Kati Vilim: Optical and Tactile ─ Raphy Sarkissian




Seeming to be weightless so as to float off into the ether, planar surfaces intercept and overlap, at once asserting the flatness of the canvas and transfiguring abstraction into illusions of solid bodies that are all but impassive: they possess crystalline facets that interact, pulsate, soar, cast shadows, assert their opacity, reveal modes of translucence, assume volume, announce heft, give rise to the sentience of spatiality and exhibit chromatic interactions.

Thus Albers did the work of a phenomenologist, in the sense Wittgenstein as well as Merleau-Ponty understood it [1] – Hubert Damisch

They define geometric palettes suspended within pictorial spaces, tacitly nodding to Josef Albers’ unwavering commitment to investigating the interaction of colours. This unmistakably recognizable signature style that Kati Vilim has inventively formulated through planar forms remains in a startling dialogue not only with the abstract lexicon of modern and contemporary practitioners of Hard-edge painting, but with the history of art at one of its most theoretical levels.

As a summation of polygons that constitute a multicoloured architectonic form, “Forces Hidden in the Assembly” (2017) eloquently unfolds the quintessence of visual perception and its representation. Through its optical and tactile modalities of form, this painting of Vilim embodies several of the incisive concepts of the Austrian art historian Aloïs Riegl, a founding member of the Vienna School of formal analysis during the late nineteenth century. In his investigation of “form” and “surface”, Riegl differentiates the optical and tactile phenomena of visuality by posing the fundamental question, “How do we obtain any impression of natural things external to ourselves?” “Through our senses”, replies Riegl by explaining, “The sense of sight, or optical sense, plays the leading role in this process. But the optical sense alone does not suffice to provide us with a true sense of form. The sense of sight is unable to penetrate objects; it apprehends in a given thing merely the one surface that happens to be turned toward the viewer”.[2]

Having connected the concept of visual perception to surfaces, Riegl discerns the optical sense from the tactile: “That is to say, the eye perceives not a three-dimensional form but a two-dimensional surface; it sees height and width but not depth. To convince ourselves of the actuality of depth, we must call on another sense, the sense of touch, or tactile sense”.[3] With an arrangement of planar forms in shades of green, dark grey, cobalt blue, pink and purple, the nonrepresentational, polyhedral form of Vilim imparts a compelling sense of pictorial illusion through the flatness of its geometric sectors. Though conveying a primarily optical phenomenon by means of linear and planar forms that are rendered through the medium of oil on canvas, “Forces Hidden in the Assembly” resonates Riegl’s conclusion: “The optical sense merely reveals the existence of an object; the tactile sense presents its form”.[4]

If we assume that the visual field of the viewer confronting Vilim’s painting is a primarily optical one since it consists of intangible colouration, Riegl’s discourse of “depth” and “tactility” transpires within the realm of the painting’s wondrous counter-abstraction. This painting of Vilim thus comes across as simultaneously autonomous and tied to the planar construction of illusionistic spaces, what Hubert Damisch refers to as “the new technique of marquetry” invented by Filippo Brunelleschi and codified by Leon Battista Alberti, a technique that indeed harks back to antiquity and the inception of trompe l’oeil. As the practice of the perspectivists was a systematic “interaction of planes”. “Forces Hidden in the Assembly” recalls André Chastel’s explanation of the origin of perspective: “Following the Ancients who had happily made the most of the technique in their ‘Greek’ works, for example, people now discovered or rediscovered that through an amusing illusory effect, which is at the very origin of trompe-l’oeil, an interplay of articulated surfaces summons up depth”.[5]

While entirely removed from the representation of architecture that Renaissance perspective would champion, this unrivalled painting of Vilim assembles an autonomous form of illusion at one of its highest states, recalling the Hard-edge syntax of Al Held’s 1982 “Piero’s Piazza”, presently held at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. Through its title and illusion of space constructed by means of architectonic forms, the mesmerizing painting of Held brings to mind not only the superb “Città Ideale” of Urbino, but also Piero della Francesca’s “Flagellation of Christ” (circa 1468-70)—yet another exceptional perspectival painting at the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino, Italy. Despite its remarkably self-contained aesthetics and detachment from the external world, “Forces Hidden in the Assembly” of Vilim remains distinctly connected to the essence of linear and planar forms of Renaissance perspective, concurrently demonstrating the flatness of the painting’s surface and advocating pure opticality on the threshold of perspectival illusion. As we gaze at “Forces Hidden in the Assembly”, the painting reveals the appearance of a triangular sheet of glass at the upper section of its pictorial space, wondrously insisting upon its illusion through its very abstraction.

By means of its relatively restrained palette and compositional elements, “Proximity” (2015) registers as a chromatic sonata comprising variations of nested polygons revealing elegant sets and subsets through which planar forms appear to recede in tints of cobalt blue, while projecting outward from the picture surface through partly perspectival forms rendered in shades of cadmium red. Here, the modalities of colour and geometry of Vilim notably evoke Riegl’s insights of visual perception and pictorial representation through such binaries as figure/ground, surface/depth, and opticality/tactility.

Having restructured the codified, modernist definition of abstraction through geometric forms that concurrently construct and suspend the illusion of pictorial spaces, the paintings of Vilim retain a hermetic sense of auto-reflexivity: they exalt the reality of flatness of the picture surface while astoundingly exhibiting illusions of volume, depth and shading through craftily arranged geometric manifestations of chromatic interaction.

Words: Raphy Sarkissian © Artlyst, 2021. Top Photo: Kati Vilim, “Intersections”, installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Mucciaccia Gallery, New York. Photograph by Stéphane Graciet.

Paintings by Kati Vilim are currently on view in “Intersections” at Mucciaccia Gallery, 520 West 24th Street, New York, NY 10011 (February 16 through April 16, 2021). www.mucciaccia.com

Kati Vilim is currently based in New York. Her paintings have been exhibited within the United States and Europe, including the critically acclaimed exhibition The Geometric Unconscious (2012–13), held at the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, Nebraska. Vilim’s practice also includes site-specific, multimedia installation art and digital animation. www.kativilim.com

Raphy Sarkissian is currently affiliated with the School of Visual Arts in New York. His recent exhibition reviews include those on Dan Walsh, Anish Kapoor, Rachel Lee Hovnanian, Sean Scully, Jonas Wood and David Novros.

1. Hubert Damisch, “The Theoretical Eye”, trans. Anthony Auerbach, Journal of Art Historiography, no. 5 (December 2011), p. 8. Original publication: Hubert Damisch, “L’œil théoricien” in Josef Albers (Tourcoing: Musée des Beaux Arts, 1988), pp. 11–17, in the catalogue of the exhibition curated by Evelyne-Dorothée Allemand, held at the Musée des Beaux Arts, Tourcoing, 30 January–3 April 1988.

2. Aloïs Riegl, Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts, trans. Jacqueline E. Jung (New York: Zone Books, 2004), p. 395.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., pp. 395-96.

5. Damisch, A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting (1972), trans. Janet Lloyd (California: Stanford University Press: 2002), p. 123.  

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