Catalog — Camille
Essay by Dominique Nahas, 1996
Beauty is a terrible and frightening thing. It is frightening because it is impossible to define, and we cannot define it because God has provided us with nothing but enigmas. In it the opposite banks of the river meet. All contradictions coexist. — Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Margaret Evangeline’s Camille series is a hybrid art form—a disjunctive organism—that investigates the philosophical significance of metabolism as it divests itself from what Hans Jonas has termed “the dialectical nature of organic freedom.”1 The flow of Evangeline’s brush stroke patterns, the trails and their gaps left behind, the smaller flow of particulate matter within the larger flow have a certain torpor—a time element of nature attempting to fulfill its material yet attempting to fulfill its material yet attenuated destiny. In the Camille Series Evangeline uses visual metonymy to recreate the sensation of the flow in nature—an emanation that is charged with an implacable unhurried intensity that embodies nature’s will to existence. The will of the artist, by extension, is embodied in the work as well. Evangeline displaces the coded visual systems of Modernism and late-Modernism by substitution, addition, elision or contradiction. She creates works filled with an exalted alliance of opposites, rooted, in the intimate confrontation with itself of an opposition between contraries, neither of which, though they are irreconcilable , has coherence except in the contest that opposes them to one another.”2
In Evangeline’s Camille Series one of the themes of the work is the circulation and dispersal of matter, much as Francis Ponge depicts the flow of water: “white and brilliant, formless and fresh, passive and obstinate… winding, transpiercing, eroding, filtering.”3 Another exemplary literary work can help illustrate the vicissitudes of material, the centrality of water as a metaphor in Evangeline’s art. Marguerite Duras’s L’Amant”, her autobiographical novel of irrecoverable loss, sexual awakening and reconciliation, is set on the Mekong. This river and its deltas form the background for the protagonist’s sense of self and is the main character, both subject and object, in the book. The river is a witness. At other times it is a benefactor. Sometimes it is terrifying and devouring. In one passage she writes of the river that “has picked up all it has met with since Tonle Sap and the Cambodian forest. It carries everything along…. Everything flows toward the Pacific, no time for anything to sink, all is swept along by the deep and headlong storm of the inner current, suspended on the surface of the river’s strength.”4a About midway through the book Duras explains in detail how the writer’s mother wants to have the family house overlooking the Mekong scrubbed, washed out, “sluiced through as it were a garden. All the chairs are on the table, the entire house is streaming, the feet of the piano is the small sitting room are wet. The water pours down the steps, spreads through the yard toward the kitchen quarters… And each one thinks, and so does the mother, that you can be happy here in this disfigured house that suddenly becomes a pond, a water meadow, a ford, a beach.”4b
Pond, water meadow, ford, beach. One could easily find visual correlatives for these words of Duras’s dwelling in Evangeline’s Camille Series paintings. Red stylized flower heads, for instance, are depicted, mandala-like as centralized points in space, their petaled patterns emanating from centers as ripples of water emanate from a pond’s center; her pictorialized vessels are containers for liquids as are ponds; the water meadow, a heterogeneous space with differentiated composition of water and grass or weeds could be exemplified visually by the artist’s differentiated and distressed surfaces. A ford, abstracted as a crossing point in space between two planes might be imagined in the artist’s grid work patterns. The circuitry or stonewall patterns in Evangeline’s works might recall the edges of shorelines, or perhaps they offer a memory of multiple beach landscapes from many viewpoints realized from different places and myriad pather of experience. This little game of correspondences is useful because it allows one to experience the wide and fluid range of suggestive capacities in Evangeline’s paintings that evoke a flow of multiple meanings. Indeed, fluidity and mutability are the hallmarks of this new body of work.
The Camille Series, unlike the all-over surfaces and use of collaged elements in the artist’s previous works, consists of a circumscribed vocabulary of abstract and semi—representational forms. The contradictions that inform, enliven, and activate these works start at the primary level where a process of radical emlematization of simple forms, representational and abstract, are constantly disrupted, but not effaced, as they are held in suspension over luminous white voids. Wide, saturated brush strokes define both color and form as they undergo perpetual dissolution and dilation in the stream of here-now movements. What is unusual with this body of work is how its surfaces are charged with life. They are activated through a series of contradictory oscillations between the phenomenological sensation of an ongoing “moving present”5 and the sensation of biological motility without the sacrifice of one impulse for another.
