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an essay by Cliff Eyland


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Celia Rabinovitch

DESCRIPTION WITHOUT PLACE
Paintings and Selected Works by CELIA RABINOVITCH
27 January to 25 February 2005, Gallery One One One
Opening Reception: Thursday, 27 January, 4:00 to 7:30 PM
Artist's Talk: Monday, 7 February, 7:00 PM
Rm 207 FitzGerald Building

Curated by Cliff Eyland

Celia Rabinovitch Image

ABOVE: Shoreline. oil on canvas, 24" x 36" 1996
Photo credit: Ernest Mayer

INTERVIEW WITH CELIA RABINOVITCH BY CLIFF EYLAND
[conducted between April 2004 and January 2005].

Cliff Eyland: I wonder if you could talk about your education as a painter. In asking this question I am aware that your undergraduate years in Winnipeg may have had little influence on your painting.

Celia Rabinovitch: My education started at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, when at the age of six my twin sister and I took classes through the Winnipeg School Division. Our Saturday morning classes were held in the old gallery. I loved art books and was copying some of the Old Masters such as Watteau as a child. When I entered The School of Art, University of Manitoba abstract expressionism, pop art, and color field painting from the Emma Lake workshops (influenced by Clement Greenberg) dominated the School. So I learned color field painting, stain painting, stripe painting, and a tight approach to drawing that took me some time to break out of.

As a young woman artist who was interested in making images, the late 1970’s was a difficult time in the art world – it was still a time of the "boy’s club" which gave a certain machismo in large scale heroic painting and material exploration. An ideology predominated that was derived from minimalism, but pluralism, feminism and new image painting were soon to follow in the early 80’s.

While doing an M.F.A. at the University of Wisconsin in painting, we learned optical or perceptual approaches as well as a sense of mastery through practice. Painting became both about creating a state of mind for the viewer, and the craft became visual problem-solving. Back in Montreal, and then working in Denver after this, I pushed to learn new approaches – including a form of Latin American constructivism that has a particular method. I learn much from other artists, and continue to challenge myself.

Cliff Eyland: You went on in Winnipeg to get a BA in the history of religions and English. When you left Winnipeg for graduate school you got your Ph.D. while also being an artist. The fields are obviously related, but could you talk about how the study of religion and art history influenced your thinking about your own art?

Celia Rabinovitch: [Wallace] Steven’s "Description without Place" tells us that art is "intenser than any actual life might be.". It seems that art from its origins frames this experience of the world, showing us what is powerful or sacred. Looking at Asian and archaic religions and the phenomenology of the sacred (at McGill) it became obvious that art gives the viewer the experience of another world of meaning. Looking at art from this experiential perspective lets us capture elements that are so obvious they have become obscure. The history of religions, like anthropology or psychology looks at the experiential realm, which allows a different or wider way of understanding art. Religion or spirituality, taken broadly, provides us with rich imagery and symbolism– I’m attracted to things which are less obvious and more nuanced, such as Chinese or Japanese aesthetics, but that have to be understood on their own terms, not from a Western perspective. Studying art and religion provided me with a background in art theory, and thus my own work grew into an understanding that painting provides the viewer as well as the artist with a moment of insight, a state of mind – and that, of course, is what I try to paint.

Cliff Eyland: I see much of your work as a kind of social realism.

Celia Rabinovitch: If there is social realism in my work, it comes from a compassion and respect for the dignity of work. Artists do physical work too, in fact they are often part of a working class ethos, handling materials like blue collar workers, than of an academic elite. Many have worked in industrial settings, and use various metal shops and other modes of fabrication. So the metaphor of work, of physical labor, is important because it is what we do. Also, my father worked in the wholesale district, now called the exchange. As a teenager I sometimes worked for him, and was attracted to the romance of the old buildings; and the characters who worked there whose personalities seemed larger than their identity with their occupation. That expansiveness and character -- it is rare. The perceptual moment attracts me more than social realism – when you see someone working and that expands to become a metaphor for life. The struggle, wresting things from material, the spiraling energy of movement, speaks to something larger than book knowledge or information. That physicality – it is part of the energy that impels art, eros, and matter, irreducible to a concept or message.

Cliff Eyland: Since the post-war era when art schools became academic institutions the painter/academic has become common in the sense that art professors teach studio courses and have exhibitions. However, painters like you who also write academic texts are still exceedingly uncommon.

Celia Rabinovitch: We experience a world through our imaginations in great art. This vivid experience of art drew me into academia, and into writing. Writing became a kind of reflection on what art does. The issues I am curious about – perception, imagination, how we know what we know, other kinds of knowledge that can’t be classified, and Asian traditions – are all basic to art. I understand art as part of the history of knowledge, although academia still doesn’t recognize that art is a form of knowledge. Certainly it has been difficult to write and to paint, although they are both creative activities – one gets classified into a context which sometimes makes it hard to be seen as an artist.

