Visual Intelligences Research Project

Seminars : Artists' Seminar : Maria Chevska

Can't Wait [Letters RL]

Can't Wait [Letters RL]

Vera's Room

What does the term Visual Intelligence mean to you?’ Well, I am interested in the term ‘Visual Intelligence’ - it’s a contradiction in terms - yet it has a kind of poetic ness (sic) because it is contradictory. The ‘visual’ in the Aristotle definition is a passive mode of perception, and ‘intelligence’ would seem rather to be a product of the mind - for the OED intelligence means the faculty of apprehension - a more active mode of perception. I think that the idea of the passive and the active is absolutely the process by which work gets made -through time for looking, and through a series of decisions both fast, and slow. Some decisions are instantaneous and others are deferred and you just defer until you can’t defer any more and then you either stop or change. So ‘Visual Intelligence’ describes to me very succinctly the processes of art – and is appropriate to the way I work. There is a great expression by James Joyce : ‘thought through my eyes’ - a description of the mystery of perceiving the world - seeing, and conceptualizing at the same moment, something that artists well understand.

My work is primarily a visual language yet it also foregrounds sound, tactility, place, and context – aspects important to me - I want to expand on the visual to fully involve the viewer. I agree with Ian, it’s nice if somebody wants to use the descriptions given here about a piece of your work, it would be a compliment, but I feel that each one of those expressions is only partial. The term itself: 'Visual Intelligence' is enigmatic but it embodies an intuitive approach.

In starting a work I tend to evolve as a group that explore a subject but their final form will be unknown when I begin them. This exhibition was called “Can’t Wait”[Letters RL], - based on fragments from the letters of Rosa Luxemburg , I produced the paintings over two to three years. That seems quite a normal pattern - I'm ready to exhibit after probably two years work around a specific reference. My processes involve different methods, and different materials. The paintings themselves often contain words, or short texts. The objects that I show with the paintings function more as images - they don’t have words attached to them, they work in a different way - sometimes a chair, or pieces of furniture; something absolutely tangible that works with the space, and ‘frames’ the viewer; you, your being there within the piece.

The creative process, - for me, there is material, and thought – it requires a series of decisions. An internal logic will develop when working which I go along with. That logic won’t be like building a bridge that somebody has to walk over and arrive, it’s going to be a different kind of logic, but will be both intellectual, and sensual or material. It’s when I feel content that these coexists that a group of works are finished. The title often comes about early in the process, or maybe while making - almost never last because the title embodies the whole sense of the piece and is extremely important. Often I’ll start just with the title; it’s very hard to say why exactly but I think it’s come out of other things; it’s come out of a thematic working of ideas, or texts. So, I’ve mentioned the fact that aspects other than just visual matters concern me, that words are central to the subject matter.

‘When do you reflect on your work?’ This prompts the idea that I reflect everywhere on my work. It just stays with you all the time, accumulates and grows and that‘s how I can make the objects, and make the paintings - they remain porous to the world. I’ve always thought that painting maintained a distance to anything real and tangible and I’ve wanted to find a way in which painting was itself both a philosophical activity, and a handle on ordinary life experiences - including the mundane. Art doesn’t all get made in the studio, I suppose that’s what I’m trying to say - it can take form while travelling around, being on the bus or doing something else.

And ‘What specific skills have you developed?’ In general I think that I’ve got no skills whatsoever but that is talking about skill in a strictly craft sense. I like to be hands-on, open, and invent as required. All my hand-made objects tend to something made from nothing - they often start out soft, like a piece of cloth, or paper, which I then immerse in kaolin, which dries rigid and can take-on a variety of forms unrelated to the original material - they are very, very simple. I think the important question is not so much possession of known physical skills as a sort of pushing, I like to push a material. Here for instance, on one side of the gallery I had installed several heavily- poured canvasses on the wall opposite to the large standing paintings – which had been sanded down repeatedlywith an electrical sander, layers of kaolin text had been poured on and then sanded again - in a quite literal way asserting the nakedness of the canvas. In the other paintings - part of the text was obliterated through the chance element of poured paint - having an excessiveness. I'm thinking about the material quality of paint: its actual weight, and/or the ephemeral metaphysics of it - the method appropriate to the thought.

