Dreaming of Rectangles

“Barbara Kerwin: Dreaming of Rectangles”

Marge Bulmer, 2000-2001

Barbara Kerwin builds complex paintings involved with pattern, texture and color. They stir the imagination and invite you to contemplate form and surface, as well as light and shadow. Kerwin organizes her work into a tight structure and then intuitively assembles each square or rectangular module. Translucent, evanescent light dances across [oil in high melt wax], evoking shifting light on the desert, flickering hues on the ocean at sunset, evening purple shadows, or glowing summer morning light.

Kerwin constructs her architectonic systems as though she were building an edifice. As a matter of fact, her first two years in college were spent studying architecture before she switched over to Fine Arts. She uses layers of leach paper, a material utilized by contractors, panel board, or layers of canvas to form a sturdy work surface. Her sub-structure of blocks measuring from 2 x 2" to 1/8" combine with a variety of colors such that the composition carries the eye in and out, up and down and across. She achieves her rich color by combining oil pigment with jeweler's wax mixed at an extremely high temperature. The paraffin adds an evanescent translucence. Although multiple layers of paint are applied, the surfaces are not heavy or thick, but rather somewhat transparent. One feels impelled to touch and investigate how the effect is achieved.

The largest painting in the exhibit, Premnemonic, is a combination of 240 separate square paintings, each a subtle and distinct shade of pink, peach, ochre, mauve, soft beige, and even a hint of green. These are joined together so that the colors optically combine and separate as your eye moves across the surface of the work. A pink sunset reflecting on a body of water comes to mind. Then again, the colors also suggest the mauve and pink California light on the Mojave Desert.

Innermost Beat, done in shades of deep crimson, dark red wine, and bright cherry red conveys a deeply passionate encounter. The brown, orange, and ochre shades of Metonym call to mind the New Mexico landscape. Each piece encourages you to revisit a variety of personal associations. The yellows and golds of Morning Light glow like light streaming in the window on a summer's morning, while the dark purple, midnight blue and lavender in Shard are like shadows cast from a grove of trees as dusk descends.

Although these paintings are non-objective and without figurative elements—they are not minimalist, as she adds layers of [oil in high melt wax], Kerwin loads on stimulants to meaning. These are surfaces to dream on….

“What a Wall Is”

Luke Carson, 2000-2001

The French poet Paul Valéry tells us that he was “not over fond of museums.” Uprooted from their various origins and deflected from their proper trajectories, paintings in the Louvre find in each other the most unlikely company; like the visitor, they cannot know where they are, the space “savoring of temple and drawing room, of cemetery and school.” With the place they occupy lacking identity, neither sculpture nor painting has a home: “Their mother is dead, their mother, architecture. While she lived, she gave them their place, their definition. They had no freedom to stray. They had their place, their clearly defined lighting, their materials…. While she was alive, they knew what they wanted.” When he speaks of architecture, Valéry laments the passing of the European aristocracy, and as the home of painting and sculpture might have in mind the courtly households of the ancien régime. For Valéry, the modern household could do little more than gather commodities. Le Corbusier's white villas of the 1920s would not persuade him that the loss could be repaired. But both Valéry and Le Corbusier knew that if architecture is mother to the arts of painting and sculpture, it is because it acknowledges that material needs press for more than mere satisfaction. While modernist architecture was stern with the desires it deigned to acknowledge, it nonetheless sought to rehabilitate domestic space in a way suitable to the demands of the modern city. Though I have no evidence, I suspect that vangardists of the many orphaned arts would find it harder than Le Corbusier to seek and to celebrate without embarrassment “the everyday joy that is found only in the home.” Yet his happy homes with their white walls seem awfully monastic, and make one want to say what there is to be said for a hearth, which is much. Perhaps the point of such asceticism is that it leaves so much to be desired. Though often profligate and dissolute, modernism sternly teaches even its audience the discipline of craft, and is happier in the studio than the home. While every painting that comes under Valéry's gaze inhabits the shadow of a noble household, I suspect that he would be happier were the work to remain in the artist's studio, even in the artist's hands: an object of work's disciplinary pleasures, not of “the everyday joy that is found only in the home.” I exaggerate, but the white wall of modernist architecture did serve a visual discipline to resist ornamentation. The mother of painting and sculpture only welcomed them into the home under strict conditions. But Valéry's metaphor might mislead me here, for the architectural space of modernism was notoriously masculine, and came into being with the exclusion of feminized ornament. The white wall became the frame and background of a work that had to answer to this ascetic regimen. More fond of museums and galleries than Valéry, I am grateful for Le Corbusier's white walls, which stand like permanent and adequately sparse installations in those places.

