“From West to East to West” by Benigna Chilla at the Thompson Giroux Gallery | Visual arts | Hudson Valley
Chatham, New York, ripples with rolling hills, and across the Hudson River the old Catskill Mountains are still blue with the distance and mossy with a deciduous forest. Benigna Chilla arrives outside the gallery on Chatham’s Main Street on a sunny July day, but she doesn’t care about the weather. Whether it’s midsummer or deep in January, she dons bright red sneakers with a long black sweater and black capris. Despite the monotonous color, the wool of the sweater is slightly twisted and its pants are a soft and sophisticated jersey fabric. Everything overall is immaculate and comfortable at the same time. With the auxiliary grace of functionality, her style exudes utility like a raven’s feathers are beautiful.
Chilla’s show at the THompson Giroux Gallery, in Chatham, “From West to East to West” will run through the end of July and connects a collection of his early works from the 1960s to his most recent pieces, mostly in the form of large-scale wall hangings made between 2016 and 2020 Chilla is internationally renowned, her art and teaching practice has taken her all over the world, to residencies that include Yaddo and the Djerassi program, always specializing in the intersections between mathematics, design and architecture. Despite its past practices, the links that unite this show weave another story. The gallery is warm with color. Chilla induces a mixture of tones, textures and geometric labyrinths by balancing acts of color, shadow and form in the gallery space. But the most exciting thing about these coins is that they feel alive. And I’m sure if they did speak, none of them would care a bit about discussing the weather or the fickle waves of trends, because in another way, they are dead.
Chilla’s earliest works shown in the gallery are pastel drawings of organic forms in a state of decay or disintegration. The cutting heads like galactic formations, or eggs, are grouped into globular shapes all of bronze color. Torn wings, rotting body, she drew “in aquariums,” she says, “and zoos, outside, picking up dead animals and really enjoying how they were deteriorating and their wings were completely shattered. But they take some kind of life, ”adds Chilla. Even though these are preliminary sketches, they predict bold environments of visceral life present in the decay.
The walls are draped in paint nearly eight feet high. Chilla begins by talking about what it feels like to create a work of art so large that “it’s very physical”. She claims that the meditative process of her paintings is the most important and that the finished piece is just a by-product. Chilla describes standing on a straw textile, gesso between her toes, the fabric print requires the weight of an entire body. She stood on ladders to paint, letting the work surround her. Fragments of the past is constructed around a rectangular piece of fabric from Indonesia. Like many paintings, it is a geometric meditation developing from a single, prominently placed textile. His multi-layered canvases are either printed or gesso with intentionally chosen fabrics. Chilla allows herself to find these fragments in her daily life from which to build her paintings. Fragment, like so many others, sparkles with pigments that she makes and mixes herself with spices and metallic paints. In Fragments of the past the bronze she wanted to hide the torn fabric oxidized, producing an eerie turquoise glow, as if it was under a basin of clear water. Chilla calls these accidents gifts because she allows the textile to dictate the finished shape.
Most of the paintings have no backs or frames, with their raw edges visible against the gallery wall. Chilla paints on canvas and linen, sticking them to the wall as she works. They are majestic, as big as doors. She refers to her practice as achieving a well-known vocabulary which, like language, is put together and reassembled, changing slightly as it goes. Here in the gallery, the paintings had no preparation, simply unrolled and justified against the wall. Rather than a frayed edge relinquishing the artist’s hand to what might seem unfinished, their grandeur and masterful craftsmanship shows Chilla’s abilities as an artist. Chilla was trained in the art of the Bauhaus and learned everything from sculpture to printmaking, photography, composition and painting in Berlin.
Vivid paintings are works created by Chilla after teaching contemporary art at VAST (Voluntary Artists Studio) in Thimpu, Bhutan in 2012. While in Bhutan, Chilla was inspired by dzongs, geombas, temples and domestic spaces, where, in addition to bright colors, works of art were often moved and touched. This is because it can be recreated if it is destroyed, and therefore they have a function beyond what is physically a single part. Art and space move together to create meaning.
