An expansion of colour
By Hubert Besacier
From her earliest years at art school, Elsa Tomkowiak has seen painting as a spatial entity. In other words, as a dynamic act of colour expansion in space.
Colour — and the deployment of various colours — takes priority.
From the outset this view took no account of borders between painting and sculpture, for painting is, de facto, volume.
In her initial offerings and early installations, Elsa coated panels of torn cardboard. She built up her painting by accumulating zones of colour.
In so doing she produced a huge pile, like a mille-feuille layer cake of pictorial material. Colour is a consistent material that she can mould and slice.
One such volume was hoisted horizontally in the exhibition space. In this way, the painting emerged from the wall to move forward spatially, piercing the air like a giant horn.
This penetrating volume is a physical and mental projection. Painting is an action that involves the body. The act of painting can be interpreted as a sort of spatial expansion of the body. The work's expressive force is a result of this projection.
This relationship of painting and body — the artist's, and also the visitor's — is fundamental. Colour takes shape in the space it occupies; a tangible materiality thus awaits the visitor.
After this initial experiment involving a forceful volume that moved forward to pierce the space, Elsa Tomkowiak came to embrace the notion of completely taking over a site via a pictorial apparatus, ranging from exploding pictures to architectonic arrangements.
It was to be a gradual shift, always involving layered compositions. She would set screens upright — perhaps the easiest way to fill the space while forcing the body to slip between successive layers, whether they be rigid, encased by large wooden rods, or softly suspended like sheer draperies. To some extent, she was therefore reworking the penetrable art experience that flourished in the 1960s-70s.
Of course, the substrate varied according to the space to be requisitioned. Initially, pieces of torn cardboard were fixed to joists, blocking out virtually the entire room as in Talant (November 2008), or made to jut out of the wall like jagged black blades, thereby disrupting the vertical arrangement of coloured bands painted directly onto the studio wall (La BOX residential workshop at the Bourges Ensba art school, 2008).
Although this material did make some sporadic reappearances in subsequent works, it soon gave way to panels of rigid extruded polystyrene, likewise broken in an uneven manner. The same year artist also experimented with this technique at the Maison de la Culture de Bourges.
But from 2006 onwards, she developed a system of brush painting on large translucent sheets of soft polythene.
The surfaces were painted on the ground before being suspended in the exhibition space.
In a former industrial site in Lyon, Les friches RVI, her work covered an area of 1,800 m2. Visitors could be seen cycling between the strips of painting.
Each panel featured a monochrome surface enlivened by strong brushwork movements. Hung back to back, the overall effect of the painting appeared reversible.
In this huge building, Elsa Tomkowiak painted the entire wall running alongside her installation with vertical bands in alternating violent colours. The hanging monochrome panels therefore took on a more subtle appearance, more studied and chromatically moderate.
This coexistence of fresco and volume is to be found in almost all of the installations that make use of plastic tarpaulins. The layered effect painted onto the wall itself complements the display that embraces the whole of the site, transforming it into a pictorial volume.
The transparent nature of the plastic sheeting allows a transition from one colour to the other without affording any real sense of contamination between them. The composition is homogeneous without its component parts running into one another. The colours do not mix but rather coexist.
At most, their front and reverse sides differ, thereby affording a radical change in tone of the overall effect depending on whether it is seen in shot or in reverse shot angle.
The artist's painting spreads out within the volume of the site she occupies; from the outset she sets her sights high. Her choice of architectural setting is governed less by a sense of challenge but by a penchant for experimentation and a craving for painting. Large architectural volumes are like a breath of fresh air for painting. The larger the scale, the greater the momentum and energy that she is able to project into it. The painting itself is styled on the magnitude of the site. After the experience of the industrial site in Lyon, her work went on to evolve, seeking the optimal balance and match between the pictorial composition and the architectural identity of the chosen venues.
This constantly-evolving technique of painting on translucent plastic sheets was used in the spa town of Pougues-les-eaux where it graced the Art Centre's pavillon des sources in May/June 2008; in the Mehun sur Yèvre factory in February 2009; in the Gymnase d'Amance (FRAC de Franche Comté artist residency) in July 2009; and – in its most accomplished form – in the large exhibition hall of the ESAM school of art in Caen in May 2010.
