PERPETUA

Michael Archer

There is a latex garmcnt hanging on a hook. Possessed neithcr of the lightncss of cloth, nor its woven permeability, its folds hang limp, empty, waiting to bc filled and animated. This piece of clothing, which is in reality nothing more then a rubber sheet with a head-hole in the middle, suggests two quite contrary functional possibilities. It might be either a surgeon's (perhaps more properly a pathologist's) gown, or a priest's chasuble. Which of the two it is might seem arbitrary, but to choose from these alternatives is to make a decision about thc kind of relationship that might obtain between one's own body and that of another. The invasive intimacy of thc operating theatre or the magical distance of the ritual are both within reach depending on the persona one adopts. But the choice is not an exclusive one: there are eight of these garments, quite enough to accommodate a succession of whatever roles are desired. For Walter Benjamin, intimacy and distance characterised the ways in which a viewer addresses respectively a photograph and a painting. A sense of thc body and of bodily relationships, then, is inextricably bound up with the manner in which things are representcd. Maria Chevska's Perpetua moves constantly between these two limits - as it were, the extreme close up and the long shot – in the play it sets up between its various parts.

Perpetua comprises three types of work. In addition to the eight latex cloaks there are five large, blue canvases and a series of paired, square paintings.
Of these latter, the left hand stretcher supports a semi- transparent material on which are dribbled a varying number of lines of black paint. The right hand panel is opaque, a ground of mattress ticking or some kind of quilted material, which for the most part, appears - initially at least - to be painted in a much more chaotic fashion. Further inspection, however, reveals a number of contradictions. Firstly it becomes clear that the right hand 'canvases' have largely been painted from the rear, and that what is visible is the pigment that has seeped through the material from its other side. That is, we are looking behind an image as much as at it. What we can see is to some degree the reverse of what was intended. Secondly, the semblance of chaos is almost immediately undermined by the sense that some marks wish to be read as letter forms. And indeed this is true. Although made in a manner similar to the left hand panels, by dribbling paint, these images have been written rather than painted. Chevska has in each case written three words, some of which can be deciphered, others of which remain obscured either by inadequate penetration of the material, or by the obliterating spread of excess paint.

All of the words Chevska uses begin with the letter f. She refers in her notes for these works to the French writer Helene Cixous, for whom the visual and vocal qualities of certain letters seem particularly redolent of meaning. F is the letter that burns ('fait feu'), although its power is, of course, not a straightforward one. Each of Chevska's triads of f-words marks the inevitable gap between desire for connection between people and the compromised way in which that is played out, between eternal and absolute quantities of an ideal coupling and the partial, contingent and doomed nature of its realisation. There are lapses (faithful, fickle, forget), there is hesitancy (flaunt, flirt, flinch), there is dissembling (feckless, fake, fungal), and there is tragedy (fine, fatal, fondle)...

F is also, in Cixous' Angst, the letter that begins one of thc names of her absent lover:

'ln the other language his name began with the letter S. That was his other name, but I didn't know; the name for his other self. Another of his names
began with the lettcr V or F, depending on which language you were using. I never knew his real name. l didn't even know he had one.'

There is a slippage of meaning that arises in the translation from one language to another. In the case of Perpetua this is from the visual to the verbal, from the linguistic to the gestural, from the two-dimensionality of the image to the physical substance of the rnaterial in which it is constituted. It is a productive movement, sliding one detail over another, deepening, highlighting, creating contours.

A closer look at the left hand panels of thc paired works discloses that they, like their counterparts, do not carry marks on their surface but, rather allow rnarks to rise up out of them. They are cornposed of multiple layers of very fine-meshed material sometimes black, sometimes white: within which the dripped lines of paint are buried. What is more, it is possible to see through this many-layered veil, which performs not exactly a concealment, but at least a protective revelation, to thc stretcher itself. This is often furthcr treated by being either painted or wrappcd up and padded, and thus the back of one half of the pair most closely resembles the front of the other half. Left and right are obverse and reverse, just as both gestural, abstract qualities and semantic content are present within their dripped and splashed lines. Faced with this padding, too, one thinks of Eva Hesse's Hang Up, the bandaged frame painted in graded greys out of which a thick wire loops to enfold the space of the viewer, to implicate him or her in the meaning of thc work.

The overall title of Chevska's work, Perpetua, is itself a reference to writing, being the name of a typeface designed in the 1920's by Eric Gill. It was a revival of a Roman alphabet, a survival, carved in stone, and it is named after the Medieval martyr who prayed for the endurance of the flesh. There is a yearning, against inadequacy, mortality, failure, for persistence. Perpetua offers this in the erotics of its language, in the sensuous pleasures of its materials and in the profound depths of its five blue canvases. Chevska notes this blue as a blue of fire, hotter and rnore intense, even, than a passionate red f1ame, and as blue of memory, reminiscent of Yves Klein's signature monochromes of thc fifties and early sixties. Blue is the ideal, benign atmosphere, the blue sky of endless love and of thc dream of perfect consumption constructed by advertising.

At the beginning of Angst, Cixous writes of her 'Scene of Great Suffering'. By this she means not that she is destroyed or killed, but sormething far worse than that. The worst thing of all is to be bereft, alone, unconnected. Perpetua defies this singularity, opposing the fact of rnortality with what Cixous calls the '(F)act' of its creative representation.

© Michael Archer, 1994