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In a 1957 lecture entitled “The Creative Act,” artist Marcel Duchamp said, “To all appearancesthe artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing.”In the 1970s, artist Ciel Bergman (1938 2017)began working on a series of large scale paintings, The Linens, whose creationepitomized Duchamp’s depiction of the role of the artist. The Linens, as the body of workcurrently showing at the Center for Contemporary Artshas become known, is enigmatic and personal. Bergman challenged herself to alter the artistic path she had been on prior to the series’ start, clearing away representationalismto discover new realms and ideas. She saw herprocess as a spiritualjourney to a destination she could not predict.

Bergman was born in Berkeley, California, as Cheryl Maria Olsen. (Bergman legally changed her name in 1988to honor the memory of her Swedish grandmotherEmma Josephine Bergman.) She trained as a nurse in the areas of obstetrics and psychiatry, andmarried a man named Lynn Franklyn Bowers at the age of nineteen. She moved with him to Germany, where she was introduced to the works of European masters held in the continent’s prestigious art museums. Art would soon become her life’s calling. That same year, she began The Linens, in which she decisively abandoned representational imagery for a more conceptual grounding. “The whole series was prompted by her influencing mentor, Marcel Duchamp,” said Angie Rizzo, the show’s curator. “She felt that she was actually having a dialogue with him. Duchamp was a huge critic of painting, and she was a painter. Together,the paintings, though they are complete compositions in themselves,could almost represent the parts of a single whole. They are like a book of anatomical transparencies, each page of which addsmore physicaldetail until an entire body is formed.

The Spiritual Guide Maps are not empty canvases, nor are they really minimalist, although some of the very earliest onesare mostlydevoidof shape and form. They are expansive like a territory, as the word “map” suggests. And, as a map typically depicts a landscape that is large enough to require points of reference, so do her paintings. “She was not really a minimalist kind of person, so the emptying out perioddidn’t really last that long,” Rizzo said.”She was really interested in East Asian landscape painting. I’m not sure if she was intentionally channeling that when she made these, but she definitely referenced it later when she talked about these pieces. Rizzo quotes Bergman in the essay:”After meeting O’Keeffe and experiencing the sparseness of her aesthetic I knew I had to be rid of the surreal chatter driving my work and become empty of the symbolism I had been using.” But the paintingsBergman made during this period of her lifeare not really devoid of imagery. Like adesert terrain, theyare simply possessed of a seeming vacancy. Her 1972 composition Santa Fe Spiritual Guide Map for Modern Western Man, for instance, has small symbols placed throughout, though they are spread far apart from one anotherandimmersedina pink toned fieldthatfluctuatesdue to the uneven staining on the canvas. Off center, near the top, asmall yellow cross edged in blue appears. A white cross rests in the exact opposite position near the bottom, showingBergman’s precision in terms of the compositional elements she employed in her work. A series of multi toned dashes runhorizontallyacross the top and bottom of the painting, contrasting with a long zigzagging line that starts in the dead center,then slopes down to the right, then up, then down again.

Bergman’s work is ambiguous, allowing the viewer to read into it. This ambiguity isin keeping,
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perhaps, with Duchamp’s contention that the spectator, who deciphers and interprets an artwork, isa necessary component ofthe creative act. “Ciel was very aware of minimalist practices, and especially given her interest in Duchamp, felt compelled to incorporate some of them,” said art critic Peter Frank, whoalso contributes an essayto the catalogue, in whichhe situates Bergman’s place among thepostwar Bay Area artists who were prominent in the West Coast art world, particularly at the San Francisco Art Institute and the University of California Berkeley, where she audited classes.”The effect was mostly to make the many visual components of each Linen distinguishablefrom one another and coherent as a whole. The language of TheLinens is conceptual, not minimal, each painting a cascade of ideas, images, and ideas as images as ideas, not simply jotted down as in a journal but organized, as in an epic poem or philosophical treatise,” he said.”The relative emptiness of the earlier Linens is just that relative. They may have been a clearing out, as Angie says, from Ciel’s previous work, but I view them as Ciel’s first explorations into uncharted territory, and thus structurally and subjectively cautious even as their emptiness makes them visually so stark.”

Beginning around 1973, the Linen paintings grew more complex, their compositions more crowded and full,as though her earlier emptying out of the canvas opened the door toa new set of images and symbols, which would become recurring motifs. Some of those symbols such as Xs and Ys, the gradual appearance of phallic forms in severalworks, and other shapes suggest a preoccupation with ideas of gender and sexuality. Otherelements that come into play are what Rizzo describes as “portholes,” which appear throughout the series like small windows through which one can glimpse the ocean. A number of portholes are present in her 1974 paintingGannungagap Bridge, Approaching Difficult. In this piece and others where such forms are prominent, she asks the viewer tolook past the painting itself and see beyond it.”In this middle part of the series that spans from 1973 75, the artist has broken open her previous ’empty’ works, and is eager to see how she can fit complicated and contradictory concepts into the plane of a single painting,” Rizzowrites. “She expressed regret to me that The Linens were never shown as a group, even excerpted, and that sense of regret was a motivating factor in her pushing for the show now,” said Frank, who first metBergman in California in the late 1970s when she was still known as Cheryl Bowers. She died of a brain tumor in the midst of planning the exhibition with Frank.

“I was flattered she chose me to be its potential curator, not only because it honored my dedication to California postwar art, but because it entrusted me to tell the story of someone very different than I am, and entrusted me with its interpretation,” he said.”I’m glad Angie and the CCA took over the show itself, and doubly glad they and Ciel retained me to write the accompanying essay. And, of course, with Ciel getting sick and dying in the middle of everything,
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this project has become one of the most poignant I’ve ever been involved in.