaysia, Panama, Brazil, Namibia and South Africa. In common with many of the works by other artists listed above, Palmer’s tree may hint at dystopian as much as utopian visions. His palm tree is an incongruous visitor from another land, making an unexpected appearance in the midst of a northern hemisphere winter. What wind, favourable or ill, blew it hence? Its presence may remind us of colonial pasts and increasingly globalised futures, sounding a warning cry about environmental crisis, the continuing destruction of native habitats, and the effects of global warming on the world’s climate. It is surprising to learn that palms, which we probably view as commonplace and abundant, are now endangered in the wild in some places due to deforestation.

Not far at all from The Tetley where this palm stands, unprecedented flooding has very recently devastated large sections of Leeds’ city centre. The River Aire broke its banks just after Christmas 2015, reigniting heated political debates about flood-alleviation schemes and North-South divides. The clear-up operation in Leeds and many other places across the north and in Scotland will continue long after the end of the exhibition.

In Palmer’s series from Nauru, there is everywhere reminders of the island’s industrial past. The discovery of rich phosphate deposits there in 1910 led to decades of mining and the generation of considerable wealth before the exhaustion of these natural resources and post-industrial decline. Here too, at The Tetley, the tree may serve to recall the decline of the once-thriving centre of industry in the area now known as South Bank Leeds, exacerbated by the closure of the Tetley Brewery in 2011. The building that this gallery inhabits is one of its last-remaining vestiges, and casts a rather lonely presence, stranded as it is next to a gigantic surface car park.

The Tetley is a reminder of the richness of Leeds’ industrial past. Not far from the gallery is the start of the Leeds-Liverpool canal which heads out west from the city centre, past still-standing textile mills, now mostly converted for office or residential use. Following the canal path, one reaches Armley, where there is a work by Roger Palmer, created in 2007. At first glance, the black letters on a small white panel installed on the canal wall opposite make no sense. Only the inversion of the letters reflected below (when still waters permit) allows us to read:


The work references the nickname given to this spot on the Leeds-Liverpool canal, where the first shipments of raw wool from Australia were unloaded in 1808. The Reverend Samuel Marsden, a Leeds émigré who worked as Chaplain at the penal colony at Botany Bay in Australia, was the first Australian sheep farmer to export wool to the Yorkshire woollen mills. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the completion of the canal in 1816, Palmer has issued a limited edition photograph of the work, available from the exhibition. [5]

Despite the vanishing of Leeds’ proud industrial past, perhaps this visiting palm also brings hope for the future – renewal and rebirth are afoot in this post-industrial wasteland. The gallery acts as a temporary winter garden, a hothouse for the careful cultivation of new ideas.

The tree that Palmer has chosen to represent is based on a specific source rather than the generic idea of a palm tree. It is based on an engraved illustration of a palm found in the book Horticulture, A Guide for the Garden, by Smith Bros., Uitenhage, South Africa, published by H. M. Pollett & Co, London, circa 1915, which the artist purchased in Johannesburg some years ago. The same book provided a source for the artist’s work Banana in its Native Habitat, another wall work created for NYLO in Reykjavik in 2013.

Both of these temporary works have adapted a technique of applying cut vinyl to the wall. The laborious process that Palmer has employed at The Tetley is worth consideration, as the resulting work presents a seemingly effortless apparition that belies its more complicated construction. Production of the vinyl began months ago. The illustration of the palm tree (itself a translation into engraving from a source likely to be either a drawing or a watercolour by an unknown artist) was painstakingly scanned and retouched to create a black and white image with crisp edges and the right ‘weight’ for the artist’s purpose. After scaling up, the image was divided into sections and each manufactured in cut silver vinyl. But crucially the process of ‘weeding’, whereby the vinyl supplier removes the undesired ‘negative’ sections to reveal the image, was postponed. First, vertical lines had to be drawn by hand with grey marker pen across the face of the vinyl sections. Only then was the weeding process slowly and carefully completed using scalpels and with assistance from The Tetley’s programme team.

