Susan Owens (2020)

Someone recently observed that we haunt ourselves. In the space behind our conscious minds other parts of our brains tick away, suddenly bringing long-buried memories of people and events out of our mental oubliettes and into the light of day where they appear like ghosts, indistinct and disquieting. It is a striking idea; but most of all it makes me think of Catalina Chervin’s work.

When I first saw Chervin’s drawings and she described her working methods, I found myself thinking of her as a medium conducting a séance, entering a trance and inviting a spirit to come out of obscurity and into the light. The graceful marks Chervin initially makes with graphite or ink prepare the way and establish a rhythm; then, little by little, her mind opens to the drawing. Like a ghost materializing, its matter then begins to emerge on the sheet. Chervin does not know, any more than a medium does, exactly what will come; for her, drawing and discovery are the same thing. She immerses herself in the shadows, in the darkness behind the paper, finds what is beginning to emerge and invites it to come forward.

So what does Chervin bring out of the dark? Multitudes of figures, towers, fissures, clouds, storm-bursts, tangled roots, all drawn with exquisite precision. Explosions of matter comparable to Leonardo da Vinci’s late drawings of catastrophic natural disasters. Landscapes both delicate and terrifying. She gives visual form to states of mind, dramatizing the meeting between the personal and the cosmic.

Chervin’s drawings retain their mysteries. Part of it is scale: are the forms we see unimaginably immense? Or are we looking through a microscope? Similarly, trying to grasp their subjects fully is like attempting to recall a dream, the events of which unravel and slip out of our grasp. But these Works hold us under their spell with the remarkable power of their atmosphere, and with the truths they insistently whisper about the nature of the human spirit. The ghosts that haunt Catalina Chervin’s drawings compel us to keep looking.



* Dr Susan Owens
is an art historian, writer and curator. She worked as a curator for the Royal Collection before becoming Curator of Paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2007.




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