The Magic In The Shadows, By Selene Wendt


By Selene Wendt 

The Norwegian artist Elisabeth Werp has been faithful to classical painting throughout her career. Her unusual respect for the primacy of classical painting within a contemporary art context is indicative of her particularly strong ties to the past. Therefore, her decision to present her new paintings within an installation context, where video plays an equally important part, comes as somewhat of a surprise. Yet, as the exhibition Echo demonstrates, this is a logical step forward for Elisabeth. The exhibition signals an important breakthrough for her to the extent that she continues to paint as before while strengthening the message by presenting the paintings within a contemporary installation context. 

While the presentation itself has changed considerably, the content of the paintings is as familiar as ever. The relationship between past and present is the leitmotif throughout her work, and also in this exhibition. Elisabeth Werp considers her paintings and the world she creates through pictures to be closer to reality than the life she lives. While it is only natural that she be thoroughly engaged in the artistic process, her engagement is particularly relevant to understanding her art. The importance of going back in time is of utmost importance to Werp; she enjoys reflecting on the past and bringing forth details that give meaning to life. She finds inspiration from the past, drawing both from personal history and art history, creating a complex visual language in the process. 

Traditional values are at the core of Elisabeth Werp's life view, as highlighted in her art. Affection, humility, thankfulness, dignity and respect are values that she consistently brings forth in her work; values that she feels have disappeared in today's society. She explains that it is imperative for her to be able to establish the importance of these values through her art. Overall, the paintings have a timeless resonance that she feels is closer to reality than daily life. Werp takes the time to engage in the small wonders of life, details that she zooms in on and highlights within a rich, sensorial, baroque visual language. 

The details in the paintings slowly emerge, similar to the process of developing photographs in a darkroom. We find traces from special places that she has photographed, frozen moments that she uses as a point of departure for further development within an intricate form of expression. The consistent use of religious iconography, the thorough and slow painting process, and the cracks on the surface all recall antiquity, thereby gently guiding us into the world of Da Vinci, Botticelli and Fra Angelico. Nevertheless, her works are not as much about romantic forays in the past as they are a play between past and present – where the abstract patterns have more to do with Pollock than Perugino, and where the video installation sets a contemporary frame around the work. 

Elisabeth Werp has a unique ability to bring forth contradictions, typically relying on the formal aspects of painting to express these contradictions. Her continuing interest in technique, various treatments of paint, how she can mix paint with other elements, and her scientific approach to the materials, all bring to mind alchemy. Layer upon layer, she builds her paintings with both old and new techniques, only later to deconstruct what she has already finished – one of many references to the cycle of life in her work. Cracks in the finish create a delicate web over the surface, while the resulting patterns from chemical processes play with and against the strong symbolism in her visual language. 

Her secretive implementation of old and new techniques and her solid knowledge of various chemical processes support James Elkins' theory that painting is alchemy. In his groundbreaking book What Painting Is, he compares artists' thorough knowledge of the substance of painting (regardless of what it represents pictorially, and regardless of art historical references), how paints can be mixed and what happens when they come into contact with other materials, to alchemy. This is almost like reading a description of how Elisabeth Werp, formally speaking, works with painting as a medium: 

Painting is alchemy. Its materials are worked without knowledge of their properties, by blind experiment, by the feel of the paint. A painter knows what to do by the tug of the brush as it pulls through a mixture of oils, and by the look of color slurries on the palette. Drawing is a matter of touch: the pressure of the charcoal on the slightly yielding paper, the sticky slip of the oil crayon between the fingers. Artists become expert in distinguishing between degrees of gloss and wetness—and they do so without knowing how they do it, or how chemicals create their effects. *1

Elisabeth Werp is fluent in the secretive, magical language of painting. She has full control over the canvas and challenges the formal potential of painting by leaving certain aspects to chance. It is impossible to determine exactly how various chemical processes will turn out. Yet after many years of experience she knows precisely when and how she must treat the paint to obtain a desired effect. She is a painter with intimate knowledge of the magic that can result from chemical processes, resulting in a seamless meeting between control and chance. 

