Catalina Chervin and the Grotesque of the Quotidian

By Edward J. Sullivan. Dean for the Humanities
Professor of Fine Arts New York University

The experience of urban existence consists of a series of constant encounters. Some of these arte benign while others are redolent of strangeness, mystification and a disturbing quality that tends to seep into our minds and remain there, creating odd permutations as they invade our unconsciousness and our dreams. The drawings of Catalina Chervin have always seemed to me to be intensely urban, in the sense that they appear as distillations of the concentration of daily experience that can only be had in an enormous urban metropolis such as New York, Paris or Buenos Aires. This is not to say that there is any outward sense of everyday “reality” as conventionally described, yet the images created by Catalina Chervin arte, on the other hand, intensely “real”. They arte products of a series of concrete decisions on the part of this gifted artist to create mazes of lines and patterns of forms that may by undetrstood at times as abstract, but for the most part are definite, deliberate refinements of experience. The experiences suggested by the shapes and forms in her works come into sharper focus the more our eyes concentrate on the minute, precise details.

The work of Catalina Chervin is also deeply rooted in the history of art. Althrougt it is an absolutely original contribution to the genre of contemporary drawings (and, indeed, is very much a part of contemporary currents of realistic or quasi-realistic image-making), it looks retrospectively to some of the more recondite figures in the history of draftsmanship and painting, recalling artists who, throughout the ages, have evoked the interstices between reality and fantasy. In some cases,  however, in contemplating the drawings of Catalina Chervin, I recall who are deeply interested in the depiction of absolute empirical specificity. Andreas Vesalius, the sixteenth century physician, published in 1543 what is regarded as the first modern book of anatomy, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Workings of the Human Body). The extraourdinary illustrations (not unrelated to Leonardo Da Vinci´s anatomical drawings) that accompany this treatise are the first images in western visual history that take the viewer inside the body and reveal the details of bones, veins, muscles, and the brain. For contemporary viewers the images by Vesalius were a revelation and explained many theretofore secrets of anatomical truth. Yet when we look today at Vesalius´s prints they seem strange, even bizarre, representing something of a half way point between fact and fantasy.

Later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, other artists (some of them, like Francisco Goya, growing out of the Romantic tradition of rerpresenting the grotesque) created paintings, prints and drawings that draw the viewer into their fascinating aura by suggesting on atmosphere of disquietude, an ambiance of anxieety). Such Symbolist artists as Rodolphe Bresdin, a now almost-forgotten Belgian master, Gustave Moreau, another brilliant artist of the late nineteenth century, or even the proto-expressionist James Ensor all employed representations of the “real” to evoke hidden emotions and covert fears that exist in the minds of all of us.

The art of Catalina Chervin is compelling for its sheer virtuosity, its physical beauty and, most of all, for the psychological power it wields over any viewer who comes into contact with  it. Her drawings must not be looked at quickly; they require absolute concentration and visual penetration. Every centimeter of an individual drawing´s surface serves as an amalgam of the whole. We should observe these drawings as if they were continuously unrolling scrolls, not unlike those classical Japanese paintings that we unfold and study inch by inch. In fact, the delicacy, intensity and deliberateness of each stroke of the pen or brush has a sacramental quality, not unlike many manifestations of Asian artistic practice.

It may seem almost contradictory that I invoke the contemplative arts of Asia when writing about the drawings of Catalina Chervin. A neophyte, seeing her work for the first time, may have the sensation that they are viewing metaphors of chaos or trauma. Surfaces (skin, bones, skulls) seem to be opening, cracking apart, literally exploding with a preternatural force. Everything seems to be in dynamic and even violent movement. And his is indeed true: there is a strong implication of terror, brutality and aggression in many of these works. Yet the antagonism inherent within these drawings is controlled, and also represents a natural progression of events. Nature itself is violent and contradictory. This sense of portraying the calm and the unsettled at the same time is one of the things that compels us to keep looking at this work. Yet it is only when we really make the effort to study, penetrate and understand it, we see the calm, meditative qualities inherent in it. The artist has reconciled herself to the contradictory nature of the body, the world and the cosmos. The essence of Catalina Chervin´s work is dichotomy – the realization that things are not static but in continual state of flux. The universe is in a constant state of creation and destruction. The human body represents both permanence and decay at the same time. This grasping by the artist of the essential binaries of existence and the representation of them in her forceful, intriguing and technically masterful drawings are the elements that draw us to look again and again at this work. Each time we contemplate her works, it is as if we are looking at them for the first time.

 

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