One could perhaps be forgiven the experiment of seeing the paintings as obstructions to the perception of the flat surface, as ornament. It may otherwise be difficult to understand why modernist architecture had a vexed relationship to painting. Modernist painters similarly vexed their adopted art, and some sought the flatness of a wall. It would be tempting to call Le Corbusier's bluff in The City of Tomorrow when a rectangular space on a white page is “left blank for a work expressing modern feeling.” What could lay claim to that site and hang there? Nothing, if one suspects that his blank space is really the solitary white wall of an architectural work. Or that the white wall is itself the work of art, framed in a grid of further walls and further works. Little can be more traditional in painting than the shape with four corners. Even if a canvas is empty of anything but its white surface, the shape retains the aura of the work of art. But the blank square or rectangle is the building block of modernist architecture, the grids and cubes of which can be extended on a colossal scale. On a visit to a museum, which I here commemorate by mentioning, I asked Barbara Kerwin what relation her works bear to the domestic spaces of modernist architecture, and she replied: I see them hanging on the white walls. She recognized that this was ambitious, even presumptuous, perhaps because that space is “left blank for a work expressing modern feeling.” In order for the act to be the homage she aimed for, the painting would have to occupy that blank space with great humility. But the eye would be drawn to such paintings as hers, and feel the desire to dwell there. Mine would take pleasure in an ornamentation that, far from being humble, ironically reiterates on a smaller scale the larger structures of the architecture it honors. Le Corbusier's modernism stands firmly on the ground, but with its lines and grids so shapes space to entice one to the immateriality of spirit. The equilibrium of Kerwin's pieces hanging on a modernist wall lies in their corporeality. Her hand-worked squares and rectangles, arranged into grids, incorporate what the white wall occludes: one body touches—and with its eyes almost touches—another. A grid flattens the surfaces of which it consists and extends them outwards by repetition. When someone much less an amateur than myself says that the grid encourages “an indecision about its connection to matter on the one hand or spirit on the other,” my sense of Kerwin's work finds suitable words. Le Corbusier's space left blank, though it is a flat white rectangle outlined on a white wall, wants to hold our gaze: something will materialize there. But first space must be shaped by architecture so that persons can inhabit it and find each other there, and occasionally hold each other's gaze. Kerwin's work comes to me personified, and acts like the bodies by which persons appear to us. Each part of a piece has its own countenance, and its various moods keep company with the others. The word “Shar'd” punningly asks us to consider the single piece it entitles as the occasion for six shards to share space with each other—on the condition that each shard, though a fragment of a whole, is permitted to retain its own identity. Yet by virtue of resemblance, they also share something of their identity. But since each has answered differently to the hand that made it, the six rectangular canvases of “Shar'd” come together, and—diffidently, impassively—guard their distinction. Unlike the white wall, the flat surfaces of these works are visibly constructed, and by hand, into place. But in the flush of self-knowledge some don't rest easily in place, and come forward—whether as your eye meets them, or when it's not looking—to greet you or to regard you as you leave. I am thinking of “Metonym,” a work whose name again catches the sense. Like metaphor, metonymy (which means “change of name”) is a rhetorical figure that substitutes one name for another. It finds a substitute by association, so that “crown” is a metonym for the king, and “roof” or “hearth” is a name for home. Metonyms appear when one thing assumes the identity of another simply because it is always nearby, while retaining its own identity (a crown cannot be king; you can't live in a hearth). It is fitting that the pieces that compose “Metonym” won't hold their place, and assert their distinctness in spite of their resemblance. Some come forward while others retire into the background. If this were a wall (of brick, say) it would not be self-supporting, for the pieces can't rely on each other. Nonetheless, though each is its own piece, a work unto itself, they will not come apart. They assume each other's names, and find identity in association. “Innermost Beat” on the other hand tries by contrast to insist on the integrity of a single surface, and the grid is the form in which the pieces are able to compose as unbroken a surface as possible. Each is responsible for registering the pulse that courses through its matter, which is sensitive to its sustaining affections, and perhaps also to grief. But each part keeps its counsel and protects itself. Under such conditions, particular differences—the accidents of touch and imperfections that the flat surface displays—are protected by the small gap that distinguishes each from each, and remind them that each came into being separately, and that each will remain opaque to the other. But their mother is architecture, and they build relationships by inhabiting a shared space. The three vertical pieces that minimize the horizontal dimension of the grid recognize that architectural space sustains them. “Sibilant” says so minimally, with two of its pieces resting on others; the force of “Falling Water” pauses and rests on itself as it appears to be passing by. “Styx,” which is also water, rests on the level line beneath it, which in offering resistance is given density. But “Styx” also looks in its movement past the boundaries its pause nonetheless makes definite. Even when it is not manifest, the grid in which these parts too are placed remains both vertical and horizontal. It is what gives these things their flatness, and allows them to express in their countenance the identity they assume in association. The further it expands, the more there is to say and to show. The repetitions multiply distinction. “Morning Light” seems most eager to multiply parts in order to reveal the most it can of the light coming into appearance. But as I look at the window in front of me, with its lead grid, I don't see in any pane the marks of the touch that [oil in high melt wax] carries. And the pieces of glass can't come close enough together to efface the lines that separate them, which the light can't illuminate out of sight. If the name “Morning Light” is literal—and I begin to think it is—then this delicately worked [oil in high melt wax] has allowed the light a body. Expecting spirit to be light, we imagine ourselves disappointed when we find it is not, and might find pleasure in expressing that unhappiness. In the meantime, spirit continues to love matter, as all the good books tell us it always has, even when the light by which we read is weak. Though its space is not defined by perspective, “Morning Light” is still a translucent window or wall of windows, each attesting individually to the presence of light within and without it. I too imagine these works hanging on the white walls of a domestic interior. They seem to me grateful for gravity, and the weight by which they are suspended here.

Note: I have cited from the following writings, in order: Paul Valéry, “Le problème des musées,” in Pièces sur l'art; Le Corbusier, Talks with Students and The City of Tomorrow; Rosalind Krauss, “Grids” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde. Though I do not cite Mark Wigley's book on modernist architecture, White Walls, Designer Dresses, I recommend its pleasures to others.