Displays that open up.
All of the conventional pictorial elements – though scaled up and in profusion – were to be found at the Maison de la Culture in Bourges, (January/February 2008): wooden frames fixed to the floor to provide structure; fabric stretched over these wooden brackets; and paint setting on flakes of extruded polystyrene. But the painting that erupted to occupy the main part of the exhibition space was reconstructed like a fortress bristling with colour. Sharp blades of colour sprang up from the canvas. There was fractal shredding. A projecting extensive block that threatened to take over the entire space, rendering it impenetrable. The visitor was forced to circumvent it on two sides. As such, a twofold sensation awaited him: a highly concentrated pictorial volume combined with shredded coloured panels that spanned out on its periphery, with strong centripetal dynamics. The painting was both body and movement.
While the notion of a painting remained in her subsequent installations, an opposite shift occurred.
Painting was perceived as a volume that opens up spatially, prompting the viewer to move about within it.
This shift first appeared in her early assemblages of layered cardboard. From a suspension that pierced the space, she moved towards a more hollow arrangement. In an exhibition in Nantes, (entitled Carte blanche, at “l'Atelier”, May-June 2009), Elsa's offering appeared to form the negative of the first volume in Dijon. It was a series of colourful crowns. The idea of the “horn” was inverted, appearing both as a volume and as an opening.
Such apertures were characteristic of the large installations that used painted tarpaulins in several huge buildings. The elements of the display no longer filled the chosen venues. Quite the reverse: just as she took hold of the space she was emptying it. The painting opened up, hollowing itself out to attract our attention, becoming a place to move around in. The artist opens up a passageway for us into the depths of the painting. It is by walking that we experience the painting.
In the Gymnase d'Amance, large supple panels of colour occupied the entire upper part of the building. They hung above the visitors' heads. The space appeared to be dilated, with these membranes ruptured to provide a way through, having become detached from the floor and walls where some adhering shreds still remain. Painting has therefore broken loose of all weightiness.
Visitors could stroll in a sumptuous setting. Above their heads was a sky like that of a street decked with flags. They moved forward between the layers of a huge painting.
The almost organic flexibility of the painted tarpaulins contrasted with the stiffness of the concrete architecture. As a result the sheer painted fabrics resembled veils of light drifting in an aerial space. The painting is no longer shredded. It opens up before us, for us. Its sharp corners are gone. It is all enfolding.
In one direction, red was the dominant hue; in the other, yellows and oranges predominate. The pictorial space is distended to make room for the body that apprehends it from within.
At Mehun sur Yèvre, Elsa took over the entire nave of a factory.
The tarpaulins did not block out the overhead lighting from a glass roof that provides the building with illumination. For an enhanced effect, she chose the most difficult course – installing painted panels on the building's open side, which is moreover flanked by a walkway along its entire length.
The murals that, as in Lyon or Amance, punctuate the walls vertically, accentuate the dynamic effect of tarpaulin panels that rise like waves to conquer the facing wall.
Everything begins with this painted wall; it is from here that the waves spring up, their breakers gushing over the walkway that, halfway up, divides the building's entire length. Gaining access to it, we find ourselves caught in a surging surf of colour, as if on the bridge of a ship. The painting takes us on board in every sense of the term.
The factory's angular architecture has been transformed into a multicoloured cylinder. The entire space has become curved.
When we go forward, compelled to move towards the structure's very centre between the ridges that punctuate the ground, we feel as if we are advancing between walls of a volume in motion, of a space that opens up beneath our feet, as in the biblical imagery that depicts the parting of the waters.
In Caen, the skylight that let in overhead lighting in the previous installation was no longer there. Again, this marked a substantial change. The display extended to the superstructure, transforming the site into a tunnel that burrows into colour. The painted panels were arranged as a series of gigantic photographic diaphragms. Visitors were caught up in a vortex, a kind of helical hollow area at the heart of the pictorial apparatus. Unlike the system in Mehun, they no longer had a median line to follow but, in the course of their wanderings, needed to negotiate various parts of the display that covered more of the floor space. As such, they had to step over successive areas of ribbing and cross a series of thresholds.
