Geist/Premonition Series 1999-2001

Feeling Is Believing – Jourdan Arpelle’s “Geist: Ghost, Mind, Spirit/Premonitions” Series

by Marcel Krenz

One of the most compelling works of art I have ever seen is Jourdan Arpelle’s “Geist” series. As an art historian and writer I do not say this lightly, since I have seen quite a bit of art in my time and I am not one for superlatives. Taking a first look at them, you might not instantly know what makes the 17 small, roughly 12 inches square canvasses, titled “Geist: Ghost, Mind, Spirit/Premonitions,” so special. But let me explain what I saw and, more importantly, felt: When I beheld them for the first time, the minimalist paintings were humbly hanging on a wall in Jourdan’s downtown Manhattan studio. With their interlocking outlines of squares in shades of grey and opalescent white and framed in a stainless steel frame with a black reveal they appeared to deal with a fairly intimate subject. Connected to each of the paintings is another smaller 12 by 5 inch frame with a black background and a tear-shaped hand blown hourglass filled with something that bears more than a passing resemblance to ashes. Without knowing much about Jourdan’s art – I had only seen some of her Divertimenti pieces before – they gave me the chills right away. You will probably have had that experience with art – or music for that matter – yourself: Seeing a painting that draws you in, that immediately and infallibly affects you emotionally, like falling in love. With me, that is a very rare and almost unique experience. Actually, it only happened once before and not surprisingly with a minimalist work of art, Barnett Newman’s “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue” (Version IV) at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Germany. In this case, once again you might feel, how could a painting that basically only consists of blocks of primary colors separated by thin lines be so impressive that one could have such a direct physical reaction just from looking at it? With Newman’s painting, the symmetrically constructed image is dominated by a large field of red color. Somewhere in the middle a thin perpendicular blue stripe separates the color blocks. The remaining planes of red are split up by an even thinner yellow line. And just like with Kasimir Malevich’s famed black square, the artistic composition is minimal in the extreme. Jourdan Arpelle associates Malevich’s work with a particular emotional experience as well: “At the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, I saw a wonderful exhibition of Malevich drawings with some of his paintings. These have always haunted me.” Newman’s large canvas forms a contrast to the mere gesture of Malevich’s small-scale painting, since he creates his paintings as sizeable objects, working with the tension created by juxtaposing primary colors in a symmetrically constructed image. This American artist who worked in the tradition of abstract expressionists made a number of variations of “Who’s afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue”, relying on the physical effect of large monochromatic color surfaces and stripes in primary colors. You might think, what has this to do with the much smaller format of Jourdan Arpelle’s Geist series that sports no colors at all? Well, first of all Newman also works with only a few colors and moreover a very reduced system of forms, redirecting attention to the flat canvas, rather than creating the illusion of physical space. Jourdan puts it like this: “I think I was most influenced by the way artists eliminated color from their palette, or used the lack of color as a powerful technique to engage the emotions of the viewer.” Thus, a minimum of features can still be able to create a maximum of effect. It is akin to Mies van der Rohe’s idea of “less is more.” The “less,” constructed with utmost attention to detail and materials, perfectly constructed in a balance of form and function and with precise dimensions can provide the observer with something more than the illusionist richness of, say, a baroque masterpiece. It is like a speaker holding a speech within one sentence as opposed to an hour-long diatribe using so many words leading to the same statement as its conclusion. I’ll return to this later, but let me stay with the effect of minimalist art for a moment: Newman’s “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue” is not only one of the most famous works of art in the 20th century, but also debatably the most controversial. The almost monochromatic painting led to fierce public controversy when it was purchased by the Nationalgalerie in 1982. The museum’s director even received death threats. Eventually a psychologically challenged student of veterinary medicine who felt provoked by it, attacked and badly damaged the piece in April 1982. We might think it was because the student felt it was something like “the Emperor’s new clothes,” a strong opposition to a work of art with hardly anything on it, which rejects almost everything we were taught to believe in, what we thought we knew about what art is, and is not. I doubt that. I believe he felt exactly what I felt seeing it for the first time and just what I felt, when I first experienced Jourdan’s work: A visual language that is so focused, with so little there to relate to, to intellectually understand. But still with this unbridled power over the viewer. An almost natural force that is hard to resist, hard to withdraw from. Whole tribes of art historians have tried to analyze how it was constructed to achieve this effect. The philosophical, the psychological, the metaphysical, the work-immanent or even a biographical approach may or may not provide an intellectual insight to it. It really might. But it also distracts us from opening up to the sudden emotional reaction we might have, if one does away with all the cultural baggage, since minimalist art indeed can provide you with a natural understanding of a work of art without knowing anything about art history, about the artist or about a particular school of thought. Just feel free to feel what you feel and not be duty bound to know immediately on an intellectual level what it is all about. Allow me to make one thing clear: I am not underestimating or downplaying what went into constructing a work of art that does have this effect. I just admire the effect it can have.

