PAINTING AS SÉANCE: THE RECENT WORK OF MARIA CHEVSKA

Tony Godfrey

Maria Chevska’s works are about collapsing the past into the present, about letting the body spread out into the world, about collapsing the world into the mind. Let me start to explain and justify this apparently extravagant claim by firstly pointing out the obvious paradox: this is a painter whose recent works seem to be quite clearly not paintings at all but sculptures. However, I would contend, they are still paintings: they have evolved from paintings and retain much of their feel. In this essay I want to consider how painting appears in her work in the guise of other media such as collage, words, installation and performance. Finally, as I shall show, it appears in the more philosophical guise of making and thinking.

Secondly, one should point out that the unprecedented range of references can appear hermetic but is presented in a most matter of fact way: “Want it now” written out in large letters, “Don’t get annoyed”; or those very simple objects that connect us to the physical world—chairs, belts, bicycles. Here, a rose is a rose is a rose and therefore seems to mean more.

Her work in the 1980s was allusive and highly lyrical, and most definitely painting. Indeed, at the start of that decade it was a painting strongly rooted in figurative drawing. The very first object she made (in about 1987) was a wing constructed with fabric. One could relate this to some of the sculptures made by painters in the 80s (Baselitz, Kiefer, Schnabel) It was a way of concretising, making more vivid an image or motif.1 But where those painter-sculptors tended to make large, grandiose and heavy objects, hers was small, modest and seemingly fragile. Where they used the materials of the monument, bronze or wood; she used the materials of the model maker, fabric and plaster. The comparison with Kiefer’s sculptures of wings is instructive: whereas his were vast contraptions of lead, hers was small. Hers suggested nothing but the wing of a medium sized bird, his that of an eagle or a jet bomber. But both are fragments (and as such claiming a lineage not only with Rodin but with Hölderlin) and both evoke flight—physical, spiritual and most importantly imaginative. Kiefer’s material (as heavy as lead) clearly carries its own blatant hubris with it; Chevska’s is more clearly an emblem of optimism.

Anselm Kiefer, Book with Wings, 1992-94.
Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth. © Anselm Kiefer.

Her work since then has regularly included objects: for example in 1990 a lamb skin was hung as a de facto painting in a five part polyptych Safe. Visually it was not radically unlike a painting, it was approximately rectangular, it hugged the wall, but it was a found object. It was a different material: it had connotations of softness—this is what many new born babies lay on—and connotations of warmth and nurturing.[2] The association of a skin (this is a hide) is not unlike we have with canvas, but it bore a trail of very different associations. She saw it as looking in shape and material as a painting that was turning into an object. In that she was transforming a horizontal surface into the vertical plane one could make comparison with Daniel Spoerri and his Tableaux Piège (Trap Pictures) in which he fixed and hung vertically the tables at which he and friends had eaten, replete with used plates, ashtrays etc.. By so doing he was fixing in aspic, as it were, an anecdote, but Chevska is fixing something far more abstracted or open ended. What these artists do share is a delight in the incongruous treated as if it were normal, the comic play of acting as if something is not out of place—something that was always implicit with Duchamp and his play of the readymade.[3]

Maria Chevska, Safe, 1992, mixed media.
Courtesy of Anderson O’Day.

Her paintings of the 1990s would often have several elements: areas of pure saturated pigments, depictions of fragments of the human body and tokens of reality: ECM charts. A small diptych of the period was typical in putting a canvas with a pair of lips painted on a large scale next to a monochrome panel richly loaded with pigment—the most sensitive part of the human body next to painting at its most succulently material. Her work was always exceedingly elegant holding these disparate objects together formally. This allows the viewer to enter into a conversation with the various parts (or actors), questioning and thinking about what they could variously signify.

The first real objects that she made were, she remarks, like kaolin (a soft, earthy, usually white mineral) prosthetics, bandages that had been moulded into living things.[4] They were small, fragile and hollow like theatre props.[5] (This sense of emptiness pervades much of her work: a painting, again she remarks, is formed of a crust.) Her work has long forsaken figuration (the cloth with the bird embroidered in garish colours now hung on a chair rung in But could you?, is the first figurative motif she has used for several years) but the implicit presence of the body in such images as these is important.

What is the difference between this use of fragments and the use of collage in classic modernism? One of the key moments of modernism was when Braque and Picasso introduce fragments of the real world, scraps of newspaper and the ink, into their papier collés and paintings. How different is the chair in Can’t Wait, 2003-4, to one of those scraps of paper? From the start the fragments in Chevska are larger, autonomous, more explicitly synecdoche. The object is itself untransformed: she does not try to turn the bicycle into a bull.

