Overlooking the Amazon: Katie Van Scherpenberg at Cecilia Brunson Projects

From the 1st of October, Cecilia Brunson Projects are presenting the first ever UK exhibition of work by Katie Van Scherpenberg in the UK

Installation Images courtesy of Eva Herzog and Cecilia Brunson Projects

Katie Van Scherpenberg has been producing art for more than five decades, but the show at Cecilia Brunson Projects in South London will be the first ever solo presentation of her work in the UK. One of the most unique painters to emerge from the South American art scene, her lack of presence in the UK is surely not down to her distance, but rather the complexity of displaying her work. Overlooking the Amazon brings together work from across her career and her experimental approach to artistic materials.

Born to a Dutch diplomat father in São Paulo, Van Scherpenberg started her artistic career as a traditional painter, having studied under the European Georg Brenninger (1909–1988) in Munich and Oskar Kokoshcka (1816–1986) in Salzburg. Some of the earliest works on show at Cecilia Brunson Projects include paintings from The Executives series (1976). Created during the military dictatorship in Brazil, these single and group portraits of grotesquely pale men in suits and sunglasses communicate the oppressiveness of the political climate at the time.

The Executives, 1976, Katie van Scherpenberg, Tempera and oil on canvas, 98 × 143.5 cm

In the late 1960s Van Scherpenberg had moved from Rio de Janeiro where she started out to the island of Ilha de Santana in the delta of the Amazon River. Remote as it was, her access to traditional artist materials was very limited and she started to research the use of natural pigments in painting. This incorporation of nature into the world of art also helped inspire her ‘landscape painting’, which she began in the 1980s. A series of outdoor works, they were seminal in their format: Van Scherpenberg would apply mineral pigments on the landscape, photographing the inevitable dispersal of her bright colours back into nature. On show at Overlooking the Amazon is her photographic documentation of Furo (2001), in which she applied iron oxide to a beach in Brazil and recorded as it was slowly washed out into the sea.

These experiments with natural pigments were important when the financial crisis of the 1990s arrived, and finding artistic materials in Brazil was not only logistically but financially prohibitive. In her series Mummy, I promise to be Happy (1990s), Van Scherpenberg even made use of her own linens as canvases, using the delicate embroidery to make a statement around the domestic role required of women in the patriarchal society of Brazil at the time. Portal (1999), a diptych of embroidered bedsheets on which Van Scherpenberg has played with the oxidisation process of bronze and copper pigments is one of the most striking examples of this series on show at CBP at the moment.

Esperando Papai [Waiting for daddy], 2004, Katie Van Scherpenberg, Colour digital print on canson paper, x2, 28 x 88 cms

Though much of Van Scherpenberg’s inspirations situate her work clearly in South America, indeed to the point that she paints with and on its natural minerals, there is one firmly European piece of her inheritance which inspired a series of works. That is a small painting by Romantic German artist Anselm Feuerbach, which has survived in her family’s possession despite their many international moves. Yet naturally, by the time the painting arrived in Van Scherpenberg’s possession, it was visibly somewhat damaged. In it, Katie saw a link once more between surface and time, and in her earlier works in the Feuerbach series, she experimented with reagent solutions, from salt and vinegar even to urine to bring about surface change on sheets of metal over time.

Her later works in this series go beyond the abstract to create painterly images of the Amazon, bringing together her two identities from her studies in the world of Western art and her own understading of the natural materials and processes of her artistic creation in the Amazon. It is from one of these works that the exhibition takes its name, Overlooking the Amazon, and it is well worth seeing in person.

Vista sobre o amazonas [Overlooking the amazon], 2010–2017, Katie Van Scherpenberg, Tempera, oil and collage on marine plywood, 112 x 162 cms

Overlooking the Amazon is now on at Cecilia Brunson Projects, 2G Royal Oak Yard, Bermondsey Street, London,SE1 3GD, from the 1st October to the 30th November. Click here to learn more about the exhibition and Cecilia Brunson Projects.

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