The wall hangings are a departure from Chilla’s previous practice. For many years she has superimposed painted screens with a space between them. These works elicit ecstatic eye experiences – utter amazement if wandered around long enough as they seem to spin, spin, and whine. But to the extent that they distort the vision, they do not transport the viewer. Chilla’s recent paintings are portals of color, doors with bold faces. “Often times I couldn’t tell you how I did that [sic], I don’t remember, ”insists Chilla. But yet she continues, forming these canvases consistently since 2012 like a song stuck in her head. Again and again, the materials are revealed and she returns to her studio. She answers her own hypothetical question when she says they develop intuitively, “like writing poetry.”
“These pieces are not fragile. She holds Tribute to Pulau Asei in his hand, lifting him up, like a mother, not afraid of any part. Up close, the layered textures impressed by the lace give the artwork the appearance of scales or skin. She scratches the lint from massive hexagons, as if cutting a dead leaf from a plant.
Chilla lives half of her year in Chatham and the other half in Kolkata, India, generally traveling through Asia and Europe where she has spent a lot of time teaching. She has taught at Brown, Cornell, Berkshire Community College, RISD, the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Kolkata, India, and more. Through her experiences during this period, she meets people, materials are passed on, as they do with all of us. Sometimes she discovers loose papers, or fabrics, stamps after years. She welcomes them and they embrace the canvas, which becomes a vessel to awaken the past.
Buddhist temple monks are responsible for repainting wall hangings if they are overused, if they are touched, if the space is flooded or moldy. They are trained to get out of the act of painting and thus create the exact image of what was there before. Here, Chilla collaborates. It designates a blue lace lily inlaid in “From West to East to West”. His grandmother did. The silver shards are made from a friend’s wedding sari. Wedding sarees are intimate creations, unique to the day and to the woman for whom they are intended. The sari was left in Benigna. After many years and a divorce, the saree started to tear apart. She found this fabric and the sari and lace together began to dictate the painting. What emerges is what she calls an “environment”.
As she moves through the gallery, looking at each artwork, she tells stories about each piece and the place begins to breathe, the voices of the women who made these textiles permeate the room. Letters and Recipes are a set of 2019 and 2020 collages formed with her mother’s writings and recipes. They are woven together so that the writing on the thin paper shows through, on one side strong and the other weakly, like an echo. His mother never left the opposite side of a blank paper. “Nothing was wasted,” says Chilla.
William Faulkner said that “the past is never dead. It didn’t even happen. The past lives on in these paintings, but they are far from dead. They are not even close to memory, like in memorials. Just as the ceremony has a way of holding the place and the time, the place isonly a question of relationality. Chilla’s paintings are rather encounters, active and alive because they repeat an encounter as a place. The wall hangings support these worn and forgotten fragments that Benigna unearthed, allowing the viewer to see them dance with their own inherent grace, honoring their life specifically because it wears out. Placed on the wall and it is ordered: a constant sanctification of the relationship from which it was produced.
Chilla takes me to her studio nestled in a green hill just outside of town. Among his most recent and recent work is a piece inspired by a knitted plaid blanket. It’s bright in color with no pattern, it was three dollars at a discount store. He looks up from the ground like an ugly pug, too cute to hate. The painting from which the cover springs resembles an optical illusion, as my eyes try to capture the multicolored checkerboards that constantly escape my gaze. She says she would rather go to a craft museum than a fine arts museum. The embodiment of the object is so important to her. At this age, Chilla’s body has different needs than it did in the past. But she continues to embrace this mode of manufacture. She sits on a stool to assemble the horizon of a saffron pigmented canvas in the making, where a carpet unfolds like an old game in the hills. The old hills nearby, in which Rip Van Winkle bowled nine as the sun turns these ancient blue mountains to golden.