Aesthetic Explorer: The Art of Catherine Eckdahl

Magic, ritual, rebirth, transformation, ancient, contemporary, language, words, beauty, fire, metamorphosis, lyricism, nature, sex, explorer, seeds, nails, claws, francs, books, glass, botanical, ironic, celebratory, playful, dreams … these are just some of the words that come to mind while walking through the ritual space of artist Catherine Eckdahl.

Eckdahl’s Brooklyn studio is crammed with tangible bits of the dreams of painters. While that may sound romantic, it is truly the most efficient way to express the eclectic flutter of ephemera one might find. Pods, butterflies, wax cast hands, shattered glass, cork bound books, all have their space among the conversely mundane things one expects to see in the home and studio of an artist – framed art, flat files, pencils, brushes, and books by Kafka.

Eckdahl’s imagination is exponentially expansive. It runs itself lyrically over canvas, wax, and paper; across blue nails hammered neatly and symmetrically into cooper and cork head-like forms to create a sculpture reminiscent of both the ancient Americas and early 20th century Paris. “It’s really like chanting with my hand,” she says, as she makes connections between written language and painting, visual recognition and primal communication.

She is as comfortable in 3D as she is in 2D, and it is as if she needs both for all that she has to say. Like an explorer herself, she gives reign to a well-informed imagination and well-trained hand, searching for and documenting her journey to share with us. But she does this in a very unexpected way. This is not self-absorbed and alienating post-modernism, but a visceral and earthy expression of sensuousness. Eckdahl courts the ancient and the modern, dismisses academic values (as the abstract expressionists did before her) and embraces color, symbol, consciousness, and Nature creating more in the manner of a contemporary shaman.

“We can see nuance. People have a complex defense system …” She says of her Guardian of the Dream sculptures, which look like African or Incan masks. They are made of oxidizing cooper nails and wax, as well as organic objects like an animal horn or butterflies. “We can see the surface, but we cannot touch, like encountering a blowfish!” Eckdahl is mindful of her words when discussing her art. These elegant assemblages include wax-cast hands and feet that almost look like advertisements for Victorian gloves or slippers in their graceful poses and untouched color. Embellished with pins (which rather rhyme with the nails in the larger head casts), and placed in Lucite boxes with a butterfly, this series references Nature and Dream – two intuitive realms from which Eckdahl pulls many metaphors and builds her own vocabulary.

Her collection of faux tools, which include soybeans, wisteria pods (“which burst at that crucial moment! What a sound! It’s the violence of procreation!” she says with celebratory glee), shells, bones, feathers, crab claws and algae, among much of Nature’s booty from beaches and woods. This collection of materials suggests something of a 19th century explorer amassing an exhibition for the American Museum of Natural History – that Mecca for artists like Pollock and Rothko, rather than a Midwestern artist making art in Brooklyn. That seems to be the underlying current in much of Eckdahl’s work. She has brought together a variety of historical, organic, and formal elements and manages to combine them in a way that flirts with art history but rarely quotes it.

In addition to these affecting sculptures, Eckdahl’s oeuvre includes paintings, drawings, and books. The underlying theme in all of her work is language, and not in the cerebral Duchampian way, but in the warm, corporeal tradition of the ancient and abstract. There is a trace of Miro in some of her paintings, and even more so in her art books. Eckdahl is rapt by what she calls the “genetic need to communicate. The last person on earth would still be compelled to leave a message.” She is interested in messages and in the play of words, but again, not in puns, so much as in the occasional absurdity of graphic design. “Medieval manuscripts sometimes dress up violence and religion and the truth with gold leaf and art … it’s all believable if the images are (accompanied by) language. It’s the irony of it all that interests me.”

Citing influences such as Bach’s manuscripts, explorers’ journals, and old letters, Eckdahl was moved to catalog her own experience of dreams, art, and nature in a unique way. “There is an enormous amount of information that just cannot ever be expressed.” So, what better way for an artist to express this daunting surplus than visually?