The site has undergone a complete makeover. We experience a complete change of scene and the feeling of entering into the unknown, into another place. All points of reference are perturbed.
The effect is not only aesthetic, it is emotional.
Exploring as visitors, we enter a bath of colour, becoming immersed within the composition. We feel caught up in it, drawn to it and yet as free as in a forest. The painting envelops us without overwhelming. We enter a powerfully articulated spectrum whose components offer themselves in turn then become readjusted. Each step we take decomposes and recomposes the picture. Or rather, at each step the picture breaks apart and is reformed around us. The painting finds life and breath in our movement.
For the next two offerings – in Mönchengladbach's former swimming pool (February-March 2010), followed by the Geneteil Chapel in Château Gontier, (February-April 2012) – the process became lighter still. No longer were pieces of plastic film used to occupy the space but the painting was borne by bands of similar material stretched between the floor and walls. In Mönchengladbach they were crisscrossed over the sparkling tiled pool. This made for a large display, but one of absolute lightness due to the ribbon-like structure and the translucent nature of the support. The ribbons were positioned so as to capture all available light from the large surrounding windows. The reflections were reminiscent of water. Colour returned to its spectral arrangement. It presented itself for what it is – hanging light, light in volume and motion.
A similar optical vibration brought life to the installation at Château-Gontier. There too, the painting was radiant.
Filling the chapel's space were glistening bands that unfold and intertwine to create a rotational movement across the entire nave.
As in any system of composition by extension, a starting point was required, a trigger release from which the work could develop. Here the artist based her work on the curve of the ceiling of the nave, scrupulously respecting its dimensions in the organisation of its rotational diameter. This installation involved careful, mathematical calculation, as did the choice of alternating colours.
While strident colours once again streaked across the space, the rigorously calibrated and adjusted arrangement provided a sense of harmony to the invigorating energy of the whole.
The supple support, that allows light to pass through the coloured material, accentuated the visibility of the brushstrokes. The strokes became thicker and lavishly solidified when the artist tried her hand at gilding, as befits the nature of the site.
At the Geneteil Chapel, the painting takes on a spiritual and ethereal quality, echoing a kind of musical vibration in the barrel vault. As in previous installations, the available space was fully exploited without becoming obstructed – a fullness as airy as a sound. It was as if music poured forth in ribbons from invisible organ pipes, echoing and swirling as if borne by the rays of luminous dust usually to be found converging from stained-glass windows.
Painting and Nature.
While most of Elsa Tomkowiak's installations are to be found in large, closed architectural settings, the relationship with the natural landscape is not absent from her preoccupations.
In 2004 in Samoëns (Hautes-Alpes), she experimented with the most basic form of painting/landscape relationship by painting directly on the ground, in the snow, with a sweeping gesture – an ephemeral, primary and primordial confrontation.
In the hortillonnages (floating gardens) in Amiens, in 2010, she reversed the formula; instead of attempting to cover part of the area, it would be better to have a mobile element able to move around the site. She therefore went back to the notion of a block by designing a floating volume that concentrated colour in very tight layering. This pictorial volume was able to move over water. As the days went by it could be seen at various marshy areas, selectively staking out the whole landscape in time and space.
In the meantime, Elsa was once again to tackle outdoor spaces by painting protective netting which she applied to rock faces in Saint Cénéri le Gérei (18 December 2010-14 January 2011), and – during her artist's residency at the Abteiberg Museum – in Mönchengladbach, where she worked directly on piles of rubble along railway lines in outlying suburban areas (21 November 2010-20 February 2011).
Design and painting.
The relationship with natural elements is probably the most difficult to implement. Elsa's designs – generally constructed from digital collages and laser-printed – are moments of reflection, captured instants of cogitation, syncretic collages that bring together snatches of reality, drafts of applied forms, colour charts and schematic cross-hatching, with complete liberty in the organisation of these mutually blending and intermingling elements. It is therefore an ideal work – in the strict sense of the term – in which vegetation and abstract pictorial thinking intermingle, where attempts to graft painting onto the landscape come together or, conversely, where natural elements intrude upon colour; sometimes the artist's own silhouette appears there, set against the gigantic proportions of her mental projections.