In one of the paintings, where a smoke-like cloud floats over a fireplace, we see how powerful such a process can be. In the Room of Longing, 2006 is the first work that she painted for the exhibition, and it is indicative of the overall style of the exhibition. An empty armchair faces toward a fireplace at the centre of the composition and plays against the more abstract pattern of the background. The area immediately above the fireplace gives a double sense of fire in that the surface of the painting actually looks as though it has been burned. Cracks over the entire surface further enhance the feeling that the painting has been exposed to the elements over an extended period of time, while the rust-coloured tones contribute to a sense of overall decay and dissolution. 

It seems that the essence of Elisabeth Werp's paintings rests here, just above the fireplace mantel, where the relationship between the conscious and subconscious, the concrete and the abstract, the material and the spiritual achieve their ultimate form of expression in the play between form and content. We are seduced by the formal aspects: the intricate, decorative patterns created by the cracks, the subtle play of colour, and the contrasts between light and dark, but right before we lose ourselves in the formal fog we see the guiding light of content and symbolism. It is precisely this complex play of opposites that opens up for a wide range of relevant interpretations and shows just how successful these paintings actually are. 

Elisabeth Werp's new paintings are lighter than ever before; the colours range from silver-white to black-brown, with all the variations in between. Her use of colour seems even more conscious and significant than before, and further contributes to emphasising the life cycle as a central theme in the work. The colours are strongly anchored to the earth, directly inspired by her upbringing in the country, where the fields where sowed, cultivated and ploughed in the same cycle each year. Dark brown represents the fertile earth, which is ploughed and sowed each spring, yellows and reds relate to autumn decay, while the light and shimmering relates to freshly-fallen winter snow. Nature's endless cycle of growth becomes an apt metaphor for the cycle of human life. 

The paintings are defined by an unusually complex visual language that shows strong links to 17th century Dutch vanitas paintings. In terms of content as well and form, the similarities to this genre, where various elements have consistent and clear symbolic meanings, is quite apparent. Vanitas paintings functioned as visual reminders of the evanescence of life, expressed in a conscious use of symbolism referring to decay. Decadent still-life paintings replete with references to a moral message are typical of this painting tradition. Floral arrangements, clocks, birds, pearls and wine goblets are examples of symbolic elements that were intended to express the inevitable fact that everyone will eventually die. This immediately recognizable symbolism is echoed in Elisabeth Werp's paintings, where clocks symbolise the flight of time, fog relates to the brevity of life, and wineglasses and pearls signify the futility of sensory pleasure. 

The similarity to vanitas painting certainly contributes to the interpretation of Elisabeth Werp's paintings and sets them within an interesting new perspective. However, it should be emphasised that she expresses herself in a wider context than the rigid defining rules of this genre, and therefore she is not a modern vanitas painter per se. Above all, the similarity functions as one of many aspects that anchor her work in the past, and it serves to further emphasise the overall significance of the play between past and present within her work. 

While her use of symbolism isn't nearly as strict as in true vanitas paintings, the effect is essentially the same; she consciously uses symbolism to underline a moral message regarding the brevity of life. For instance, empty rooms seen throughout her paintings give a strong indication of events that have taken place. The sense that people have occupied these spaces and that others will eventually take their place emphasises the notion of borrowed time on earth. As a contrast to such heavy thoughts she finds meaning in the sacred, expressed in her rich implementation of religious iconography. 

A more powerful reference to the sacred than what is found in The Table of Dreams, 2006 is difficult to imagine. The work is among her best, where form and content, the abstract and figurative, the sensual and the sacred are unified as one. Turquoise blue wineglasses play against the similarly blue background, thereby creating a visual contrast to the light, beige tones elsewhere in the work. Barely hidden under a white, fog-like veil is a woman's face floating in the air, much closer to a spirit than a living person. The iconography enhances the message while the formal aspects – the emphasis on materiality – stand in contrast to the content. 