My purpose was to create an understanding of art and artists from the point of view of human experience. How does this or that artist experience the world? In this sense I have challenge the conventions of art history, such as historical chronology, stylistic category, or connoisseurship – approaches that can limit how we sense the essence of a work. So I write to change things. The conclusion of my book on Surrealism and the Sacred makes a distinction between historical time and the experiential time of the artist. The historian views the art from historical time, but for insight one must uncover the experiential time of the artist.

Cliff Eyland: In a recent interview [Barbour, UManitoba Bulletin, 12 Feb 2004, 12] you spoke about your interest in "Asian aesthetic traditions." I tend to connect at least some of your paintings, for example your "English Bay" or "Syracuse" paintings of ships to a Whistlerian tradition in painting that associates atmospheric painting with Chinese and Japanese art.

Celia Rabinovitch: Part of my interest in Chinese and Japanese religions led me to Sung Dynasty Chinese landscape painting, which has been a big influence in my work. I took the inspiration directly from the source, rather than through Whistler, as much as I admire his work. I became interested in Zen Buddhism while quite young, and read authors such as the poet and translator of haiku, R.H. Blyth, or D.T. Suzuki, who translated Buddhist ideas into Western terms. From R.H. Blyth (recently become resurrected as a key influence for many artists and writers) I found haiku and the basis for Ezra Pound’s images taken from the Chinese poets. Then the idea of the single image connected my intentions. When I later studied Ch’an and Zen aesthetics at McGill, I took a year to understand a key Zen painting: Mu Chi’s Six Persimmons. From 13th Century China, it is from the same time as the Mumon Koan, the famous Zen book of koans, which are actually Chinese koans. The koans, like the painting, are paradoxical, at the same time stunningly concrete and abstract and ephemeral. The experience is one of contradiction; it, leads to a sense of completion, because the mystery posed by the painting, by the koan, cannot be answered but has to be lived or experienced. That kind of experience returned years later as I looked at the freighters in English Bay, Vancouver. They advanced and receded in a lucid atmosphere that was contradictory and romantic. The image provided an elusive field of vision that was still simple. But the image is ephemeral, about appearance and disappearance, of not being able to capture anything for very long.

Cliff Eyland: What about Edward Hopper? I see something of Hopper in your work.

Celia Rabinovitch: Hopper has magic, a sense of the moment and of experiential time in his paintings of old theatres, interiors and figures in the landscape. His sense of stillness provokes and disturbs the viewer. Hopper’s painting has a muscularity that seems peculiarly American, because direct and unvarnished. Of course that is the America from the 1930s, with its social realism, the ethos of the farm and hard work, the middle class acceptance of social limitations. While Hopper creates with strong light and dark, I prefer Vermeer because he creates with veils of tonalities like the Chinese painters, but unrepeatable by anyone since. His moments open up as light filled spaces where figures lose themselves in activity or look at the viewer who becomes a voyeur.. Both Vermeer and Hopper create a sense of the mystery through moments of time, but Vermeer leads us into the mystery of light and dark where we enter a reverie of suspended time. That kind of poetic epiphany informs my images, because it eclipses both paint and narrative. It is the perceptual moment – as Stevens puts it, "an expectation, a desire, the difference that we make in what we see."

Cliff Eyland: Your interest in surrealism is strong. You have published a book about surrealism and the sacred, but, obviously, you do not make surrealist art.

Celia Rabinovitch: Surrealism attracts younger artists because it is literally weird or strange – an emotion and physical sensation that I explored in the book. Even my chapter titles concern "the pursuit of the uncanny". The book began as a research paper that I started it when I was much younger, and my ideas have changed since then. That sense of the uncanny– it often appears without willing it in my work. If you try to intentionally create it, it doesn’t happen. My art leans towards a feeling of the surreal, but more in believable moments that expand as we engage with the art. I’m not after the weird or the morbid, something that intrigues the Surrealists as well as a number of Winnipeg artists. It was very prevalent at the School of Art when I was a student there. The vitality of art from Matisse, to Rothko to David Park in color and gesture also compels the viewer with a sense of fullness or energy that is missing from much Surrealist art. The challenge is how to marry the two.


The DESCRIPTION WITHOUT PLACE, Paintings and Selected Works by Celia Rabinovitch CD-ROM includes an essay and images with information about other Gallery One One One projects.

Gallery One One One, School of Art, Main Floor, FitzGerald Building, University of Manitoba Fort Garry campus, Winnipeg, MB, CANADA R3T 2N2 TEL:204 474-9322 FAX:474-7605

For information please contact Robert Epp eppr@ms.umanitoba.ca