Implacable languid insistence. These are the words that come to me to describe Margaret Evangeline’s Camille Series, words that convey the internal contradictions in the work, the slowed passage of time that paradoxically informs the work’s vitality. This purposeful languidness, this unhurried quality can be attributed to a number of factors: to the pale limpid coloration of the work in general, the diffused, atmospheric tenuousness of the easy sinuous lines, the naturalized, variegated surfaces, the formations of gaps and voids between the brush strokes. Implacability and insistence resides within the repeated seriality of the gestures found within the individual paintings. Overall, one can say that the Series, its surfaces accommodating degradation and attrition, creating visual structures that are ambiguous, scattered and disorganized, is an afterimage of wabi –sabi,6 a term used in 14th century Japan to signify roughly the Western concept of “rusticity,” but also incompleteness, inevitability, contamination, intimacy, irregularity. These are ambiguous structures but positively and imaginatively so. They remind us of Maurice Blanchot’s words “The work is not the deadened unity of repose. It is the intimacy and the violence of contrary movements, which are never reconciled and never appeased—never, at least, as long as the work is a work.”7
The vitality in the Camille Series and in the artist’s motor-oil drawings, works on paper whose evacuated surfaces are burnt and eroded8, resides in the in-betweeness of what is being described and represented, in what is being left out, in the evident gaps left by the pulls and spatters of the loaded brush by the voided expanses. These lacunae, unfilled and undone become part of transitionally silent and multivalent space. The Japanese have another term: ma—the “usefully useless thing”—(the unconcerned moment of movement from one step to the next, set apart from mythical narrative or theatricality) for the time intervals that pervade Evangeline’s work.9
Regime of description. The Camille Series have speckled, scumbled surfaces that have been painted over, scratched and erased. Some of these surfaces have layers of background paint that have crackled and molted as if weather beaten. Others smooth. The works are comprised of schematized primary forms: grids, stripes, circles, emblematized vessels, stylized flower heads, meandering lines, drips, pours, and splatters—all accidental in appearance. The paintings, as large drawings on paper do, have a febrile, contingent look and feel. The radical simplicity of forms and the provisional quality of their construction points to a regime of description, however modified. This regime of description is modulated through an energetics that underlie substance and form. Thus we see discontinuities, and irregularities of surfaces that stress disjuncture and fragmentation, as well tremulous gaps and unevenness of the tonal values of and between of painterly gestures. The large sized linear and circular configurations with their elongated proportions spread out over diptychs and multi-panel works are devices used to purposely slow time down; the slow roaming of the eye in and around the spaces shows the languor in the works to be expository in character.
The sea greens, moss greens, inky oceanic blues, camellia reds and seaweed gray-brown coloration form pellucid gestural patterns in Evangeline’s works as repeated bars, strokes, or drips float eerily on white surfaces. The viewer, in paying close attention to the material physicality of the colored strokes, will notice an evaporation on the surfaces which have left stream traces of pigment in the middle areas of the trajectories of the linear forms that record the movement of the brush loaded with egg emulsion and pigment. An accumulation of color at the outside edges of each stroke creates a volumetric quality, as sculptural roundness that creates an illusionistic three-dimensional transparent physicality. These rounded stripes, that are organized either in repeated vertical stacking as in Camille Series #31 or #30 or in gridwork as in #6, suggests extended tubular striations—microscopic enlargement of water saturated organisms (let us say sea-grasses) and their interiors of Brobidingnagan proportions. At times in the illusionistic interior of these tubes particles of paint have dried to form patterns whose residues recall the stomata of plant life whose diastolic openings allow photosynthesis to occur. At other times, trails of this painterly material gives the impression that we are looking at a stop-action sequence of the flow of matter coursing from one end of the organism to another through transparent membranes.
The flow’s record of its own making. The eidetic vascularity of these see-through colored surfaces, as part of the compositional structures, are of particular interest here because they have been conscripted into double-duty. They refer both to the visual codes of high Modernism in which gesture and the white space is equated with presence (or as a signal of transcendence, or freedom, as a response to existential exigencies), and to the postmodern code of hybridity that generates surfaces which are meant to suggest, even encourage, a variety of co-existent, multiple and often contradictory readings. Evangeline’s manipulation of her surfaces and of her striated and circular structures are not used only as ends in themselves, although they echo self-referential formalist devices such as Morris Louis veils, Ken Noland stripes, Jasper Johns targets, Sam Francis drips and bars and Mondrian ‘s gridded spaces. The whiteness of Evangeline’s backgrounds, although not purely white, neither accept or deny the historical ideological underpinnings of such space: the infinite space of Malevich, the transcendentalism of Mondrian, or the inviolate pristine solipsism of Greenbergian formalism. The flat whiteness and transparency of the works in the Camille Series accentuates the flow’s record of its own making.
