INTERWEAVING LANGUAGE: THE ART OF MARIA CHEVSKA

Ann Hindry

The graphic sign is an image or form worthy of consideration in and for itself.
Ferdinand de Saussure

Ontologically speaking, painting is an abstraction inasmuch as its very existence signifies what it cannot be. In this respect it is close to literature. It is within this essential gap that these two distinct semiotic fields have evolved over the centuries. Entering the modern era, painting was gripped by a lasting
aspiration to invisibility, while Mallarmé's "dice throw" resonates in literature all the way through to the sound poems of the Dadaists. At the dawn of a
20th century that was thoroughly ripe for the radical questioning of conventions, scriptory and pictorial modes often intersected – in Dada, but also, before that, in the Cubists. What emerged was a problematic but fertile symbiosis that would continue to develop and diversify throughout the century. lts beginnings, though, go back much further. Among the finest examples, we might start by mentioning Simone Martini's 1333 Annunciation, a pre-Renaissance work in which the words are inscribed in a golden arc that goes from the angel's mouth to the ear of Mary, who is turning away under the impact. And then, jumping forward a century, another "Sacred Conversation", Fra Angelico's Palo de Cortone, in which Gabriel's words shoot forth from his mouth in two golden streamers and cross the entire pictorial composition from left to right, just as westerners will read them, towards the ear and belly of the Virgin, who is seated on the other side. She replies in another jet of words that reads backwards – in the direction, therefore, of the Angel. This triple spray of words is the visual link between the two characters. And if it is obscured in the middle by the column that anchors the pictorial space, then this also confirms the fact that the words represented here are not an external commentary but very much an active component of the image.

Maria Chevska, a British painter on the cusp of the 21st century, works at the heart of this rich historical relationship between art and words. As an artist of
her times, she has chosen to exploit the dynamic of a twofold temptation: to write painting and paint writing. Her rigorous, acute work, which makes few concessions to the viewer's assumptions, is no less painterly for all that. It is simply that one of the main vectors of its visibility is the use of writing. Chevska is much less concerned to create a tension between discursive and visual thought than to work in a highly personal space between the word as seen and the word as read, the painting decoded and the painting perceived. Perhaps, at this point, we could say that Chevska’s concern is writing - that is to say, important, experimental literature: Kafka, Beckett, Raymond Carver, as well as the morphological potential of words, letters and sentences - but that her main objective is painting, the visual work. Her world is, in the first instance, something we are given to see, in its visual and spatial dimensions. It consists of paintings – large or tiny, very white or very colourful, with thin or pigment-soaked surfaces, opaque or translucent, installations of objects and paintings and painting-objects, linked and defined before us by a kind of scriptio continua, a continuous line of words, whose sporadic immanence both holds us and loses us at the same time. Like Joseph Kosuth, from whom she is in other respects so different, but whose highly visual art also uses language as its main ingredient, Maria Chevska seems to have learned from Wittgenstein, for whom writing is as limited as images when it comes to rendering the visible or conveying human experience. And so she "lures" us with the signs of writing, creating a need for meaning in the wrong place, frustrating our expectations of a straightforward unfolding, pulling the rug from under our feet - or, more exactly, sending us back to the work. Not that writing is merely a means of disconcerting us; it is an integral part of the whole, but its position is not where a literal reading would look for it, doing so to the detriment of visual experiment. Whatever else it is, this writing is always just appearing or about to disappear; on one side it is partially obscured, drowned, soaking through, and on the other it is cut up into fragmentary propositions. The snatches of text proposed here are those that correspond to the space of the painting, as if the artist had randomly placed an orthogonal thread-counter over the text in order to decide which part would be kept. It is true that the practice of covering can, as in the case of Kosuth once again (notably in his huge Zero & Not from 1986), be seen as a way of redoubling the text. But where Kosuth or any other conceptual artist works on legibility (or illegibility), Chevska's first concern is plastic visibility and its hazards. While the image of the thread-counter certainly illustrates the notion of fragmentation and gives an idea of the scale of the writing in the painting, it is far from the reality of the process applied by the artist. ln fact, Chevska uses a kind of fine-spouted watering can, which she fills with thick white substance (kaolin), pouring it onto the canvas that she has laid on the floor, making whatever arm movements are necessary to form the letters. Here, then, writing becomes fully pictorial. The artist's dancing movements over the canvas echo those of Jackson Pollock as he made his interlacing drip paintings, but also, by virtue of the deliberate physical distancing during the process of inscription, recall another artist - one very remote from the American painter, one in whose all-over work writing is the sole pictorial motif: Clara Halter. But whereas the latter, equipped with a magnifying glass that places her in a different visual space, drowns the graphic signs that she traces on the paper in their own infinite and microscopic repetition, Chevska drowns hers in pigment. ln her Why Don't You series (2001), she "smothers" bits of lines or words with their highly protuberant forms in a sea of thick house paint that she pours onto the canvas on the floor, so that the heavy liquid gradually accumulates in the middle, and only the bits of letters on the edge "emerge on the surface". These very physical matterist and coloured paintings are almost the antithesis of the ones in the Mimic series, whose chief characteristic could be said to be retention: a fine, fluid white writing on a ground of whitened paper on which the horizontal movement of the brush directs the gaze in the direction of our reading. On one side, dense colour, protuberance and sensuality; on the other, flatness, mattness and whiteness. However, the two are complementary aspects of Chevska's coherent efforts to find, if not an answer, then at the very least a form of expression for the question of her physical and temporal relation to her art, to the world.

Maria Chevska, Why Don't You, 2001, installation view.
Andrew Mummery Gallery, London.