The installation of the vinyl sheets onto the gallery wall is an equally exacting process requiring a scaffolding tower to be erected within the atrium. The vinyl image is sandwiched between layers of watery silver acrylic paint poured down the length of the atrium wall: the first layers were poured and allowed to dry, before the cut vinyl was applied in huge sticky sections. Further layers of the silvery acrylic wash were then encouraged to cascade down the surface of the tree from above, but this time they interacted with the vertical lines drawn onto the vinyl, taking a meandering path across the micro-landscape of hills and valleys, persevering to the gallery floor below. Is the resulting artwork a wall drawing; a painting; a mural; a picture or an image? Is it a messenger, a warning sign, a mirage or a doppelganger? The effect of the three textured, shimmering layers of silver is an apparition of something tenuous and shifting, never fixed. It has a bloom akin to the ‘silvering’ on the surface of a very old photograph and in this sense may just be a residue of something that existed here before.

There is an obvious synergy, given the source for Winter Garden, between Palmer’s exhibition and this year’s PAGES ‘Picture Book’ theme. Palmer has published many picture books – mostly photographic projects – during his career and these are included in the exhibition, giving the visitor an opportunity to view them all together here for the first time. Where does the artist stand on picture making? Well, Palmer’s photographs certainly demonstrate a consistent engagement over many years with the traditional pictorial value of composition within the picture-plane: specifically, a relationship between foreground and background to create the illusion of depth; the location of the horizon line and vanishing point; placement of objects within the frame in relation to each other and to the frame of the picture itself. In his photographs, there are very often pictures within pictures: murals on buildings, advertising hoardings, place signs. Palmer has this to say on the subject of his picture making:

“In recent years I have come to recognize particular circumstances in which I make pictures. In the case of the image [that is being discussed], which was made in Malaysia, my intention was not to bring back a photograph that is a representation of a specific time and place. Instead, I am seeking to construct a picture plane that holds attention through its own properties, a set of visual circumstances. The way that this place has been represented… is, I hope, of sufficient sophistication and complexity to invite viewers not only to look but to consciously reconstruct the original act of looking by making sense of the visual information.” [6]

Framed here within the galleries at The Tetley, Winter Garden presents an opportunity to think through, in depth, picture making within one artist’s practice, and I for one will enjoy the process of making sense of the visual information presented to us.

Roger Palmer, artist and Emeritus Professor of Fine Art at the University of Leeds, lives and works in Glasgow.

Kerry Harker is Co-curator of Winter Garden, Co-founder of The Tetley and Interim CEO of The Art House, Wakefield.

[1] The title is borrowed from that of a group exhibition by young Albanian and Kosovar artists at Neurotitan, Berlin, 7-28 November 2015, and references both the widespread mosaics of palm trees created on the facades of Kosovar homes, as well as the painting by René Magritte, The Treachery of Images (1928-9), which itself includes a representation of a pipe and beneath it the words ‘Ceci n’est pas un pipe’ (‘This is not a pipe’).
[2] Roger Palmer: Winter Garden, co-curated by Kerry Harker and Zoë Sawyer, The Tetley, Leeds, 22 January – 6 March 2016.
[3] Roger Palmer: Phosphorescence, co-published by WAX366, Glasgow, and Fotohof edition, Salzburg, 2014, ISBN 978-3-902993-08-3.
[4] Roger Palmer: Circulation, published by Fotohof edition, 2012, ISBN 978-3-902675-65-1.
[5] Botany Bay, framed C-type print, edition of 16; photograph by Jim Brogden, 2007. The work in situ on the canal was realised as part of ‘Situation Leeds: Contemporary Artists and the Public Realm 2007’ in conjunction with Leeds City Art Gallery, Armley Mills Industrial Museum and British Waterways.
[6] ‘Looking at Pictures: A Conversation between Roger Palmer and Lisa Le Feuvre, Leeds, November 2011’ in Roger Palmer: Circulation.


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