This apparent connection to that earlier period of modernism is not fortuitous because Chevska wants to appeal to that high seriousness (moral and intellectual) of early modernism. These fragments stand for ghosts: the shape of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International is a way of calling up Tatlin himself and all the other artists of the Great Experiment.[6] This is key, as we shall see, to the performative element of the paintings: these fragments are props for the enunciation of that past time, conduits through which can come the sense of urgency and aspiration of those long dead people.

However, we should not see these elements as melancholic or nostalgic reminders of a past, long gone world, rather we should take them as tokens of a continuing presence. Nostalgia is about irremeable loss. Early modernism was not proclaiming a tragic but rather a comic vision of the
world—a world that was always filled with the potential for, in WB Yeats’ sense, gaiety.[7]

Those classic shapes of early modernism: the triangle, the square and the circle recur here as three-dimensional objects as if they were ideal forms. They are long distant relatives of the shapes in Dürer’s Melancholia or all those seventeenth century prints where artists tried to work out the truth of perspective and proportion, using them as if basic geometric shapes were the very tokens of rationalism. What can shapes mean? Is the black triangle laid out on the floor connected by a line to the wall then a flag on a pole? A standard raised for utopian modernism or, if we recall the colour, for that other utopian dream, for anarchism? Chevska herself cannot not be reminded of the multiple made by Beuys where a triangular flag was attached to a toy train.

The objects may be like bleached shadows from Plato’s caves but they are always in a sense humdrum, everyday. Most of these objects are things that she finds outside her studio in the unexotic world of Peckham, south London. When we look at the objects their status is in a perpetual wobble between the world of art and the mundane. This oscillation, this uncertainty, this wobble is important in the way it undercuts the understated directness of the ‘made’ elements. In a sense these fragments act as icons, short cuts (using the sense in which the term means on a computer now): they zip us back and forth from art to the rest of the world. So it is with the chair and every other object in Chevska’s installation-paintings.

What are words but complex shapes? The way in which she paints words is formally beautiful, the laying on of paint is lusciously done—at times like that of patisserie icing. In many paintings the words stand out like noodles in a rich sauce, or as if the paint has flooded in and left them stranded like houses after an incursion of the sea: silent, empty and isolated. The words are things, shapes, made with material: liquids that have gone solid.

What easier or more direct way to call forth others, living or dead, than to say their name? The naming of names, the saying of words. The objects are like things with names, but they have none. Since God enlisted Adam to name all the animals of the earth we have always implicitly believed that every object must have a name and that somehow that name is its essence, the handle with which we can hold it in our world.[8] The silence of their namelessness fills the ether around the sibilantly whispered aphorisms. Indeed the words painted here are in counterpoint with
the nameless objects as the one with the other.

There is of course a precedent in the naming of names to summon a historical presence in the work of Cy Twombly. Much as Twombly paints the names of Thyrsis, Apollo or Aristaeus to summon them, or writes lines from Chapman’s translation of Ovid’s account of Hero and Leander to call simultaneously Chapman, Ovid, Hero and Leander to a restaging (in paint only) of the botched ovelorn crossing of the Hellespont, so too Chevska writes words of Kafka. If not to bring them to life again then to whisper their words with an insistence that these are not dead but the words of the still present. Words, names cannot die. Twombly also serves to remind us that calligraphy was once an art form, though his calligraphy is a far more abject and scatological manifestation than any sixteenth or seventeenth century mannerist.[9] Chevska’s writing is treated more like physical matter than writerly line.

The 1990 exhibition at Anderson O’Day, London, where she showed the painting Safe, mentioned above, was also where she presented her first work including words: stitched in white onto large paintings on purple taffeta were the words “lemonade everything was so infinite”. These were the last words of Franz Kafka which she had found quoted in a book by Hélène Cixous.

Maria Chevska, detail from Rosa, Vladimir, Kurt, Marcel, Franz, 2005, felt.

It was important from the start that the words had a very physical manifestation, that they should be simple texts but full of potential meanings. At the end of his life, too ill to drink comfortably, Kafka is probably remembering his childhood. The text acts in a circular manner, repeating itself, returning to the past but not alighting there.