Elsa Tomkowiak works with similar liberty on more conventional painting formats, using quite specific supports – usually shop-bought synthetic fabrics, plastic-coated cloth, artificial leather, oilcloths or waterproof canvases. She uses them without a frame and tacks them to the wall using adhesive strips, thereby enhancing the feeling of immediacy of thought and design.
For both her paintings and installations, Elsa Tomkowiak creates her own colour charts. Using bold – at times violent – colours, which she develops with precision and relish, she reinvents chromatic codes that defy every doctrine and treatise that each generation has attempted to theorise and set down throughout the ages. In so doing she achieves harmonies and disharmonies specific to herself alone. These fabrics offer her complete liberty to experiment with combinations of form and colour that are generally later to be found in her installations. But these fabric paintings should not be considered as preliminary studies. They are, above all, wonderful vehicles of pictorial invention in which new compositional modes emerge.
Painting and music.
The work created in November 2011 at Carquefou, at the behest of the Frac de Pays de la Loire contemporary regional art fund (exhibited from 18 November 2011 until 5 February 2012), forms a new approach to occupying a site pictorially. As the Salle Mario Toran offers a relatively small space, the artist proceeded to paint directly on the walls, floor and ceiling. The highly-structured abstract composition involved two rounded forms, one blue-green in colour and the other bright red, that intersect and intertwine, linked by layers of fluorescent pink. The general compositional arrangement was reminiscent of two intersecting projected beams of light, and of a painting in the purest tradition of modernist abstraction. It was as if the painting had been projected within a volume. The space therefore becomes a receptacle. A multicoloured aggregate added the finishing touch, placed there like a sculpture in a setting.
This receptacle arrangement was so obvious that, once the sculpture had been removed when the exhibition was over, it was the site chosen by the small team of choreographer Loïc Touzé and his stooges Gaëtan Chataigner and Philippe Katerine for their performance of Braille. The same evening, it also provided a stage for the band formed by Elsa Tomkowiak with Damien Moreira and Florian Sumi.
Both groups repeated the experience in the installation at the Geneteil Chapel in Château-Gontier on Sunday 22 April 2012 – a typical illustration of what Elsa Tomkowiak's painting can produce and of what inspires it.
One of the ads for the show contained the expression “Swallow painting with your ears”. This collusion between painting and music is quite characteristic of the nature of the artist and her work. It is no coincidence that, alongside or rather in addition to her art, Elsa is committed to music, like many other artists, painters and sculptors of the younger generations. From the outset she has carried forward these two mutually enriching creative activities.
Moreover, the artists who have stimulated Elsa's own approaches come from both disciplines.
For Elsa Tomkowiak, painting is never static or inert. It is an invitation to movement, and is itself the author of a permanent rhythmic scansion.
In the course of this journey the insatiable fondness for colour or the energy behind its spatial projection has lost none of its force; on the contrary, there is the sense (as is the case in any lyrical work) that its dynamics are further enhanced when the system is tightened and adopts a more rigorous code of design. Painting, like music, requires a similar physical commitment.
Colour, like the voice, is inextricably linked to the body. It is an organic impulse, momentarily tempered by reason and calculation in order to determine its true range and structure. The energy released in this way does not lead to chaos. That is why the colourful outbursts of Elsa's installations never lead to a storm. It is an incredible energy infused within a boldly ordered structure. Festive and methodical, her compositions are governed by rigorous systems but remain open to novel arrangements that keep the practice of painting constantly and joyously on track.
Hubert Besacier, 2008
The maternal heart in space and time
Par Lidy Mouw
The mere recognition and physical awareness of my female self has been pivotal to my way of living and working, always being part of something else or bigger and simultaneously being able to initiate and inspire at a very individual level.
In arts men have been dominant also in my original field of art, in dance. But when it comes to dance development, women were prominent. Pioneers like Loïe Fuller, Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham counting in Josephine Baker have emancipated the art of movement and have rediscovered its essence, its physicality. It was a man, Rudolf von Laban, who took all this inspiration to another level and its place in time and space in an important attempt to subdue this volatility into a notification system.