‘When is a work finished? I like to give it a period of time. Maybe I’ll do something and leave it for a week then it will stay like that, or, it could be a year before I know that it’s finished. I think that a work can be thought of as finished and is never finished in a way- you just need to move on. But this is also saying that many of the work’s internal references begin to be appreciated and cohere only when the making has stopped. I have one piece of work I’m going to show you that is deliberately open-ended and will never be finished. “Vera’s Room’ was started in 2000 and I have shown it and continue to show it. It doesn’t really exist when it’s not installed because it exists in small pieces and then is adapted to the specific place where it is exhibited. The logic is that it will never be finished – a nomadic room. Even with my paintings I frequently recycle - recycling is the way I proceed - especially working them together with objects, and in different spaces. It’s invigorating to destroy something or to re-deploy elements - I find it a strongly liberating aspect of my practice.

I‘m very willing to write about my work, although ‘artist statements’ can come back to haunt you some years later. I think it can seem a bit pompous and a bit didactic but I am happy talking about work in situ – when there is an exhibition - I think it generous for the artist to try and tell others, particularly the public at large, what the work is or just give them further insight into it - it can be creative as well. Each time you speak about it you should probably try to start from a different point or from a slightly different angle because I know that the worse thing is to bore yourself with your own ideas.

I am going to choose something to represent me (slide) : a group of paintings, and objects first installed at the Andrew Mummery Gallery in 1995: called “Weight”. I feel happy with its rigour; the complimentary relation it has to the surrounding architectural space - spanning the walls, including the corners. It had a simple starting point - I’d seen the Holbein Dead Christ painting in Basel - the horizontal, thin grey panels of “Weight” are the same proportions as Holbein’s painting – there is no depicted figure on them, they are minimal more like leaden boxes of polished graphite. I also had a fascination with the phrase ‘Dead Weight’ and the two things clung together in my mind and I had wanted to explore that. The markings on the small, frieze- like squares are words that have been written into the back and then washed through a washing machine cycle and partially erased. The semi-transparent box panel resting on the floor (slide change) is like a divider panel: a neutral object. A close-up of the ‘frieze’ - in fact they’re not painted on the front, it’s poured writing on the reverse side. (Slide change) This last of the seven groups from the ‘frieze’ are repetitive marks painted in white oil onto the front - they are solid, and opaque, hung above the transparent floor panel.(slide change) This is a stack: lengths of cloth that have been hardened in kaolin – these were wrapped around my arm first, then made solid hollows in kaolin like a cast that solidifies that I have placed on the floor in the form of a small vertical tower. Appropriately enough the bottom one obviously wasn’t dry enough because it collapsed under the weight of those on top. ‘Weight’ was both an abstraction, in language, and, a physical material. The graphite panels looked heavy but of course were in reality lightweight canvases. I remember asking a doctor whether the weight of a dead body is heavier than a live body, because of the expression: ‘dead weight’ - in fact they’re not. Holbein’s painting represents a decidedly dead, untransformed body - I was thinking of weight: its allusion, and its metaphorical – for example: to denote profundity, and anecdotal use in language. Both a visual, and physically surrounding work, the elements unite the literal, and abstract.. (slide) This is a close-up of a key small frieze panel showing stitched- in words on the front side which has been reversed to show the loose threads forming the words from the back. “Weight” was exhibited in two venues: the first in London was a low-ceilinged, below ground level space; very tomb-like so it was completely perfect in one sense emphasising many of those things I was saying about weight. Later it was installed at Kunstmuseum Heidenheim in Germany which was a high-ceilinged, grandiose nineteenth- century public space and the work became tiny and fragile within the architecture. The piece itself was changed by its place which I’m very interested in, how a piece of work is fluid in order to find meaning in a particular context. There were two people I’d known for a long time, both art critics, who didn’t really like this piece when I showed it, using words like ‘dry’ and ‘sombre’. To me it is still satisfactory, and not without humour, - I think that goes back to my idea of an internal logic - hopefully, the whole being more than the sum of its parts, to quote a cliché,- that it held together,

This is ‘Vera’s Room’: an ongoing work that I will continue into an indefinite future time. There are no paintings, no words apart from an actual document placed on the table; one of the objects of the ‘room’. All the made objects such as the cones have just been folded, or wrapped: from cloth or paper so it all packs into a few boxes only really coming into existence when installed in a building. (new slide) That shows an exhibition: “Why Don’t You” in 2001 - when I had started to put various elements together: a piece of furniture, made objects, and paintings. The small white paintings in the corner are all sound words, there is: ah, oh, pa, ow, - nine in total which I’d collected from the text of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. All my texts are found – that they already exist in the world is an important part of my work