Safe too had words: stitched in reverse on the central panel of black/brown taffeta was a text from Cixous’ 1971 book Angst. This text could be read more comfortably on the fifth part of the polyptych —a sheet of paper placed on the table nearby on which the same words were printed.[10]

To write words and to read them is to mouth them: our lips sometimes move as we read. These written words are akin to a whisper—murmurs of unfinished sentences. What they say first is that someone is speaking, secondly that in an understated and unemphatic way, something of consequence is being said—as when in the dark of night one’s partner whispers what she or he has been thinking of and trying to say all day. It is an important paradox that though they are presented like slogans these words in fact seem intimate.

Or music that is only played silently as a pianist would finger a tune on a table:

But could you

play

right to the finish

a nocturne on a drainpipe flute?[11]

This quote is written on a scrap of canvas, a pared down imagist poem or haiku in a recent installation. Words and music remain unplayed and unspoken, but always possible, always immanent. The text, like a musical score waiting on a stand implies, and evokes, a musician. So this: initially we may consider that the “you” refers to us, but swiftly we recognise it calls rather to someone, as it were, off-stage.

Her voice, like a voice in a dream close before the dawn and the hour of waking has become more urgent. In her most recent works the words appear like on a zettel: notes scribbled on the studio wall: “write often”, “there’ll be no fights”, “can’t describe everything”.[12] These notes are, as Chevska has pointed out, from Rosa Luxemburg’s letters to her comrade and lover Leo Logisch. Installation art has often been seen as an extension of sculpture: objects moving out into the expanded field. In his introduction to Installation Art, Michael Archer makes a well argued claim for installation art being a development out of specifically minimal art—or sculpture.[13] But one could point out how much painting in the 1960s moved to the environmental in scale and ambition, how the desire to space and mood is more normal as an ambition to painting, that there is a real sense in which the drama of depicted action and viewer involvement in the ‘great machines’ of painters like Poussin or David is the equivalent of installation today. Ilya Kabakov, to pick one major installation artist combining image, text and object, began very much as a painter. One can argue that the birth of painting and the birth of installation art (at least in some proto form) were synonymous: that in the caves of Lascaux and elsewhere early man both painted images one-by-one and covered the walls with paintings so that his whole domestic environment was filled. The walls became a projection of both his body and also a metaphorical simulacrum of the world outside. A world of memories or wish fulfillments: a deer, a captured bison.

From the very beginning painting was a way of transforming a particular space, of turning a cave into a room. The experience of the room has remained crucial to painting ever since. Elaine Scarry has described the room as the most basic and benign refuge likening it to the human body as it offers warmth and protection for the individual contained within it:

But while the room is a magnification of the body, it is simultaneously a miniaturisation of the world, of civilisation. Although its walls(...) mimic the body’s attempt to secure the individual a stable internal space(…) the walls are also(…) independent objects, objects which stand apart from and free of the body, objects which realise the human being’s impulse to project himself out into a space beyond the boundaries of the body in acts of making, either physical or verbal, that once multiplied, collected and shared are called civilisation.[14]

The room is both a retreat or refuge and a springboard for entering the world beyond—for making it anew. Of no room is this more true than the studio. It is a room of hiding away and making, of shadows and projections.

Ilya Kabakov, Mental Institution or Institute of Creative Research, 1991, Rooseum, Malmo, Sweden.
Photograph by Jan Engsmar. Courtesy of Ilya & Emilia Kabakov and Sean Kelly Gallery.

Perhaps painting began with the evocation of the absent other. In that mythic story of the beginning of painting, so beloved of the neoclassicists, a Corinthian woman traced the shadow of her lover so that when he left she could still remember him. Painting is a way of making memories tangible—that is to say of giving them flesh. This then becomes for others the act of conjuring, creating the image of another in his absence. The room is the place of shadows on the wall. If the objects are shadows, are the images shadows of shadows?

These objects projected out onto the studio floor or wall are not to be seen as “postperformance objects”—no performance has happened save the making: the performance belongs to the viewer who must take the role, mentally at least, as enactor: either actor or impresario. It would be better to see them as pre-performance objects. The stage has been set out for a performance, the seat is there for us, the fragments and texts must be sufficient models to construct the play, just as a score is for a piece of chamber music. If this be a staging, what props are these and what performance do they support? The physicality of the fragments is key: they are doingthings. It is as if all the sets on Richard Serra’s Verb List Compilation, 1967-68, had been given to actors and these props are standing in for the actors: “to roll, to crease, to fold… to flow, to curve, to lift, to inlay, to impress, to fire, to flood(…)”.[14] Chevska remarks how for her the chairs and bands around them echo Serra and his vision of the body.