And although is stated by feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray in 1991 that it is the „concealed and perpetual matricide on which Western culture is founded by“, most persons I have been in direct contact with during the initiation and realization of dance projects were female. Indirect deciders, however, were mostly male.
Womanly communication in context to the other and the unknown to me is important, challenging and profitable.
Having been catapulted into the jungle of interdisciplinary postmodernism as a dance-student I have been rambling through and exploring many artistic disciplines, combining and rejecting the strict allocation of the male and female, the academic and non-academic the formal and informal, regretting the rebirth of artistic specialism.
In distinction the communal is imbedded. I respect all sides, levels and layers of genuine artistic creation.
The body in space and time has been subject of my interest and I've looked at it from the angle of a (female) dancer, choreographer, director, curator, project manager, conceptualist, mentor and teacher.
In collaborating with individuals of all ages, academically skilled or untrained, talented, engaged or indifferent, in creating for and with persons with all sorts of (develop) mental or physical abilities and limitations, in dealing with scientific institutions, non-profit organizations, public authorities and commercial companies my female subconsciousness collects and recollects, bonds and associates, zapping in and out of these micro and macro cosmoi. And so I create constructions, cultures in which initiatives can flourish and persons can develop best. Structures that are flexible and move along in close exchange with the dynamics of a project.
Transformation, curiosity and self exploration are also an immanent part of the artistic work of Elsa Tomkowiak. She mobilizes and communicates by creating structures that are flexible to the dynamics of the processes she is involved in.
Pioneer methodology: she arrives with a sole suitcase and with its content she fills out a whole natatorium.
Elsa Tomkowiak allows space and time to be main characters of her installations and constructional bodies. She turns space into context and materializes time.
Of subtle influence on any woman who creates must be the knowledge of her potential pregnant embodiment, the experience of her reproductive body and the maternal.
„Cells fuse, split and proliferate, volumes grow, tissues stretch, body fluids change rhythms, speeding up or slowing down“ describes feminist philosopher Julia Kristeva pregnancy in 1993.
A woman gives birth, becomes a maternal heart. She experiences how a part of her body autonomously grows, releases in partnership and transforms constantly without losing its identity. All her life she will be in transition, be a part and at the same time whole.
Elsa Tomkowiak exerts her energy in many ways. She is mother and mover, musician and composer, initiator, co-creator and communicator. Her work is transcendent and thus female.
At the same time Elsa's work is rather virile. She features interaction and confrontation. Confrontation of colors, interaction of the transparent and the rigid, the organic and artificial collide.
In that sense her work also seems in line with more recent voices on feminism like Haraway who points out that:
“There is nothing about being female that naturally binds women. There is not even such a state as 'being' female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices.” (Haraway 155)
Suggesting that already relations between science and technology are 'rearranging' categories of race, sex and class, Donna Haraway insists that feminism needs to take this into account.
An echo can already be found in the artistic work of women.
Lidy Mouw, Amsterdam, April 2012
Interview with Elsa Tomkowiak, Florian Sumi, Nantes, October 2012
Elsa, it now falls to me to summarize what we have shared during one and a half months, some hundred thousand characters that must be pared down to the barest minimum. I am at a loss for the richly resounding words or heightened visions that might convey what has always appealed to me in your work.
For me, this has always been something beyond the tumult of cultural issues, over and above a garrulous frame of reference and notification. I feel that it delves into life's inner depths while allowing memories to linger of spaces of another kind. Spaces whose rules and laws overreach those of concrete reality. Because the forms you use do not seem part of the visible world. And though a space's acoustics always stay with me, yours remain absolutely silent and imperceptible to me. As silent and imperceptible as a virgin territory, upon which one sets foot for the first time. I always come away with a sense of power and force, which must echo something that I am unable to put into words.
So I probed further, and further still, into the strong, silent depths that characterize each of your offerings. And gradually you began to speak. Since I am now still at a loss for words, I have decided to set down what I find most simple and eloquent in your answers. I left my initials as they are more than sufficient evidence of our long discussion.
Elsa Tomkowiak: Not separating life from work is a deliberate move. Taking a step back is therefore quite arduous; sometimes it will take me several months to understand what I have just moved. It seems to me that my expectations of art are rooted in the unknown.
ET: Indeed. It's funny that you talk about highlighting the invisible; I already imagined that my work would “set” in daylight (just as paint sets when it dries), and that it would take on another form in darkness! Something that “sets” is therefore a possibility.
ET: I like your mention of the notion of a non-referential work. Although I have never thought exactly along those lines, I feel that while circles do feature in a lot of my work, I only reveal fragments, truncated images, residual forms and pared-down counter forms.
In these shattered, piecemeal visions the only touchstone is what actually constitutes them ¬— their materials and workmanship — what lies before our eyes. The fragment is like an unfinished idea, merely affording a glimpse of what is to come.
ET: The image of a lull within a process appeals to me. In fact I think that this is why I want every step that makes up the work to be clearly comprehensible, right down to the famous mark of the “brushstroke”!
The image of a process, of a movement. One of disparate elements, bodies in action, driven as a matter of urgency. A whole, a latent possibility, set into something that is very fragile and precarious.
ET: Yes, landscape is an important word for me. It denotes the space that nurtures us and is one of the images that matter to me,... a space that has no purpose. Anything can happen there.
Landscape also denotes images of unexpected strata, plate tectonics, of water movement, underground passageways, magma, as well as geographical notions.
Even if I am not looking to represent landscape(s), I work to recapture the sensations that I feel only when in contact with it.
ET: Yes, I have always found mineral stratification fascinating. For me, a “stratum” (that might take the form of a band) is a compositional medium, like the accumulation of acts, the sedimentation of thought — in short, a metaphor for the creative process.
ET: Ineptitude? Anomaly? Yes, it is a battle against inevitability! In this respect, the device of colour is a great help to me! I refuse to accept chromatic logic as something inevitable. The colours that I work with are a notion of colour at its most colourful in short. If you ask a child to name his or her favourite colour, the answer will rarely be a shade of grey! When I think of colour, I don't think of desaturation but of rhythm.
ET: The circle is the most perfect and most formless form; it has neither direction nor bearing and is highly malleable.
ET: I do not approach form, colour or even size in isolation but holistically. I think that my impulsive use of materials is a factor... I mean that in the choices I make (in terms of urgency and efficiency), I want something rudimentary and precarious — like furrows, tunnels, trenches, caves, spurs or escarpments.
But perhaps, rather than dissecting the component parts of my work, we ought to look at things holistically. All of these elements that we make into a coherent whole... this may have something to do with chaos?
We live in a world of movement, wild, disorderly and violent, that we seek to control by every possible means. I wonder if, when all is said and done, I am in fact seeking to create spaces where there is a place for chaos. Filtered chaos perhaps!
On the face of it, due to its piecemeal nature, the possibility of what can be planned is unforeseeable. Because I don't want to follow the laws of physics and colours systematically. This is the ineptitude you were referring to! There is always room for unpredictability in things that are sometimes highly structured. (Incidentally, Bob Dylan said that chaos was a friend of his!)
You told me that I approached art with great virginity; virginity may also be linked to this image of chaos. Chaos as a latent possibility, a force... a pure force? In fact, the places that appeal to me — wastelands, vacant lots, demolitions, quarries — are these transitional spaces not the image of chaos? Is the ephemeral, or rather the temporary (I prefer this word) also the image of chaos?... an unexpected present. It is not about violence or negative disorder... Violence here is a force or power stirring, like one hell of a guitar letting rip!! Mountains that rise up. As you say, this natural, invisible force.
If it is not something known, if it is something piecemeal, invisible, seizing the void, if it is the image of immensity, if it is a force, it may be the energy of chaos! A reality possible at a specific time.
Chaos is always here and now. It is part of the present because it is unpredictable, like us. We are unpredictable creatures. The unforeseen is a shift, a disruption of the line... I very much like the idea of upheaval, of the unexpected; I don't like things that glide on by, I want to be shaken and stirred.