Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Art Space Talk: Elana Gutmann

Elana Gutmann was recently listed in ARTnews as an artist to watch. Reviewer Kevin Nance captures a sense of her Tales of Enchantment works as follows: "Elana Gutmann’s beguiling suite of abstract paintings brought to mind the weirdly vivid but imperfect reconstructions of dreams one recalls in the morning." The commentaries are consistent – evocative, dynamic, synaesthetic.

Of the series "La Passagiata" it is written: "Elana Gutmann's paintings are sensory landscapes whose climate and topography are mapped via color and gesture - her interest lies, as she says, in "infinite arrangement, pairing, sequence. Does orange lie lightly on cream, infringe on blue, incite red and if so, what happens?" One might think of these images as flowcharts from a dream-state, or choreographic notes for the imagination-- their imagery is full, tangible, yet fugitive, buzzing with synaesthetic scent and tone.

In addition to numerous exhibitions in the United States, Elana's work has been exhibited in Berlin, Paris, Düsseldorf, Valencia (Spain), Stockholm, Saigon, and Pescara (Italy). Her work can be found in the collections of the , Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, Wingspread Foundation and the University of Chicago, as well as in corporate and private collections worldwide.

Feathers, Oil on Panel, 7 x 9.2", 2004

Brian Sherwin: Could you tell us a little bit about your background and how it is reflected in the work you do today?

Elana Gutmann: I’m a first-generation American, my parents from Eastern and Western Europe, my mother born to parents from Ukraine and Bella Russe, my father’s family from Latvia and Germany. They both spoke several languages but my mother was still learning English when I was young so English was rarely spoken in my early years.

Our home life was lively -- filled and informed by the multiple languages and perspectives of an extended "family" of émigrés – friends from a broad variety of countries and cultures. The line between conversation and debate was often blurred and it was always an adventure for me as a child-- trying to make sense of what they were saying -- to figure out, intuit -- the content and intent expressed. I grew up interpreting, sorting and synthesizing life and information counting on my sense of things.

The fluid, fluctuating nature of what I came to experience as history has also informed my curiosity and appetites. Since there were little or no written documents surviving the war, and few members of the prior generation to contest "the truth", everything I learned of our history -- my roots -- was subject to change and interpretation, relying heavily on who was telling the tale and circumstance for its content and message.

Pond, Watercolour, 9.2 x 13.5", 2004

My current body of work, the Contes et Merveilles and One Thousand and One, works with these areas…colour and form as evocative language and content. The new work has as much to do with oral tradition, the telling and tellers of tales, with multiple perspectives, one’s sense of things and the transmission of culture through the individual’s experience. In it, I am the primary source, the interpreting, originating lens and hand that invites the "other".

The Contes et Merveilles will be presented in June of 2008 in France. I’ll be presenting a series of works -- paintings and works on paper -- with Tales of Enchantment: The Seeker and the Search, a limited edition print folio that focuses on the nature of the individual and imagination, and on the universal – the heroine/ hero and the quest for the sublime. The exhibition will include readings from various texts that have been authored in response to my images and within the frame of this inquiry. Each of the authors viewed the same seven images; each of their texts – in poetry and prose – is unique.

I am hoping to find the support to travel the exhibit in Europe, Asia and the Americas and to work collaboratively on an installation that engages the works and this process in other media.
Stroll, Oil on Panel, 25 x 15", 2003

BS: Can you tell us a bit about – about your working ritual -- how you work? What goes in to the making of a painting…

EG: How the work is made is a matter informed by my dailiness just as much as it is by the time in the studio mixing color and making marks on the surface. What I see, listen to, experience, what happens --by choice and by accident – what I recall and what I leave out or "forget" are all a part of the work.

As for ritual in the studio -- the first part is to become truly quiet, to come to the place where I am receptive and can attend to the work. I walk, I pace, I meditate…from there on it is the conversation between me and the piece that’s developing. Sometimes I lead, sometimes it does.
Bridge, Monotype, 13.5 x 25", 2004

BS: Speaking of listening, do you ever listen to music while you work?

