Dawn Adès on Katie van Scherpenberg’s ‘Dune’

‘I keep returning to the work – even as it changes’ 

Katie van Scherpenberg, Dune (from the series, 'Mummy, I promise to be happy'), 1992, mixed media on canvas, 100 x 150 cm. Courtesy: © the artist; photograph: ESCALA 

Katie van Scherpenberg, Dune (from the series, 'Mummy, I promise to be happy'), 1992, mixed media on canvas, 100 x 150 cm. Courtesy: © the artist; photograph: ESCALA 

In the end, I’ve settled on a work that I have loved ever since we unpacked it, crumbling and already metamorphosing, as a gift for our newly founded collection of Latin American Art at the University of Essex.

Dune (from the series ‘Mummy, I Promise to Be Happy’, 1992) by the Brazilian artist Katie van Scherpenberg resists reproduction. This is true, of course, of many contemporary artworks, but not necessarily for similar reasons. Dune’s materials change over time, so the work can never be definitively captured. On the canvas base, pure red/brown pigment was spread and, over this, layers of sawdust and gesso. Other objects have visibly been incorporated: a linen sheet, cockle shells. The surface was white to begin with but, over time, the underlying pigment is gradually seeping through. The last time I saw Dune, the surface had started to turn pink and the stitching of the sheets and the shell patterns were more prominent. Eventually, it seems, the surface will turn quite dark. In how long, who knows? Evidently, the passage of time and how it can be measured, fascinates Van Scherpenberg, who has been working quietly in Rio de Janeiro for decades. Her engagement with this has carried on into other projects.

It is the physical character of Dune’s materials, as bearers of temporality and so potent with associations, that I keep returning to – even as they change. Interiors and exteriors – beds, winding sheets, wedding veils; landscapes, sand-dunes, beaches. The title, and the heartbreaking series it is part of, relates to Van Scherpenberg’s experiences as mother and daughter.

Dawn Adès is an art historian and curator based in London, UK. In 2013, she was awarded a CBE for her services to Art History. She is Professor Emeritus, University of Essex, UK, and a former Trustee of Tate, London, UK. Her recent publications include Writing on Art and Anti-Art (Ridinghouse, 2015).

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019

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