Catalina Chervin
Cecilia de Torres LTD. / Review in Art Nexus

By Edward J. Sullivan
Helen Gould Sheppard Professor of the History of Art
Institute of Fine Arts
Department of Art History
Provostial Fellow for the Arts
New York University

2016 was a remarkable year for exhibitions of important women abstract artists in New York museums and galleries. Carmen Herrera’s retrospective was seen at the Whitney Museum, that of Agnes Martin was at the Guggenheim and the less well-known but no less significant African-American painter Alma Thomas’s work was on view at The Studio Museum in Harlem. To this list we should add Catalina Chervin. Atmospheres and Entropy: Works on Paper (curated by Susanna Temkin) at the Cecilia de Torres Fine Art Ltd. Gallery (November, 17, 2016 to February 4, 2017). This was a small but powerful retrospective of Chervin’s accomplishments during the past decade (although several pieces had been started as early as the later 1990s and reworked through the years – Chervin creates slowly and we feel as if she releases the products of her rich imagination into the world with great caution and even a certain reluctance). While she has not had a Manhattan gallery or museum show before, Chervin’s art nonetheless forms part of such distinguished permanent collections as The Metropolitan Museum and The Jewish Museum. This Argentine artist is originally from the northern city of Corrientes but for many years she has been based in Buenos Aires. Chervin works principally in ink and charcoal on paper although recently she had branched out into large-scale collage in pieces such as the 2014-16 Untitled Diptych (fig. 1) that suggest the proportions of a mural or palimpsest wall of an urban site covered with the detritus of advertising, graffiti and random markings to suggest the passage of time and in the inexorable anxiety of existence.

As someone who has been a long-time follower of Catalina Chervin’s art I have seen it evolve in surprising and gratifying ways since the early 1990s. In 2012 Marietta Mautner Markhof, curator at the Albertina Graphische Sammlung (Vienna) wrote that “Since [Chervin’s] emancipation from surrealist imagination [she] has worked steadfastly to clarify and deepen herabilities to transform a process of sensual experience into visual form.”1. This writer refers to Chervin’s earlier engagement with tortured forms possibly suggested by the art of Northern Renaissance painters like Pieter Bruegel or Hieronymus Bosch. Chervin executed many masterful ink and charcoal drawings throughout the 1980s and 90s that evoked the body in pain, hinting at bones, sinews, fibers and vegetal forms of humanoid figures in evidently agonizing contortions. Intimations of the anxiety of the human condition, and harrowing events of much greater cataclysmic consequences like the Holocaust (the artist is descendant of Russian Jewish immigrants to Argentina) haunt her work of this period. I would not, however, connect her earlier art with any of the movements that developed throughout the Americas in the late 1930s and 40s that were directly connected to the peregrinations of the European Surrealists in the New World.Catalina Chervin’s imagination is far too independent to be subject to the sometimes-obvious directives of the Surrealist aesthetic. Instead, in her art from the pre-2000 era, Chervin fashioned a private language of trauma and unease that evokes long-forgotten distress of collective apprehension.

In the new work on view at Cecilia de Torres, Chervin concentrates much more than before on the possibilities of line and form. Although her art is virtually monochrome, she sometimes employs color in enigmatically subtle ways. In compositions dominated by twisting and turning black and white lines and shapes, she will occasionally introduce a small area of yellow wash, or, in other instances, a small drop of blood red. These color highlights do not carry with them any overt references to a topical event, nor do they proffer a message to the viewer. They are, in effect, subtle hints of rebellion from the dominant black and white – reminders that discordant notes may always invade the otherwise consistent tonalities of her drawings.

In some of Chervin’s larger pieces the thickness of the rag paper is enhanced, or attention is called to the density of its texture, by the artist’s scraping away sections of the surface with a razor. Within the framework of a mass of lines and intersecting forms she will create what appears to be breaks and rifts of the surface. This lends a quasi-geological impression to the work, as if it had been worn away with the relentless passage of time. This is very noticeable in the large untitled collage illustrated here in which a sculptural sensibility has been introduced with the many layers and collaged sections of the work. Her art is evidently headed in a direction of increased abstraction and experimentation with shapes and surfaces. The play of voids and solids constitute not so much a technique but an aesthetic strategy. Chervin is interested in establishing her own visual architecture and creating a landscape of light and shade in which her fertile imagination operates and into which she wishes to draw the attention of her viewers.

1. In the exhibition catalogue Catalina Chervin. As I Breathe (Berlin: Lempertz, 20
2), p. 5.


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