Maria Fernanda Cardoso: Gumnuts and Sandstone

Eucalyptus trees and sandstone rocks are a quintessential part of the Sydney landscape, so much so that local residents can be inured to their innate beauty. Therefore, it is not surprising that it takes someone supplanted from another country and culture to bring these unique forms to our attention.

Columbian-born Maria Fernanda Cardoso, a leading figure in the international artworld, has created a fundamentally Australian exhibition that celebrates the environment of her adopted home in Sydney.  With ‘Gumnuts and Sandstone’, she draws attention to two iconic natural elements indigenous to this country. She has devised an immense wall drawing composed of hundreds of hard wood gumnut capsules, derived from the native Eucalypt.

Maria Fernanda Cardoso, 10 x 10 = XX, Eucalyptus Coronata gumnuts square compact, 2020, woody gumnut and metal pin, 43 x 47 x 3.5cm. Photograph: Mark Pokorny. Courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney

Cardoso’s astonishing sculptures, installations and performances have long fascinated Australian audiences since she moved here from the U.S. in 1997. The artist blends science with nature to create awe-inspiring works that help us see the natural world in a new aesthetic light.

According to Cardoso: ‘To me, the eucalyptus is an artist, and gumnuts are its artworks,’ She continues: ‘As a trained sculptor, I can only dream of carving with such skill, to produce these perfectly shaped wooden sculptures. The eucalyptus tree does it naturally, after practising for over 100 million years to get these shapes right.’

Attracted to the patterns within the different species of these humble seeds, the artist highlights the geometric complexity of the star-shaped capsules. Through their rhythmic lines and shapes, Cardoso creates an exquisite poetic hybrid of drawing, sculpture, and installation.

Maria Fernanda Cardoso, Mungo Cypress Flag, Callitris gracilis cones, brass pins, 17 x 33 x 2cm. Photograph: Cardoso Studio. Courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney

Along with this series is a collection of blocks of Sydney sandstone. Into their raw, unpolished surfaces, she hand carves abstract patterns, ripples and shapes, drawing out the natural formations within. The result she refers to as a kind of ‘stone graffiti.’

These works follow on from a recent public commission, Where I Live, I Will Grow (2018), installed near her current gallery at Sydney’s Green Square. Sandstone is the bedrock of this city, stretching from the northern beaches of Sydney to the Blue Mountains in the west. These engraved stones celebrate the natural topography of the region, honouring the ancient past on which these geological formations were built.

What the two installations share with her earlier work is an underlying exploration of the geometric order inherent in all organic matter.  From exquisite patterns on butterfly wings to elegant arrangements of preserved frogs, as well as costumes made of emu feathers and murals made of dyed sheepskins, the artist surprises, sometimes shocks, and jolts our perceptive vision to see beyond what is in front of us, in the process eliciting a kind of childlike wonder and awe.

Eucalyptus youngiana gumnut. Photograph: Maria Fernanda Cardoso. Courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney

For more than two decades, Cardoso has received wide-reaching acclaim, initially for the creation of her touring ‘flea circus’ (a miniature tent, complete with live fleas and sideshow tricks). The video of her flea circus is now part of the Tate Modern collection. In 2003 she represented Columbia at the Venice Biennale and has developed other exhibitions for the Centre Pompidou in Paris, MOMA in New York, the DAROS Foundation in Zurich and the Centro Reina Sofia in Madrid.

Cardoso’s work is experimental and eccentric, daring and unconventional. In a kind of alchemical process, she helps the viewer see the extraordinary in the commonplace and the miraculous in the everyday. In the process, it heightens our perception from the mundane to the sublime as we open our eyes to the natural wonders that lie all around us.

Victoria Hynes is a Sydney based arts writer and editor.

20 May to 5 June 2021