At one level, Chevska’s installation is a staging of the body and its activities. In Can’t Wait, 2002-3, as she remarks, Tatlin’s tower gets miniaturised like a toilet roll twisted in the hand. This we can imagine as a simple sensuous gesture. It is redolent of model making a la Blue Peter. Imagine different planes co-existing: one where the toilet roll is nothing but that squeezed and bent tube of cardboard; another where it is that original model on the float; another where, completed, it towers over the new town, its elements slowly revolving. It must be emphasised how very material these paintings are, how explicit the act of making is. When things are staged they become something else and stay the same.

When Poussin wanted to show a painting that he had completed and was pleased with, he would, on occasion, sit patrons and fellow intellectuals as in a theatre and unveil the painting as if it were a stage show. We have accounts of viewers describing the action of the painting as if it were a drama unfolding in front of them. Indeed the reading of history paintings—which, we should remember were the great ambition of three and a half centuries of Western painting—was always, in effect, close to the reading of plays. The staging of paintings has long since passed into the hands of curators and gallerists. What Chevska is doing in her shift to installation is to reclaim that possible space where artists, not curators, stage the event. The act of making is intentionally
reverberating into the future (which is the present for the viewer) and into the past where dead voices await to be re-awoken. Meaning would always come, she believes, through material and materiality, the text appears through, and only through, this materiality. She adds things to paintings until they are full. She uses blackboard, floor or house paint specifically to emphasise the materiality of her works, to help ensure the text co-exists as another physical elements in this reading room. The materiality of the paintings is ever more explicit: the nine foot long white paintings in recent installations such as Are You Still, 2002, she sees more like walls than traditional paintings. Paintings can end up as a type of furniture: the big stretcher in But Could You, 2004-5, was meant to be a painting but now acts as a frame to the smaller painting behind. Scale is always important: often an instantly recognisable thing such as an Anglepoise lamp is there to ensure everything has a very exact sense of dimension.

Maria Chevska, Untitled, 2004, wood paper projection.
Courtesy of Parc St Leger Centre D’Art Contemporain.

Chevska has remarked that “the paintings are always intact because the constellationsare mutable”. The paintings (or those elements that are quite clearly paintings) are there astouchstones, points of certainty in an unfamiliar room. They do not transform as do the objects attached to them or placed beside them: “it is like a black tulip” she says referring to an objecton a black painting— Rrrevolutionnaire, 2004—made by covering an old trouser leg with kaolin. Paintings are always paintings: objects may become their associations or the very action in which they are used: “It is a cobblestone to throw at a police horse.”

Though the paintings may act as points of certainty, they themselves are very much in transition: the black painting is made with oil based floor paint, a paint that lets gunk get stuck in the surface—hence the imperfections.

Her work seems static, still, near-monochromatic. But, as one looks closer, every surface is to some extant agitated. Everything is moving. That this apparent stasis is an illusion is clearly keyed by the sudden calls of passionate colour. In Vera’s Room, for example, there is little colour: white and a little beige and the black of the bicycle. How does this emptying out of colour compare to the famous reduction to white and white alone in the paintings of Robert Ryman? Ryman wanted to concentrate on the painting, lose polychrome colour and reduce drawing to the delineation of the edge only. Chevska wants rather to not reduce but slip to space. Colour is not so much lost as bleached. There is the air of the dream—washed out—in some of her recent work: as though we looked at memories or ghosts of things rather than things themselves. But then comes the occasional shot of colour, always highly charged. Where colour appears it is intense, like a flame in the night or like a bloodstain in the snow, or like the juice of a pomegranate spreading on a white tablecloth. Instead of seeing it as a stage we can see the painting-installations as ‘philosophical gymnasiums’. The objects lie around as if waiting to be used.

What does such a ‘thoughtful’ room look like? I mean here not the room of a philosopher but a room to philosophise with. The artist’s studio can be the model for this philosophical room: if we think of that whole tradition of paintings of the artist in the studio, he or she is usually shown apparently in the act of painting, but to the viewer they are paused, the paintbrush held still. They are thinking. This is made explicit in the famous photograph of Mark Rothko where he is portrayed sat in the studio armchair, no longer even the pretence of a paintbrush in his hand, lost in thought. The artist’s studio becomes a model for the philosophical room, a room that ultimately we can only envisage by closing our eyes.

