Showcase. Views of fluid space

On the painting of Susi Juvan
Sibylle Omlin
Author Marcel Proust invoked the richness of the numerous textured layers of the artwork when he spoke of »épaisseurs d’arts«¹). His own preference was for capturing works of art via literary descriptions, prints and photography, all of which make it possible, in Proust’s eyes, to layer various perceptual strata on top of each other and to duplicate them – which is not possible when observing things in natura.
In Proust’s »In Remembrance of Things Past«, a writer named Bergotte’s attention is drawn by a piece written by an art critic on Vermeer’s painting »View of Delft«. Although he believes he knows the painting very well, the description by the art critic leads Bergotte to discover a small section of yellow-painted wall that he had overlooked,
»it is painted so well that seen on its own it has the merit of a precious Chinese work of art, is of a self-sufficient beauty.«²)
Shortly afterwards, Bergotte visits the Vermeer exhibition in Paris to look at »View of Delft«, and to compare it with the art critic’s description:
»He finally stood in front of the Vermeer, which he recalled as being brighter, more different from anything else he had otherwise known, but on which – thanks to the article by the art critic – he noticed for the first time span class='MeinBlau'>small figures dressed in blue, and also realized that the sand was a pale pink, and finally also discovered the precious material of the really small yellow piece of wall. (…) That’s how I should have written, he told himself. The last books I wrote are too dry; I should have placed several layers of color over each other, made my language precious in itself, as this small piece of yellow wall is.«³) I cite these comments on Vermeer by Proust’s protagonist as a lead-in to the marvellous nature of Susi Juvan’s painting. Considering her large-sized paintings entitled »Showcase« it seems an attractive idea to relate something of these remarks to her, all the more so as Susi Juvan’s painting is likewise concerned with this »épaisseurs d’arts« which she strives to make precious in her painting – like the small yellow section of wall by Vermeer.
It is significant that Chinese porcelain plays a certain role in Susi Juvan’s five-picture series entitled »Showcase«. The artist discovered the Chinese porcelain in a large showcase while visiting the Guimet Museum in Paris. The dishes were arranged at various levels, Juvan relates, they were white and featured painted blue scenes, complex depictions of landscapes and genre figures as well as still life – classic painting subjects. When I visited her studio, the photos Susi Juvan had taken in the Museum lay scattered around like mementos: worn, splattered with paint. The complexity of this topic – evoked by Chinese painting, white porcelain, reflections caused by the showcase, the play of light – was what motivated Susi Juvan to create the »Showcase« series. Since she took photos of her subject as a prelude to work it incorporates various levels of medial perception. The photographs have captured the lighting in the museum as a yellowish tinge, while the exhibition room lighting is reflected in the showcase as flecks of light. Moreover, the spatial proportions in the showcase meant the camera lens often only succeeded in portraying the vases as blurred elements in the overall picture.
»Telescoping together« is the English expression used to describe this overlapping of different medial layers of observation. Susi Juvan’s painting also reveals this concept of fading: She includes various levels of perception in her painting then arranges them in her pictures so that they blend into or are layered on top of each other, capturing the roaming gaze, enthusiasm for the dramatic moment, the invoking of recalled images. For her latest large-sized paintings she hit on a symbolic subject: the display case, whose hollow spaces make for a deepening of memories but equally for forgetting and concealing. And the glass not only enables insights into the interior, but also creates reflections that cast back the gaze.
The Chinese items are superficially the most conspicuous element in this large-format picture series. This raises the question about the placing and arrangement of items in the paintings. When considering Susi Juvan’s painterly approach it is significant that she places every vase, every plate and every dish separately in the painting, sometimes in the upper half then in the lower section. Exhibited thus in the pictorial space, the objects jar against their surrounding, their background. Susi Juvan does not base her composition on a complete space in which items are logically arranged in terms of perspective so they follow a single vanishing point. Instead, as she presents several directions of the gaze simultaneously, various vanishing points coexist as equals. A plate is hung on an imaginary wall that has nothing to do with the surroundings of the display case, a vase is set towards the lower edge of the painting, but not so far down that the edge might be read as the base of a showcase. In addition, many porcelain items are painted over, and disappear behind a veil of colored blots.
This lends the pictorial space a very specific quality. The individual splashes and gestural strokes are not clearly organized to suggest either perspective, a sense of spatial depth, distinct spatiality or foreground and background. Arranged next to and over one another, the sections refuse to create an illusionist space that might suggest a space such as a display case, for example. Instead, the colored patches in the painting insist on the tectonic, and a layered composition in the sense of above and below, back and forth.
When you focus on this aspect of Susi Juvan’s paintings, you realize that in many of her paintings there are few distinct contours. Shapes are seldom sharply defined, making it more difficult to interpret and understand them. Admittedly, it is possible to discern many strong gestures, revealing the flow of the stroke, the movement of the arm. Yet the gestures seem to reach beyond their suggested borders, defying a specific shape. This art consists primarily of patches and color fields that link up to other blots of a similar shade. As the paint is applied layer upon layer, varying degrees of thickness are produced in the painting. It is often not applied to create thick cover, but has a glazed quality allowing the lower layers to shine through in their varied shades. Harsh color contrasts occur rarely rather gradual mutations define the tonal quality. Titles of previous works such as »Blind Spot«, »Will-o’-the Wisp«, »Nocturne« indicate that Susi Juvan concentrates in her art on phenomena connected with seeing. For Susi Juvan, painting is a process as unrestricted and open as seeing, a transition between what is captured by the gaze, and what the arm places on the canvas in a strange distorted perspective. The titles mirror this strange connection between eye and hand, between what was seen and what was forgotten, between the delusion and truth of visual impressions stored in the mind, and the tortuous working one’s way forward from detail to detail on the canvas.
The fact that Susi Juvan’s most recent series of paintings is entitled »Showcase« (2001-2003) indicates a deeper exploration of picture space as a potential perspective space than was the case in earlier works, e.g. in the 30-part work of the city of Paris, in which the isolation of the angle is already indicated in the title, »P.A.R.I.S.«. The gaps that occurred in earlier picture clusters are now closed. This can be inferred thanks to a horizon line that runs consistently through all five »Showcase« paintings in the upper third of the picture surface and organizes the picture space like a shelf. The color fields delineated by virtue of the line primarily reveal the use of different color in the respective halves of the painting. It is a defining characteristic of many of Susi Juvan’s compositions that a hidden horizon can be made out somewhere between above and below. Several of her works are organized according to an almost indiscernible division into two parts. In the upper half we often find light, transparent shades that call to mind sky or air, while the lower halves of the paintings are often worked more densely, as if the force of gravity also exerted an influence on the multi-layered nature of her art.
As such, Susi Juvan’s art would seem to indicate how picture spaces can be structured as constructed and recollected spaces. Susi Juvan’s paintings revolve around designing the difference between seeing and recollecting, between seizing the fleetingly captured essence of the moment and making it material through painting. »It is not about the vases,« Susi Juvan stresses several times during our conversation. Rather, what is suggested is that the porcelain items in the frieze are advanced forward, passed by. In the first paintings of this series Susi Juvan placed the white-and-blue Chinese objects in cool, white-blue-gray spaces, before increasingly showing a preference for colored settings with bold colors such as bright pink, green, yellow or orange that recall the dark-yellow light of the photographs. The frieze ends in violet shades, (the color of melancholy), that carry the items along as they surface, then delve again into the deep mystery of the painterly process.
The views Susi Juvan’s »Showcase« enable are spaces without grounding, without a safety net or foundation in a geometrical scheme and the means of presentation on a two-dimensional flat plane. These spaces are developed solely via color, the layering of paint, the manner in which the color spots are juxtaposed to one another, and how they move from left to right over the surface. »It is painting without a safety net,« Susi Juvan finally says after a long period of silence, an inward-looking gesture, in which the process of brushstrokes and painting, smearing and covering the paint pushes you forward from zone to zone. What is more, the spots of paint press forward to places the observer would not expect them to be; this is all the more startling when (s)he would have located them in the background in keeping with perspective. It is this undefined spatial aspect that keeps her painting and observers in motion. It corresponds to the moving gaze of seeing.
¹) Marcel Proust: La Recherche du Temps Perdu (RTP), vol. 1, p. 10, German p. 57
²) Proust, RTP, 3, p. 692f., German p. 248
³) Proust, RTP, vol. 3, p. 692f., German p. 248. The idea for the comparison with the yellow section of the wall and the precious Chinese work of art comes from Proust’s friend, the art critic Jean-Louis Vaudoyer, who writing in the magazine »L’Opinion« (March 1921), compared Vermeer’s painting of the tiled houses von Delft with the quality of ceramics: »There is in Vermeer’s métier a Chinese patience, an ability to conceal the precision and method, as only occurs in the painting, lacquerwork and polished stones from the Far East.«