As a specimen on an operating table the white universal space is particularized and naturalized. Even as it is splattered, speckled and invaded by drips and pours the white washed ground offers a level of clarity and distance. It intensifies the subjective energy flows in the work which, in turn, reveals the immensity of the interior workings of nature and of our own bodies. Margaret Evangeline’s interplay of macroscopic and microscopic in her work sharpens our senses. It informs our place in the universe as it underlines the fact that proportion is not something necessarily proper to the thing, but a category through which we organize our perception of the world. The Camille Series takes as its subject-matter the fluidity that characterizes an inside in its relationship to an outside. This fluidity allows us to conceive of any experience the paradoxical reality of an intimate immensity:
The cell of myself is filled with
The lime-washed stone wall of
Vestigial biomorphism. To a certain extent the vestigial biomorphism in the Series with its minimal structures that flow out of the symbolic surface whose signifying function is hydra-headed, charged with a deeply felt irony that, projected as cultural conflicts, replaces the mysticism of the earlier fin-de-siècle Symbolism and the symbolism-inspired biomorphic painting of the forties as seen in the works of Rothko and Stamos. While part of the legacy of the anti-positivist Symbolist enterprise today has been legitimately appropriated (the supersaturation of pigment, faith in the capacity of color to function through its visual presence) another part, its capacity to induce transcendence through material repleteness, is left open to question. The redefinition of the pastoral experience through a shared communion with the inner life of natural phenomena, as seen in the modernist movements of early and mid-century, has been replaced to a considerable degree now with participation with the inner life of cultural phenomena. These phenomena are reflected by a radical and dystopic insistence on deferring resolution of late twentieth-century conflicts whether they are the increasing fragmentation and segmentation of personal identity or larger social-political events such as the forced exodus and dispersal of entire populations. Rather than present resolution this latter-day symbolism records the response: the face-off of an objectification of subjective intensities (the original Symbolist project) with the subjectivization of information which forms part of what Agent Mulder, in a recent television X-File episode, referred to as the “military-industrial-entertainment complex.”
Allowing intermittence. Evangeline’s gestural pictorial work adds layers of this new subjectivity as the structural arrangements in her work avoids a dialectical positioning. Her surfaces and colors are used as expressive signs in the depiction of flow in the full plentitude of its meaning, in a Deleuzian expanse and generosity.11 In Evangeline’s grids, for example, those contours offer us various conflicting topological readings and pictorial dramas. The two rag-tag grids with the right hand one fading in the distance in Camille Series #9 are essentially referred to materialistically as measuring and transfer devices. In Series #2, 8, 4 and 35 the all over three-dimensional lattices activate and dematerialize their surfaces while serving as references to theoretical models for architectural space. With their insinuation of the dispersal of matter within and outside the picture plane these mappings recall other giddy, “cheerfully schizophrenic “ grids in twentieth century art.12
In Evangeline’s work the visual codes of formalism are symmetrically alluded to but they are dismantled and reorganized through what Paul Ricoeur has called “impertinent prediction,”13 a deviant device that is at the heart of metaphoric play and the root of significant form in art. The artist’s de-structuring of linear expressionism is followed by a restructuring of another order: she uses a visual symbology of the ontological character of primary organic life, metabolism, and applies it to a formalist vocabulary enlarging and enriching the disjunctive codes of post modernism as she does so. Evangeline’s transposition of such symbology plays off from a distance and with sophisticated daring the concept of the inner necessity of organic life towards growth as the biological analogy of artistic volition heralded by the early modernists. The halting gaps, visual stammering along with the graceful trails of translucent paint in the Camille Series are incantatory. They seem to question the viability of an easy progressive unfolding of possibilities.14 At the same time they suggest the only possible source of affirmation for the future will be “…where one might gain the power to cease thinking solely with a view to unity… where one might gain power not only to express oneself in an intermittent manner but also to allow intermittence itself to speak.”15
1. Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life-Toward Philosophical Biology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966, pp. 64-98: ‘Our first remark concerns what we may call the thoroughly “dialectical” nature of organic freedom, namely, that it is balanced by a correlative necessity, which belongs to it as its own shadow and as such recurs intensified at each step to higher independence as the “shadow” peculiar to that level. On the basic level, that defined by metabolism, this double aspect shows in the terms of metabolism itself: denotes equally the irremissable necessity for it to do so. Its “can” is a “must”, since its execution is identical with its being . It can, but it cannot cease to do what it can without ceasing to be.’ (p. 83)
2. Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1982, p. 226. Translation by Ann Smock.
