Ella Sutherland: Letters

30 April - 17 May 2020

Presented as part of Auckland Art Fair 2020 Virtual Fair



Equal parts historiography and explication of form, Letters delves into the intricacies of public and private language. Tracing a path toward alternative queer histories, Ella Sutherland draws on the sensibilities of clandestine correspondence, medieval illumination and vernacular design to position covert and connective movements across language and through time.


The primary touchstones for the series of paintings Letters are the archival records of personal correspondence exchanged between three female luminaries from the history of English-language literature and their closest female 'confidantes'; Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. In these documents, Sutherland looks to the exchange of sensation and intimacy-that are simultaneously figured and vibrant, and surreptitiously concealed-to consider letterforms and the epistolary notes that house them as pivotal channels for 'fugitive' desire.


Citing the initials of each eminent pairing (excepting Susan Gilbert who remains a silent partner on the historical record), Sutherland's paintings articulate landscapes in which letterforms have become figures, the limbs of type taking on postures that allude to emotion, memory and life. Recurring motifs suggest interiors, thresholds and the accoutrements of concealment; doors, screens and windows fluctuate with foliage and cloud forms, conjuring atmospheres or environments in which one might be hidden in plain sight. This treatment of pictorial space echo's the illuminated manuscripts of the medieval period, in which decorative letterforms were embellished with flora, fauna, human figures, and patterning, to situate the flourishing of elemental and heavenly worlds beyond the confines of the text. Letters is not shy of the long arc of these reference points, preferring a slippery continuum between page and skin (vellum), gesture and word, and connotations of love that are at once both earthly and divine.


Considered in this light, the page as a formal device becomes a vector for a wealth of hidden lifeways. Sutherland's approach to reparative queer genealogy underscores the idea that, at their most expansive, letters are poetic instruments capable of generating movement, agency, furtive communities and power. This is gestured to directly in the largest of the suite of works, What is a Letter? ; mirroring the graphic and poetic methodologies that have shaped the artists approach, abstract page forms curve and fold, stack and stretch their spines open, suggesting the transformation of knowledge across eras and forms. With Letters, Sutherland elevates the craft of concealment to a form of portraiture in itself, memorialising the shifting legibility of language and lovers, as the codes themselves slip in and out of focus.


- Elle Loui August, April 2020



Ella Sutherland (b. 1987, Auckland) works across the fields of visual art, publishing and language. Sutherland utilizes printing, painting, and installation to analyse and activate complex reading systems across built and digital environments. Her most recent work has drawn on extensive research periods spent in specialist archives, through which she continues to explore the relationship between language and social history and the evolving role of technology in disseminating thought.

Sutherland graduated with a Master of Fine Arts from Ilam School of Fine Arts, University of Canterbury, Christchurch (2012). Since graduating her work has been shown widely throughout New Zealand and internationally. Recent exhibition highlights include Friendship as a Way of Life (curated by José Da Silva), UNSW Galleries, Sydney (2020); Bookworks (curated by Warren Taylor), Monash Museum of Art, Melbourne (2020); Returns (curated by David Teh), 12th Gwangju Biennale-Imagined Borders, Gwangju (2019) and Recto Verso (curated by Kim Paton), Objectspace, Auckland (2019). Sutherland has been awarded residencies with Enjoy Contemporary Art Gallery, Wellington; Banff Centre for Arts, Banff; International Art Space, Perth; and Art Gallery of New South Wales Studio, Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris. In October 2020, Sutherland will be an artist-in-residence for 12 months at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin.