by David M. Roth
One truism of art viewing (and most everything else) is that you can only see something for the first time once. Meaning, the shock of the new can’t be repeated; it can only be remembered and compared to whatever comes next. That, in a nutshell, describes the nature of my engagement with the art of Naomie Kremer.
An Israel-born, Brooklyn-raised artist who divides her time between Berkeley, New York and Paris, she pursues four distinct (but interrelated) modes of work: gestural abstract painting; set design (for opera, theater and dance productions); standalone video pieces; and works in which she projects moving video images onto paintings that she calls “hybrids.” Each informs the others in ways that engage her longstanding interests in nature, language, the human body and mortality: subjects that have occupied her from the start of her professional career, beginning in 1993 when she graduated from CCA with an MFA degree.
My own Kremer epiphany arrived almost by accident five years ago – when, on a whim, I asked Cathy Kimball, the director and chief curator of the San Jose ICA – to shut off a projection so I could see the painting underneath it. I was stunned. The marks and gestures comprising it were dense to the point of being impenetrable. Stranger still, was how the projected imagery completely transformed the painting. What appeared like an impregnable thicket suddenly became a filmic portal. The illusion proffered, I wrote,
was “of trees and foliage in a forest canyon being ruffled by a gentle breeze; or, if viewed from a different angle, the sky seen from the bottom of a reef, with rays of sunlight casting shadows across sea plants swayed by the tide. The most exciting” – and slightly unnerving – “aspect of the piece is the way it turned a static painting into a living, animate thing.” Unlike magic tricks, which get ruined when the enabling sleight-of-hand is revealed, Kremer’s methods, when explained, had the opposite effect: they piqued what has since become an ongoing interest.
My next encounter with the artist’s painting came at Modernism, at an exhibition called Untold, in 2018. There, I saw several large-scale paintings displayed without video overlays, as well as a few “hybrids” and videos. But it was the paintings that were the main event. These works, like those I saw in San Jose, were overwhelmingly dense. Colliding vectors, swirling lines and looping gestures combined in interlocking planes, created force fields that pushed out in seemingly every direction. They weren’t compositions so much as evidence of an artist unleashing well-rehearsed psychomotor impulses. Each painting, in different ways, evoked a prelapsarian vision of the Earth as it must have looked at the dawn of creation: a planet so bustling with primordial life and so buffeted by weather patterns as to be inconceivable. A shorthand way of thinking about them would be to imagine de Kooning, at his wildest, most slashing, copying Monet (or the reverse), except that de Kooning and Monet always gave viewers ways of navigating into and around their canvases. Kremer’s paintings, with their floral forms crammed together in sweeping centrifugal whirls, do not. Which means you can enter anywhere or nowhere at all. In them, though, you can detect elements of Impressionism, Cubism and Abstract Expressionism as well as conceptual affinities with contemporary artists like Laura Owens, Amy Ellingson and Sarah Sze, whose works reflect the disorienting experience of digital media. Kremer’s synthesis plays out in a compositional approach that falls somewhere between allover and horror vacui.
It is, according to the artist, an attempt to make visual the phenomenon known as quantum entanglement. The term comes from physics and refers, roughly speaking, to the interrelatedness of all things. Kremer doesn’t claim to understand the theories underlying it, but the basic conclusions of those who do align with her intuitive sense of how the universe operates. This cosmology, if that’s what it is, arises out of her recent history (surviving breast cancer), family history (her parents survived the holocaust) and her study of painting, drawing, languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Hindi, Greek), modeling and photography. The goal, Kremer told me in an email exchange, is to create “gesamtkunstwerks” – complete works of art.
The most persuasive examples in her oeuvre are the video backdrops she’s designed for opera and stage productions. They include Tristan and Isolde (2018) at Herbst Theater, San Francisco; Alcina (2016) in Acre, Israel; Secret Garden (2013) for the San Francisco Opera; Light Moves (2011) for the Margaret Jenkins Dance company at YBCA; and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (2008) for the Berkeley Opera. In 2019, Kremer was commissioned to create a video projection for the windows of an indoor public pool in Paris in conjunction with Nuit Blanche, an annual all-night arts festival. For this, she drew upon a series of nude videos she made of friends and acquaintances (ages two to 90), who were instructed to interact freely. Repurposed, they now form the basis for six new large-scale paintings, three hybrids and 10 new video works on display in an exhibition at Modernism titled Embodiment.
The videos, like the hybrid paintings, come overlaid with abstract patterns that move across the surface of the artist’s subjects in slow motion, yielding a variety of trippy effects. In Affirmation, for example, the erotic energy given off by a kneeling couple turns out to be less a function of their body movements than of what’s suggested by the forms projected onto them. The shifting colors seem to register changes in body heat, readable in this context as arousal. In Sundial, a video image of a couple caressing each other spins counterclockwise atop a silhouette of the combined shapes, the latter rendered in Yves Kline blue and dappled with pinpoints of light. Combined, they make palpable an out-of-body experience. In Trinity, ribbon-like shapes superimposed across a couple frolicking with an infant yield what amounts to a montage of funhouse mirror images, like something Francis Bacon might have painted. Nested + Outside In, part yoga video, part tribal dance, recalls a Nick Cave sound suit performance. In this, swaying palms bathed in electric pink and turquoise hues take on the look of a plumed “headdress.” It hovers above the head of a prone woman like a luminous thought balloon, suggesting that mental activity can assume tangible form. Equally vaporous is a holographic display utilizing LED lights mounted on fan blades. It’s called Wheeling Green. In motion, the blades fade from view to reveal a slow-writhing nude with an outlandish full-body “tattoo,” derived, so it seems, from one of Kremer’s paintings. These “entanglements,”
enabled by cross-media repurposing, are, perhaps more than anything, the defining characteristic of this artist’s increasingly complex oeuvre.
What to make of it? I recently stumbled across a review by David Salle of Charlene Von Heyl titled Houdini with a Brush. Granted, there aren’t many viable comparisons to be made between Von Heyl and Kremer, but some of Salle’s general observations about painting do apply to Kremer. “A painter,” he wrote, “makes her own loose system by which elements in a painting can be made to relate to one another, one that reflects a personal notion of order versus chaos. Having made up their rules of engagement, some painters then push against them; the protocols are tested to see how they hold up under stress. One makes difficulties for oneself. Think of it as the painter getting out of a jam of her own devising; like Houdini with a brush, she backs herself into a corner from which daring escape must be made.”
The video works, when considered in light of the paintings, certainly qualify as daring escapes. But, where Houdini concealed his secrets, Kremer lays hers out in plain view, and without any loss of impact: You can know exactly how she performs these tricks and still feel as if you’re witnessing a profound and meaningful conjuring act.
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Naomie Kremer: “Embodiment” was slated to run until May 2 at Modernism, but is temporarily closed on account of the coronavirus.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.