Irene Kopelman, a solo exhibition
Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art
6 May – 26 August, 2018
Review by John Gayer
Stepping into Irene Kopelman, a solo exhibition, lands one in an ambiguously sparse installation filled with plenty of air and light. Here it takes time to adjust to the presentation’s scope, as some of the works offer bare whispers of visual information that are delicately precise representations that cannot be grasped in a few milliseconds. But gearing down to really look and think about what it is she is doing changes all that. In addition to nullifying that initial impression of the unhabited space, it leads to the unexpected discoveries. Through her work viewers suddenly find themselves linked to some of the world’s most exotic and out-of-the-way places, sites that Kopelman has visited and documented according to specific methods of observation and data notation, and then used as a basis for the work produced in her Amsterdam studio.
At Witte de With the visual impact of Peru’s jungles in Reserva Territorial Madre de Dios is conveyed by juxtaposing 12 delicate contour drawings from the series. ‘Forest Windows’ (2012). with 3 gouaches from the series. ‘Forest Windows (The Exact Opposite from Distance Paintings)’ (2012). As this incredibly dense wilderness made it impossible to get any sense of the general landscape, Kopelman chose graphite to delineate discrete and irregularly shaped pockets of vegetation and then used gouache as a basis for the images painted in her studio. By contrasting the former, which were made in the field, with the latter produced studio works, the artist manifests a shift in the representation of the jungle that makes it possible to see these small fragments of greenery as part of a much greater whole. Like an enticing puzzle, this collection of images urges viewers to imagine its character and, in turn, also helps us comprehend the environment’s impenetrability.
The entire exhibition, in fact, makes prolific use of such pairings. The neighbouring gallery features 4 large canvases united by the rubric, ‘Tree Lines A-B-C-D’ (2013), and, ‘Sampling Greens’ (2012), a set of colour charts in which Kopelman set out to capture the complexity of leaf greens. Again, the viewer is presented with unexpectantly close readings of specific environments. Whereas the greens of the canvases simultaneously make reference to alpine tree species and the paths taken by avalanches in the Swiss Alps, the charts derive from a scientific exhibition to Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu. In addition to functioning as art, the notations also provided valuable information for conservation initiatives in Borneo.
The third and final chapter of the exhibition focuses on Hawaii’s volcanoes and lava coated terrain. The latter is represented by the topographical, ‘Puzzle Piece’ (2012), a square, floor-bound composition made up of a sumptuously mix of pigmented clay fragments that form the central point of reference. Encompassing it are a trio of equally richly hued paintings, where the compositions simultaneously echo the sense of flow, networking and chromatic diversity evident in the clay piece, as well as all the other series previously seen. The predominate colour of each canvas – one is purple-grey, another green and the final one blue – share the same title. ’77 Colors of a Volcanic Landscape’, but for the addition of a different letter (A, B or C) that affirms the identity of each canvas. These compositions are based on a colour index produced from volcanic stones collected at the site and amplify the “close-up” views Kopelman drew during her visit. Paired together, the works reinforce each other’s monumentality and tacit volatility. Their leafy and/or splintered aspects also recall the qualities of paintings by artists such as Robert Goodnough, Jack Bush and Julian Schnabel.
But what is most interesting about these works and the exhibition in general is the way in which the artist uses traditional media in the service of scientific investigation and then reinterprets it, so that her work bridges the realms of science and art. While, on one level, this practice harks back to the topographical drawings and paintings employed by the military from the late 17th to the early 19th century, it also advances the genre of landscape painting in formerly and unanticipated directions that reawakens a curiosity about the natural environment and causes a reappraisal of how we might see and think about the world around us.