Show cases

Museum Guimet Paris: a large and spacious showcase presenting Chinese porcelain. The bowls and vases are arranged at different levels. They are white, with blue images, complex landscapes and genre paintings. Protected behind reflecting glass. The showcases and the china are the motif for the five-part large-sized series of canvases entitled »Vitrine I–V« (2001–2003). The topic of the paintings thus promises to be both complex and have many different layers of meaning to it. The showcase with the painted porcelain, with its hollow spaces and indentations, creates different pictorial levels, different approaches as regards revealing and concealing. The glass affords insights into the interior as well as reflections that cast our eye back at us. These works implicitly ask the question as to the meaning of painting – within paintings. The porcelain is itself an artistic object, combining aspects of the material properties of color and light. The color tones accentuate the artificial character of the subject matter such that the artist dares enter unusual colored terrain. Susi Juvan places the white-and-blue china first in cool white/blue/gray surroundings, and then increasingly in brighter and more daring colors, such as pink, green, yellow or orange. The frieze ends in blue-and-green tones that bear the emergence and disappearance of objects onward into the deep mystery of the painterly process.
In Susi Juvan’s painting, colors pile up in layers, creating different levels of density in the picture. The lower layers shimmer like glaze through the translucent upper layers. In this way, Susi Juvan’s pictorial series also speaks of the conflict between the closed perspective of the pictorial subject matter with the impermanence of painting. Indications of this are provided by a horizon, a line that runs through the upper third of all five paintings and structures the pictorial space like a shelf. The color fields delineated in this way emphasize above all the tectonic alignment of the upper and lower halves of the picture. Moreover, the »showcase« motif also puts the question as to the positioning and location of the objects in the picture. Each vase, each plate, and each bowl is presented from a singular angle, and each inserted into a particular pictorial frieze of its own.
In this way, a painterly space arises, one closely related to the different levels of seeing and the viewer’s wandering gaze.