While Chevska is loath to make categorical statements about her intentions, her integration of the temporal - if not to say entropic – dimension inherent in all things is made explicit in this show by her decision to include Marcel Broodthaers' film, La pluie, projet pour un texte (1969), in which we see the rain erasing the words as soon as Broodthaers writes them. Nor does she reject comparisons with On Kawara and Roman Opalka. For me, her affinities with these two artists are of a philosophical nature, in the widest sense of that word; their practices are all highly distinct. White Opalka and On Kawara offer demonstrations of our structured relation to time (and masterly these demonstrations are, too) by presenting significant extracts of time in accordance with the human convention that governs that relation (February 6, 1971 and 48327544∞ suggest what will "logically" follow and what came before), Chevska leaves only uncertainty (what exactly could have come before or after ...edthetable,,, ? What text is being quoted here?). Opalka and On Kawara point up and subvert the relative order by making visual use of its codes; Chevska offers a pictorial exploration of the amorphous flux of writing, abruptly enlivened by the arbitrariness of her fragments. The three artists are, however, united in their use of the extract, of the unmeasurable. (Note in passing that the swamped letters in Why Don't You can be seen as an echo of the increasingly diaphanous figures in Opalka's paintings). Moreover, in her particular approach to the time of the painting - that is to say, the time contained in the conditions of its emergence, Chevska is close to a painter like Christian Bonnefoi: the Why Don't You series, or the earlier Company paintings clearly manifest the temporal dimension of their making. Similarly, the Eyeballing series, with the play on transparency of its multiple layers of nylon, calls to mind Bonnefoi's Babel works. The large-format Mimic works, which present three levels of writing - handwriting, the sign system of the deaf and dumb (done in stencil) and mechanical typographic transfer – also assert the sequential aspect of their elaboration. Semantically very rich in spite of their apparent visual restraint, they strongly invoke the physical dimension, the relation to the body, which Chevska explores with great constancy in her fusional use of the two semantic fields. Also, the row of hand signs can be taken as a metaphor of pictorial “mutism” (or of the blindness of the word?), intended to alert the viewer both visually and mentally.

Maria Chevska, Mimic [rugs] 1997, muslin, kaolin, graphite.
Maze Gallery, Turin.

And alertness is indeed the state that these works elicit, since each confrontation solicits our every sense, whether it be with the paintings or with their extension in space, as in installations such as Perpetua and Vera’s Room. And in case there were any lingering doubts, the artist has now put her cards on the table with an exhibition entitled eh (Hey). Here, isolated, short interjections taken from Waiting for Godot, but having universal currency (one
could also mention the very prominent nono) are written on small white canvases whose uniform top layer of kaolin acts as a kind of shroud (or gag?) covering the word, in contrast with the calligraphy of the larger Mimic pieces, which ranges over the painted surface. The onomatopoeic mmms of the Company series seem to be struggling to resist an attempt to immerse them for good, in which regard they are redolent of Clara Halter’s invisible eeeeeeeee writing. What comes across here, injunctively, is the creation of a tension between the two modes of expression and the questioning of their signifying potential. In eh and ah we can hear an echo of Raoul Hausmann or Kurt Schwitters' sound poems, just as the list of words beginning with F in the Eyeballing series may bring to mind, say, the visual and verbal pleasure of the former's Opposum or the latter's In grr grwrie. For Chevska, this pleasure remains paradoxical insofar as these iterations of “plosive” letters also evoke difficulties with elocution, with everything that this term implies.
ln any case, the conjunction of the configuration and the sound of these short words makes seeing them a more dynamic process since the body is directly challenged to move the eyes and lips. In Vera’s Room, the objects and the space are all shrouded, so to speak, in white, as in the paintings with the small muffled words. The space is real and the visitor is welcome to enter it, but it is seemingly flattened by the effect of the achromatic uniformisation. The banal objects all evoke something familiar but cannot be likened to anything very precise, even if some of them, like the official documents spelling out refusal from the immigration department, still give us a sense of the reality behind our experience of the artist's work by hinting at her concerns. The silence and the subtle perceptual discrepancy of Vera's Room create a second level, pointing to the possibility of parallel worlds in even the most insignificant situations, suggesting the fundamental polysemia of what we are given to see or read. For what could be more real than Vera's Room? And yet to what type of reality does it belong? As in Perpetua (named after a font, the one that, as Chevska told me with a smile, was used in the English edition of Barthes' Lover's Discourse), where the objects are almost recognizable but refuse to be named, forcing the disconcerted viewer to look for a means of access, just as he or she tries to find an identifiable or complete word or phrase in the paintings. The domestic-looking sculpture objects - a kind of shelf coming out of the wall looking vaguely like a kitchen glove; soft, fragile oblong objects that look like slippers; rolls of what one might imagine to be wallpaper - are all covered in the same, mute white. Shown by Chevska in her installations or alongside her paintings, they perform the same function of semantic blurring.

ln the Why Don't You series, the upstrokes on certain letters that have escaped from the magma of hardened paint reach beyond the edges of the painting towards the surrounding space - our space; the space we share with the work. This very physical overflowing suggest a very discreet subversion of what is the reading unit par excellence: the page. Already, with her continuous lines, Chevska is returning to the scriptio continua that, in the 3rd century BC, Zenodotus of Ephesus, the first director of the Library of Alexandria, had banned. Aiming for simplification, he instituted the use of blanks between words, a mode of visual organization of writing that would change the course of history. For our 21st century English painter, perhaps, the vast arena of painting represents an opportunity to offer her own mode of pictorial organization.

© Ann Hindry, 2001, Paris