EG: Yes, -- all kinds of music, recorded texts, chants, lectures, public radio from around the world. They become a kind of subtext to the work.

BS: Your work spans from paintings to works on paper and prints. Can you talk about the relationship between these bodies of work?

EG: My paintings are on wood panel, often they take a diptych or triptych format. With the exception of my print editions, the works on paper are primarily on rice paper or on printed matter – often on the pages of books. Many of my works take a diptych or triptych format or semblance of it.

They are two quite different extremes – the solid, substantial nature of the wood and the ephemeral, floating nature of the rice papers, yet they share an important quality. Each surface is prepared, designed, to have a high fidelity in terms of accepting my mark, each having the ability to be "truthful" to the intention and to the moment when those marks are made. My print work – stone lithography and montype -- has that rigor and an exquisite quality: your mark as you make it, your intention in that moment recorded. From there on each medium has it’s own affordances – it’s challenges and delights.

The paintings on wood panel allow me to use my whole body. I like to work with my hands, to press -- to rub --as much as I do enjoy working with the brushes and pigment. The substantive nature of the wood panels allows me to use the full force and range of my body – to use as light or as extreme a touch as I wish.
Las Ventas — La Bella Fortuna, Pigment on Rice Paper, 19.5 x 15.7", 2003

The works on rice paper have been made almost exclusively outside of an urban setting where I can work for long stretches of time undisturbed. They are original pigment on paper works, whose fundamental layers must be produced in a single session. Here, uninterrupted time is essential. One layer floated upon the next, they are a kind of meditation for me, borrowing from my work in lithography and often informing my paintings. The process holds both rigor and magic – far from the dailiness of my life – working toward a moment – transferring portions of imagery, teasing the imagery through as the layers of sight in the sea – building it, peeling it, moving back into it. While this process takes me out of the studio in New York, it later comes back to inform the painting.

A part of the current body of works are the paintings on book pages. These works on printed matter began with a series -- my visual "text"-- layered upon the pages of an antique volume of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. I am a bibliophile – a lover of reading and books. They accumulate around me wherever I go. Printed on a substantial and fine book stock, it was both the Vanity Fair text and the sensual nature of the paper that compelled me. In a political climate wherein the voice of the people seemed no longer to be heard, I was spurred by the need to take some personal action. It seemed just right to me to put my intimate hand – watercolor, pencil and brush, close–up as one holds a book – on to this treatise (or satire?) of absolute right and wrong. That instinct initiated a series of works on printed pages that ultimately took me to the Thousand and One and the realms of creation, cultural congress, storytelling, transformation and quest.

I pursued the notion of text both written and visual – of the retelling of story – the invention and alteration of narrative by virtue of memory, emotion, the physical, personal, cultural, imaginative. These works informed the paintings that followed and they in turn provoked the next series of original works and limited editions on paper. A whole new body of work has evolved -- a kind of abstract visual narrative that confounds the lines between text and subtext, of inspiration, origin and response. It responds to the formats of the thousand-and-one nights – the never-ending tales. Within it my paintings and works on paper "converse" – image sparking image, color instigating form, one "story" informing the next.
Metamorphosis, Monotype, 13.5 x 25", 2004

BS: Where do you work outside of your studio in Manhattan?

EG: My work in residence began in France and continues there till today. I have a second "family" there, a community of support, of critical thought and inspiration. Over the years I had the privilege to edition my work there with master printer Yann Samson in Paris, and soon will begin a new series of prints with one of the oldest and finest ateliers in Paris: Clot, Bramsen & Georges.
I work in the studio in residence in the south, in the Drome, in the Cevennes, and more recently in Umbria in Italy, in Delhi in India and near Morelia in Mexico. While I’m in the States I most often go to the studio in Connecticut where I can work undisturbed, "off-the-grid", where the quiet and light are exquisite and time seems to stop to accommodate my rhythms.
It’s through my travels, the experience of different light, sounds, scents, the varying skies and seasons and the individuals I have had the pleasure to share my time with, that a whole new body of work has evolved. At first it was my travels that created the necessity for a way of working that would be portable – that could voyage along with me. Overtime, I’ve adapted my work so that I can carry it with me – continue my train of thought. I’ve come to the point where I can work almost anywhere, if the conditions are right. I need quiet, light and beauty – which comes in many forms.
I have the good fortune to work in a marvelous studio in Connecticut, near to the border of Massachusetts. I travel primarily between Europe and America, but I’ve also worked in residence in Mexico and more recently in India and Italy. I think it’s in my blood, the traveling and appetite for other cultures, languages, sounds, and sights. Each place evokes a different palette and resonance – uncovering, exploring, awakening, experience layering upon and informing experience. I continue to enjoy working in this way and hope to also have the opportunity to return again and again to those places and also to work in Japan, in Africa, and near to the sea.
Proximity, Monotype, 16.6 x 12", 2004