3. Francis Ponge, La Parti Pris des Choses, “De L’eau”, London: The Athlone Press, 1979, p. 55. Translation by Ian Higgins.
4ab. Marguerite Duras, L’Amant, Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1984, pp. 56, 30-1,
76-7. All translations unless noted otherwise by Dominique Nahas.
5. This “prolonged present” (Gertrude Stein’s term), William James’s “specious present” or Henri Bergson’s “the live present” has similarities with the experience of movement that results in the Cezannean facture. Much later that ‘moving present’ is embodied in Pollock’s drips. According to M. Sheets-Johnstone “this kinetic declaration of animate existence, this spontaneous opening up into movement” was recognized by Merleau-Ponty when he wrote of Cezanne’s “thinking in painting” as a process in which “vision becomes gesture.” That is, perception interlaced with movements. For a good overall description of the regime of energetics see: Jean-Francois Lyotard’s Des Dispositifs Pulsionnels, Paris: Christian Bourgois Editeur, 1980, pp. 227-267; Regarding movement informing thought, see Maxine Sheets-Johnstone “Thinking in Movement”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Summer 1981, Vol. 39 #4, pp. 399-407. See also: Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s “Cezanne’s Doubt”, Sense and Non Sense, Northwestern University Press, 1964, pp. 9-25: “The lived object is not rediscovered or reconstructed on the basis of the senses; rather, it presents itself to us from the start as the center from which these contributions radiate” (p. 15).
6. See Leonard Koren, Wabi-sabi, Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 1994, pp. 22-29, 40-72.
7. Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, op. cit., p. 226.
8. These surfaces punctuated by burn holes have visual corollaries in the symbolically restorative aspect of Nancy Spero’s distressed surfaces in her Codex Artaud [1970-1] in which she attemptsto recreate the poet’s inarticulate “sound space.” See my retrospective catlogue Nancy Spero: Works Since 1950, Syracuse: Everson Museum, 1987.
9. See Richard Pilgrim, Chanoyu Quarterly no. 46, 1986: “Ma—the unconcerned moment of movement of enlightenment is accompanied by a profound discontinuance or gap, the ma, from which flows the richness of life lived from a different center. (Sen Soshitsu XV)” (p. 6); This word ma can be translated into English as space, spacing, interval, gap, blank, room, rest, time, timing, or opening…In general usage…the word ma means “interval”; the space or time between things or events. (p. 32).
10. La cellule de moi meme emplit d’étonnement / La muraille peinte à la chaux de mon secret. Gaston Bachelard, The Poets of Space, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969, p. 228.
11. Gilles Deleuze and Feliz Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, Minneapolis: University of Minneapolois Press, 1987: “Imitation is the propagation of a flow; opposition is the binarization, the making binary of flows; invention is a conjugation or connection of different flows…Infinitesimal imitation, opposition, and invention are therefore like flow quanta marking a propagation, binarization, or conjugation of beliefs and desires.” (p.219). Translation by Brian Massumi.
12. For an account of the “cheerfully schizophrenic” grid in twentieth century art see Rosalink E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985, pp. 9-22.
13. As an interationist in linguistics theory Ricoeur is on the side of semantics rather than semiotics. Stressing the necessity of relation and tension to the notion of meaning, especially with respect to metaphor he argues that the metaphorical mode creates meaning by “impertinent predication”—the tension between traditional uses and utterances combined in a fesh manner that gives rise to new insights into the world of experienced reality. See Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977, pp. 149-172.
14. ‘The history of philosophical systems [in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit] is “the progressive unfolding of the Truth.” Hegel, who likes dynamic, fluid, organic metaphors, expresses the progressive becoming when he write: The bud disappears in the bursting forth of the blossom, and one might say that the former is refuted by the latter; similarly, when the fruit appears, the blossom is shown up as a false manifestation of the plant, and the fruit now emerges as the Truth instead. These forms are not just distinguished from one another, they also supplant one another as mutually incompatible. Yet at the same time their fluid nature makes them moments in an organic unity in which they do not only not conflict with one another, but in which each is necessary as the other, and this mutal necessity alone constitutes the life of the whole.”’
Passage and commentary from: Richard J. Bernstein, The New Constellation, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992, p. 295.
15. Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press , 1993, p.87. Translation by Susan Hanson.