Stripping literal language away from words, and focusing on the intimate beauty of handwriting, Eckdahl began this excursion into intuitive documentation by creating a series of journals that led to paint journals, missives, and framed documents – sometimes quite small but always compelling, complete with wax seals, botanical specimens, and requisite signatures in various hands, all created by the artist. The catch is that none of the documents actually report anything beyond a specific moment. Using a very occasional word “as a trigger” among sinuous scrawls of varying handwriting, Eckdahl relies on images, brush or pen strokes, an occasional scientific equation, which juxtaposes the eloquence of science against the elegance of her paint to create a convincing document. In the same way Van Gogh compelled us to look more closely by painting the back of a figure in the foreground of The Potato Eaters, Eckdahl crosses out words or leaves fragments inviting us to also look more carefully.

The pure visuality of color and composition also communicate with the viewer/reader on a sensuous level as well. “People are intimidated by art but understand the shared experience of the written word. (We have) a unique bond with words. Our first understanding of line and form is the written language. At times, people have an intuitive understanding of line that they are not always aware of. It’s handwriting based. We have visual expectations of the written language that have to be satisfied. You cannot write the Declaration of Independence in your mother’s handwriting. It has to look formal. (In the same regards,) if we made everyone just paint what they mean, the artists would have a more powerful status.”

Eckdahl has objectified written language by creating for it a non-referential space, which allows the viewer to access the pure aesthetic and experience the understated beauty of handwritten documents. In other words, we take this aesthetic for granted in our instinct to read. She calls into play our innocence, really, bringing us back to that time, when written language was so abstract – just shapes and squiggles that would some day mean something to us too, when we entered that coded world of adults.

There is certain romantic quality to this idea. With the cool homogenization of digital (ironic adjective in this context) communication, letter writing has become a lost art. Word processing programs have us all tapping out our thoughts, ideas, and assignments in Times New Roman or Arial with the luxury of preset margins and automatic page breaks, whether we’re writing a romantic email, a graduate thesis, or an annual report. We do not even have to refer to calendars, as the insertion of the date is also something managed with the deft strokes of a couple of keys. Eckdahl’s work brings us back to the sensuality of penmanship and the awareness of presence.

It is almost as if Eckdahl channels ancient Chinese scribes or 19th century anthropologists. Her prolific series of documents, letters, and handmade books inspire a nostalgic courtship with identity, individuality, and imagination. Hers is a playful deconstruction, which has allowed her to show a decorative rhythm and a corporeal quality of written language in a way akin to that of textiles. Using copper, ribbons, strings, paint, different papers, come of which are handmade by the artist, Eckdahl has created true artists books. They are tactile, visually intuitive, and as much about texture as they are about color, and again – there is what Eckdahl calls “faux language”.

In the four Miro Books, Eckdahl explains, “I re-did MoMA’s brochure … thought I’d give them a few alternatives.” Like all publicity pieces, it’s too rational “or antiseptic which “almost killed Miro, in a sense. He would have done these brochures differently.” This brochure accompanied MoMA’s famous Miro show November 1998 to February 1999. Eckdahl boldly painted over pages of the pamphlet, reworking each into what she deems appropriate for the surrealist. By doing so, she has activated the sensual and subdued the intellectual, which is much more fitting Miro.

“Imagine if politicians had to draw.” She smiles. Yes imagine! What if we were suddenly without written words? What if we could only communicate through drawings? Does a brush cut more deeply than a pen by simply telling the truth “or by telling the truth simply”? If we were a society that relied solely on the intuitive expression of the hand rather than calculated press releases, would we then be more authentic, or would society become a painterly Animal Farm where we would defer to Miros and Marinettis? The latter of which said, “We should burn all libraries and allow to remain only that which everyone knows by heart. A beautiful age of the legend would then begin.” Marinetti’s library is really a metaphor for academic values, and by decimating the academy in its formal impositions, something new can be brought up. In Eckdahl’s art, we see the launch of that “beautiful age of legend” through the transformational aspects of a purely sensuous language.

Essay by Claudia Cage, Independent Curator, Guest Lecturer at Metropolitan Museum of Art and Art History Professor at Nassau Community College.