BS: Can you talk to us a bit more about your traveling and how it relates to your work?

EG: One of the treasures of travel is the refreshment of "the other" – language, sound, the taste, light and rhythm of life. To read, speak and live in the language where I am. It was in preparation for a residency in France, that I first searched for a volume that I could read and then work on. I found a wonderful old volume of Les Milles et Une Nuit (A Thousand and One Nights). The engravings and typography were compelling and the paper itself had a generosity – a great density to it. Some of the pages were tattered but many of the quartets were in perfect condition. They provided the foundation and inspiration for a whole new body of work which I continue on today.

They brought me from the initial engagement with painting on the texts of books (Vanity Fair" to an intimate and practical, corporal relationship to the whole. My love for travel and my need to keep working, to continue my train of thought, created the necessity for a kind of portability. Initially, I carried the "stories" with me, working with them and painting -- retelling –my stories upon their pages as I traveled from the cities to the countryside outside the cities and beyond. Later, I brought them back to the studio to continue the tales… The resulting works are inspired by the framing story of A Thousand and One and the character Scheherazade. They are informed by the notion of initiation, metamorphosis, transformation. They are abstract yet evocative, my own "telling"of the tales…
Plein Lune, Pigment on Rice Paper, 15.7 x 19.5", 2003

BS: Who are the collectors of your work -- what do you think engages them in your work?

EG: The collectors of my work are diverse – they’re scholars, doctors, anthropologists, conservationists, designers, teachers, architects, heads of industry, inventors, other artists…What they have in common is their own curiosity, an openness—an appetite for new experience, knowledge, ways of seeing – of knowing life. I would like to believe that it is this appetite and capacity that resonates and engages them with the work.
Ufizzi, Monotype, 13.5 x 25", 2004

BS: Can you tell me if you’re represented by a gallery and about your next upcoming exhibit?

EG: I’ve been working with Perimeter Gallery, a wonderful gallery with wonderful people since 1989. I show with them in Chicago and I’ve also shown with them in New York. In our last show there we received a very positive review in the New Yorker but they have since closed in Manhattan. So, while I continue going strong with them in Chicago, I will be looking for representation in New York, the city where I live.

In Europe I also have the good fortune to have long-term relationships. I work with Cilla Lowenhaupt in Paris, Margrit Gass in Basel and Boris Brockstedt in Berlin. It is through their efforts that I have had the opportunity to present my work in exhibitions in Asia, Scandinavia and Europe.

The next exhibition coming up will be in France in June of 2008 at the Chateau de Brantes in conjunction with the Festival at Avignon. It is a wonderful venue, where I will be presenting my Tales of Enchantment folio along with new works. The show will travel in France and Switzerland and at the end of 2008, beginning 2009 I will be presenting in a new solo exhibition in Chicago with Perimeter.
Saetia, Monotype, 6 x 10", 2004

BS: Thank you, and finally, where can we see more of your art?

EG: You can see my art at Perimeter Gallery’s website (www.perimetergallery.com) at my own site (www.elanagutmann.com) and at upcoming exhibitions (see my site for dates and exhibition sites as well as additional venues).

BS: Thank you so much.

EG: Thank you, it is my pleasure.
You can learn more about Elana Gutmann by visiting her website-- www.elanagutmann.com. You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page-- www.myartspace.com/interviews.
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

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