Then the final question, which I don’t think anyone’s mentioned, but I’ll have a go. This one about artists that you might admire, well, I admire many artists through all the centuries so I can’t make one choice, qualitatively. When I had an exhibition in France a few years ago: “Eh” it was in a large space comprised of three rooms. I exhibited several groups of work, including my installation: Vera’s Room. I placed recent large paintings on the upper level, and an earlier group of paintings downstairs. Very close to opening of the exhibition, the curator said to me ‘You know we often ask the artist if they’d like to have somebody else take part in the exhibition with a piece of work or a performance, poetry reading or something’ - it was very late to think of somebody you might know or know of to ask to contribute. It would have been like saying would you like to be this token player - it was much easier to deal with the dead! I chose La Pluie: a video from 1971 by Marcel Broodthaers. This was fascinating to loan because I had to contact his daughter for permission to show it; she gave it readily – in itself rewarding . All I can do here is to show you a couple of photos that I took of the video projected in the gallery space - one thing I admire about Broodthaers is a ruthless quality - I love this ruthlessness in artists. I like the absurd as a tool - which becomes profound in certain works - immensely difficult to tackle through painting!

RF: You were talking about Vera’s Room and the fact that it doesn’t exist until it’s being shown. I think that your idea of recycling and Alison’s idea of destruction may come together there. I wondered if that is a way of operating, what happens to the work when you aren’t there to make it? Does is matter that it doesn’t exist?

MC: With Vera’s Room it doesn’t matter. I’ve documented it well in two different spaces and it’s interesting actually as a set of images – although a different experience to being in the room – where there is a particular lighting condition, and an audible sound-loop. Photographic details can be fascinating, often showing things unobserved on one visit. It’s a piece that should relate in some way to the city in which it is shown - I’ll learn something through doing that as it goes on. First in France, then in Berlin and it will be in Philadelphia next year - very different places - it’s about dislocation. The title refers to an imaginary person - some key words: nomadic, provisional, outsider and probably it shouldn’t ever exist as a concrete thing. But I’m going to make a book as well of images and text and the text won’t be by me so I will move into a collaborative area with it.

PK: In the images on the laptop are the words legible?

MC: The two big panels of “Can’t Wait” have a raised text that’s legible especially when the sunlight hits from the side it comes strongly into relief. Fragments from Rosa Luxemburg’s letters and this in particular is from her political writings - at the top: “I have dared”. That was a political reference to Lenin at the start of the Russian Revolution in 1917, not to herself, which it could have been also. She was murdered for her own activism in 1919. Using her letters I could restore her voice - “I have dared” seems outspoken and we are all implicated. Other letters written from prison to her comrade, and lover address him in exactly in the same tone, although talk of more intimate matters: melding the public and private. The expression “I can’t wait” is in both terms: ‘I can’t wait for something to happen, for things to change’ and, “I can’t wait for you to come here” It was always peremptory…..of the moment … that’s her tone. I am interested in the early 20th century; modernity influenced every aspect of life: political, cultural, artistic - art hand-in-hand with politics, and social change. I looked for a cultural reference, an image, I took the Tatlin Tower, which is the tiny little paper spiral balancing on the globe - Tatlin refers to the spiral as a stable form, able to balance at an angle on a sphere These are paper, and polystyrene which I thought might fall off at the opening, in fact it never moved, so this spiral did cling to this globe. The object balanced on a plinth at the other side of the paintings is harder to explain - a bit like a large viewing device, in fact it was an ironing board cover attached to a stick – also banner-like or an emblem, and, a viewing device. The chair in front is a Panton chair - designed in the 1960s, but a legacy from Bauhaus thinking of 1919. It was the first single cast chair - a design for mass- production – and is still with us.

RF: I’m quite interested in what you said about the show changing atmosphere when you move from one space to another and your use of monochrome. You also talk about your use of kaolin. Can you talk more about why you use that because it has quite a strong effect on the work and how it serves the relationship with the subject?

MC: The kaolin I discovered in Rome - it is common to Manzoni’s objects and paintings and easily available in art shops in Rome. He said, which is accurate, that it has no physical definition: neither colour, or intrinsic surface quality except matteness. It’s a completely flat surface – a back to the bare bones of what a painting could be and I liked that idea. Also when dry it can act like plaster and is therefore suitable in three-dimensions. I often use it as a material foil for excessively sensual paint, which I haven’t shown here - but the paintings are poured rippling around the sides and dry in puddles and so on. I think of material like that – as in language there are different words which together make sentences - I think of the handling of materials as a balance in order to articulate something.