Or perhaps more poetically and more fruitfully we can see them as a rooms made ready for a séance. This is a séance where the past may meet the present: where Red Rosa encounters El Lissitsky in the red triangle. Where the ghosts can come together and talk. This is where Rosa Luxemburg, El Lissitsky, Vladimir Lenin, Marcel Duchamp and Franz Kafka can meet and mingle and marry (in Rosa, Vladimir, El, Kurt, Marcel, Franz, 2005). So m etimes these individuals summon with them whole movements: Suprematicism in all its overreaching ambition is there like a ghost too. Under the words “can’t describe everything” we see tilted diagonally a white square of Malevich. In a set of paintings made in 1998— Mimic—she filled large canvases with the stylised hand gestures used by the deaf in sign language to enunciate letters. The slow, coded enunciation of words became symbolic of, or rather a way of staging, the annunciation of presence. The painting-installations of the twenty-first century go beyond: they are silent rooms about the act of speech. They have
a historical specificity. They are very much about our sense of loss at the end of the last century. Inevitably given our cultural condition they are paradoxical—at once a homage and an empty room. It is for those who can make something from nothing.

This is where figures from the past can be gathered once more together to hold a symposia. I am reminded of Yeats’ poem All Souls’ Night, 1920, where he summons the ghosts of old dead friends; or of Fuseli’s Self-portrait conversing with John Jakob Bodmer, 1778-81, where a giant bust of Homer looms up, as though alive again and anxious to speak, between Fuseli and his teacher like a giant summoned from the grave. I am also reminded of Raphael’s School of Athens, 1510-11, where Plato and Aristotle walk amongst all the philosophers again—or indeed, of Twombly’s re-working of that painting.[15]

This is not about identifying with these figures but thinking about them: these were people who inhabited a world of action and without irony. They were not just theorists. These are passionate voices—interacting still with us across time and life. Voices that can come back into the now. The modernist project did not fail, Chevska remarks, because it never truly started. It is not the failure of socialism and anarchism that she laments but rather the failure to ever wholeheartedly embrace their possibilities. Not failed utopias but utopias that were betrayed by so-called pragmatists, bureaucrats and those of bad will and conscience. And that lament is transformed in her work into positive play: these séances are full of laughter, not tears.

“Where can you go to find non trivial voices, where can you go to add a dimension to current art-thinking?” the artist asked herself. Chevska had to extend the boundaries, formally and semiotically to keep herself involved, interested and a participant rather than a voyeur. This is where painting spreads itself cheerfully in its newly expanded field.

 

1. Cooke, Lynne, “The Painter-Sculptor in the Twentieth Century” by Lynne Cooke in In Tandem, London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1986.
2. She first saw one of these lambskins in the writer’s flat where we used it to rest our new born baby on. Being not only soft but life supportive: even if the baby rolls over it will not suffoca te as the wool is so porous.
3. From Candide to Doctor Who, putting a thing or person in the wrong time and/or place can act as both source of comedy and a way of making apparent the strangeness of what we take as common place or common sense.
4. This and all following quotes and remarks by Maria Chevska are taken from conversations with the author.
5. Perhaps most especially one thinks of the objects brought out once a year for nativity plays or processions.
6. We may remember that Camilla Gray’s 1962 book The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922, which in its exposition of a forgotten group of modernists with a utopian social/political agenda was a great influence on conceptual artists disenchanted with the apolitical formalism of the 1960s.
7. As in his poem Lapis Lazuli where:

"All …
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep,
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transforming all that dread."

from Yeats, WB, Last Poems (1936-1939), London: Macmillan, 1968.
8. “And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field(...).” (Genesis III, 19-20).
9. Islamic calligraphy is something else. I am referring here to a Western tradition where the ornamentation of the letters is taken to mannerist or baroque excess.
10. The other parts of Safe were a stretcher covered with transparent muslin, a microscope slide and a large purple painting hung on the adjacent wall. Clearly, in its dispersal of elements and use of text for the viewer to read him/herself into the work this is painting as installation and very much the progenitor of later works.
11. Mayakovsky, Vladimir, “But Could You?”, 1913, in Mayakovsky, edited and translated by Herbert Marshall, London: Dobson Books, 1965, p. 96.
12. The term used by Wittgenstein for those scraps of paper on which he wrote down thoughts and questions. The word is used for the title of his last, posthumous book.
13. Archer, Michael, Installation Art, London: Thames and Hudson, 1994.
14. Scarry, Elaine, The Body in Pain: The making and Unmaking of the World, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985, pp. 38-39.
15. The entire list can be found at http://www.ubu.com/concept/serra_verb.html.

© Tony Godfrey, 2005