Gerlinde Thuma has been preoccupied since her student days with the perception of time and space and how to translate them to canvas. She studied painting and animated film in Vienna with the Austrian artist Maria Lassnig, the first woman professor of painting in the German-speaking world. Having taken a class in animated filmmaking when she lived in New York, Lassnig introduced animation as a subject at Vienna’s University of Applied Arts. What attracted Thuma was not the idea of a narrative sequence of drawings, but rather the presentation of two variations of a theme to force viewers to adjust their point of view. In many of her works the form is incised into the paint with charcoal, emerging with varying degrees of emphasis depending on the coloring. The change of perspective occurs along the imaginary horizontal line created by the shifting color planes.

This combination of charcoal and acrylic is characteristic of Thuma’s work, which alternates between naturalism and abstraction. The Horizont (Horizon) paintings are abstract, yet the line in the middle evokes landscape associations. Thuma has always been fascinated by how the viewer interprets a composition. What identifies a human figure or a landscape as such? Classical perspective is absent from her paintings, which nevertheless suggest width and depth. Everything seems to come to the fore simultaneously. The two color planes partition the picture. The imaginary dividing line is an organizing principle that frames the landscape space and transforms it into a stage on which Thuma directs her nature-inspired subjects and movements, systematizing them anew within the medium of painting. As Alexander von Humboldt tells Father Zea in Daniel Kehlmann’s novel Measuring the World, “Lines happened everywhere…They were an abstraction. Wherever there was space as such, there were lines.”

The main subjects of the works Thuma produced in Chile during the “changing views” project are movements of human figures and birds, and objects washed up on the beach. Basing herself in Valparaiso, she explored the vibrant port city with a camera. But its picturesque architecture, hilly streets and urban hustle and bustle are not reflected in her canvases. Instead she tried to convey the amazing expanse of the horizon and the dramatic landscapes.

Convinced that the Chilean structures could only be understood by travelling, Thuma made a number of trips on foot and by car. The photographs she took were a handy memory aid later on, enabling her to abstract what she wanted from the visual impressions and unite the perceptions of reality with her mental images. When she walked along the ocean or in the desert, the all but inconceivable vastness of the landscape stretched to the horizon. This line separating the plane of the sky from that of the sea or desert formed the structural backdrop of the natural world. Everything in the country was manifestly determined by water, whether on the coast through its presence or in the desert by its absence.
While in Chile, Thuma embarked on an immanent artistic process that involved the challenge of translating geographic reality into painting without resorting to a banal or romanticized narrative. But how can a painting do justice to elementary experiences? In The Open Work Umberto Eco raised the question of why people even bother looking at a picture. After all, it offers so much less than real sand, than the infinite abundance of nature at our disposal. Eco’s answer is that only a picture can organize the raw material by demarcating it as a field of possible interpretations.

Thus, instead of painting landscapes per se Thuma creates a structured surface area where visible nature, the associations it triggers and the painting process are all intertwined. In three series, Undertow, Strategy and Derrelicto, Thuma takes the sounds she has heard in nature and translates them into painting, which then follows its own rules in the course of the creative process.

Typical of the works she painted in Chile is the fluidity of their constituent elements. These seem to be interdependent or to emerge from one another. Although figurative shapes can be discerned, we recognize them only by the structure of the charcoal drawing and the color plane. In the Strategy series, the birds’ fishing tactics entail continual movement in different directions. Thuma imposes her own order, from the linear band running along the upper edge of the painting to a close-up of the schematically rendered birds that pulls the viewer deep into the apparent chaos of the flock.

“It’s as if the word aérea – air and flight – was specially invented for a sky full of birds in flight,” says Thuma. “Just like the spectacle I witnessed of all kinds of species flying over the ocean in different flight patterns and at varying speeds.” She was intrigued by the “survival strategies that had evolved over generations.”

Thuma unequivocally avoids a simple narrative description of reality. The representational, illustrative aspect of the subjects is eliminated and the charcoal drawing becomes an animated graphic element with which she gives the dynamics of the flock of birds an almost abstract pictorialism. The dialogue between the charcoal drawing and the static color plane is the actual subject of her paintings. It also emphasizes the medium of painting itself and its materiality. The latter emerges from the contrast between the charcoal pencil and the application of layers of paint and the resulting haptic surface. The charcoal dust released by the force of gravity forms the vertical black stripes that are an important compositional element in Thuma’s work, particularly in the Undertow series. Here the spatial situation is at first unclear because the horizon vanishes into the light blue of the background. Seemingly unmotivated figures move, either individually or in groups, in an undefined spatial situation. Their movements are irritating. The charcoal dust forms a black cone below the figures. It takes a second glance to realize that they are walking on the beach.

“The Humboldt Current is too cold for most people to go swimming in the Pacific,” Thuma explains. “They walk along the beautiful beaches in shallow water.” As the surf recedes the undertow is so strong that people have to brace their feet against the force of the water to keep their balance. The figures in the painting gain an impressive presence through their schematic depiction. The artist translates the suction, zones and phases of the masses of water created by the power of the waves into a uniform blue that surrounds the figures and makes them appear even more exposed. The figures are drawn in charcoal, a material that stabilizes on the canvas only once the paint has dried, but even then this light material trickles down by dint of gravity, depriving the figures of their weight so that the structure of the water filters through.

The border between water and land along the Chilean coast held a special fascination for Thuma. In addition to the Undertow series, she explored the theme in the Derrelicto paintings of objects washed ashore. She responded to the diversity of the Chilean interior in frottage works and in works on paper that have a bowl as the continuous initial motif.
“One wants to preserve the direct contact with these forces,” says Thuma. “I used frottage when I was travelling around the country. By rubbing on the paper I had laid directly on a stone, I would draw a bowl as a symbol of the desire to touch, hold and preserve, and it would take on the surface structure of the stone beneath it. When I drew bowls while sitting in a moving car, my line was influenced by the bumpiness of the ride on rough dirt roads.”
Back in her studio in Valparaiso, Thuma would review the photographs she had taken while she was away and the images preserved in her head. With the benefit of distance she developed those impressions into paintings. Gerlinde Thuma’s work occupies the junction between two systems, nature and painting. Her perception of nature and life both precedes and accompanies their visualization, and is translated into painting through reduction and the abstraction of reality. Painting becomes a means of capturing the atmosphere of reality. Reminiscent, perhaps, of how Paul Celan in a letter to Hans Bender described his poetry – as a gift to the attentive.        

Translation: Chris Barber, Vienna

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