Her use of religious symbolism also dominates another central work, Time and Remembrance, 2006, a work in which the iconography borrows heavily from art history. It is no coincidence that this is a three-part work – to the contrary, it is a fitting reference to classical triptych altarpieces. The art historical references embedded throughout the work result in an interesting play between various art historical periods. De La Tour meets Bronzino, while Botticelli's Madonna of the Pomegranitei> is set together with Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Elisabeth Werp places familiar art historical references within a post-modern visual language, thereby enriching the dialogue between Renaissance art and Contemporary art. 

One of the paintings in this triptych is compositionally divided into three definite parts, with keys dominating the imagery on the left side. While design variations between the keys are visually interesting, they also bear metaphorical significance. Werp explains that there are different keys for different stages in life. The same key doesn't last a lifetime because life is in a constant state of change. Art historical references enrich the central part of the painting, while an intricate lace pattern, seemingly on the verge of disintegration, dominates the right side of the painting. Here we see how the various figurative elements virtually disappear in the whole as a result of the constant working and reworking of the paint. However if we look carefully, the details slowly emerge. 

Elisabeth Werp draws us into a paradoxical visual world that seems both familiar and disorienting at the same time. The compositions are built layer upon layer, filled with symbols that arouse our interest. Stairs, for instance, have the effect of pulling us into the work, making us want to see, feel and know more. However, whatever lies hidden beyond the last visible step is not revealed. We gain no clearer answer to the question of what lies at the end, at the top of the stairs, than we do to the question of what meets us at the end of life. The stairs function as a strong metaphor for life in general, and the possible meanings here are almost endless. Elisabeth Werp builds the foundation step by step, both in life and in her art, based on her belief in the sacred as the most important aspect of our brief life journey. 

As a painter who manages to communicate in such a rich and compelling visual language, it might seem unnecessary for her to express herself through film. In her explanation of why she wished to work with film, she places emphasis on the movement within her paintings – something that she wanted to make even clearer than what is possible via the flat surface of a painting. Yet, the power of her first film has more to do with painterly aspects than with movement. When Elisabeth Werp works with film, she freezes various moments in time, just as she does in her paintings – quite simply, she paints with the camera. 

Werp integrates her film into an installation, projecting the moving image onto three fabric panels that float down from the ceiling. She creates a unique setting around an ornately set table, further emphasising the play between the physical surroundings and the reality that is presented in the film itself. If we didn't know better, it would be hard to tell if the installation inspired the paintings or vice versa – this is the key to her presentational approach. Past meets present, where our reality – the museum surroundings – melds with the constructed reality, which again comprises a dialogue with the paintings. We recognise the table from her paintings, here filled to abundance. We are all invited guests, as the message pertains to everyone, but nobody can stay forever. In the meantime, we can accept the invitation to enter into Elisabeth Werp's visual world. 

Elisabeth pieces her film together with short sequences taken from the film by Aleksandr Sokurov, The Russian Arc, 2002, filmed at The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. In the seamless transitions between Sokurov's world and Elisabeth Werp's world, and the constant shifts between past and present, it becomes difficult to differentiate specifics in time and place. Werp films the insides of a burned-down house, where the contours of a child's dress that once hung on the wall convey the pain of the loss of childhood. Suddenly, we find ourselves in a different setting, where we hear Russian voices from the film, and then back again to poetic sequences where the abundance of various props brings us mentally back into The Hermitage. This is the progression throughout the film, back and forth, shifting constantly between past and present, history and personal story. She guides us through time and seasons, yet again emphasising the importance of the life cycle as an overarching theme of the work. 

To delve into Elisabeth Werp's art, is comparable to wakening from a deep sleep and to sense the shift between dream and reality – the exact point in time when the impression of dreams delicately floats, just before they are slowly erased by increased consciousness. We quickly forget most dreams, but the strongest, most symbolic dreams move right into our soul, with the power to affect our awakened state. Similarly, Elisabeth Werp's paintings stem from a combination of the conscious and subconscious, with an equal ability to make a mark on our understanding of reality. The enigmatic reality that Elisabeth Werp comments through her work is beautifully summarized in these famous words from The Tempest, by William Shakespeare: 

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep

*1: James Elkins, What Painting Is, Routeledge Press, London, 1999, page 9.