But there is something even more startling, yet compelling, about Jourdan’s Geist series: The ashes. The trained sculptor sees this particular work as a premonition of the events of September 11, 2001. The artist who has a history of working with panes of bright colors started working on the Geist series in 1999, feeling a specific need to work in shades of grey and white. But she had held these images in her mind long before that: “As I work with them mentally, the images become more concrete and take on their own unique shape. This is the gestation before the birth.” Jourdan and her husband Henry live on Liberty Street, just 700 feet away from the World Trade Center site. On the morning of September 11 the two of them were in their apartment when the attacks occurred. Henry, whose office was in the South Tower happened to be still at home. They were evacuated that morning, but were only allowed to leave the building after the second tower fell. While leaving their house, Jourdan mentioned to Henry: “This is why I had to make those grey paintings.” – Everything in their annihilated neighborhood was grey that day, filled with dust and debris. She says, “Our whole world was grey.” They were only to return to pick up a few personal things several weeks later. Eventually, the neighboring Bank of China permitted Jourdan to collect some dust from their mansard roof – the very roof, their apartment and studio are overlooking. The sifted dust went into the hourglasses Jourdan had made and linked to her paintings. I knew none of this when the canvasses with the hourglasses so deeply impressed me at a first glimpse. That indescribable eerie feeling I had surely derived from the paintings but of course also from the ashes that came with them. “Ashes to ashes,” is an age-old, archaic concept of not only Western cultures and religions. These particular ashes contain “everything we hold dear,” as Jourdan says, “Everything and everybody.” – Two huge buildings and everything they contained, including almost 3.000 victims, had been, please excuse my blunt wording, pulverized within minutes. Some of the casualties had been co-workers and friends of theirs. Imagery is one thing – the canvasses present us with interlocking outlines of squares and I can’t help but notice how closely they resemble the footprints of the WTC towers – but an artist striving to capture the extend of what had happened with mere imagery will almost certainly fall short of capturing the impact the events have had on all of us. The finiteness of life, perfectly rendered by incorporating the original dust in the tear-shaped hourglasses, cannot possibly fail to impress. I cannot think of a more powerful symbol for the limited time we spend on this earth. A number of artists tried to find that kind of symbolism in their quest for a design for a September 11 memorial. They were bound to fall short in this endeavor. Stating once again that I am not prone to use superlatives, I’d like to express that no other artist has been able to give a voice, to provide a symbolic imagery for those who perished. And, in all likelihood, nobody ever will. That is, apart from those humble, small scale works by Jourdan Arpelle, who was a close witness of the events, a survivor compassionate enough to be able to put into the words of her own language what has happened to us, what has happened to the world that day. No monument, and be it ever so well-meaning, can do it. Simply can’t. If I never saw another work of art again, this is the one I’d cherish in my memory. And this is not about me, or how I feel about the Geist series: I strongly believe that all good art is universal and once you open your mind you will inescapeably see and feel the way I did. But how did the artist achieve this remarkable thing? And how can there be something like a premonition at all? Jourdan Arpelle explains it like this: “You may think of me as an artist. I think of myself as an air traffic controller. The ideas, the images revolve around my head and evolve into concrete imagery. These images are complete in my mind’s eye. My job is to land the “planes”. I decide when to land them – I know in advance what I’m going to make. I bring the work of art into being – only when I know that I have the time, space and resources, both physical and energetic, to bring them in – to land them.” If you were so spiritually inclined, such a foreshadowing wouldn’t necessarily strike you as unusual. It is unusual to me and I believe that is a big part of my reacting instinctively to the Geist series. When I mentioned before that the impact of minimalist art predominately derives from its being perfectly constructed and balanced in its composition, cautiously weighing each and every of the carefully chosen features, in Jourdan’s case it is the process leading to a work of art even before a first brushstroke meets the canvas: “I am claiming that these paintings were “premonitions,” she elaborates, “When I painted them, I was not concerned about any art reference. The image arose from the place I call the “creative cosmos”. For me, as an artist, I consider this place as a spiritual destination, a part of the energetic field or firmament. The artist, when tuned in to this particular channel, has the ability to visit, to pick up on, to gravitate toward information that is then translated into visual imagery, imagery that is unique to the individual artist.” This spiritual source, whether you believe in it or not, is strictly ubiquitous. And in this respect, the individual language of one artist becomes a universal one: “This cosmic creative force is available to all of us. The reason I say that the artist can tune into this channel is because it requires a certain level of practiced discipline, awareness, and receptivity. Scientists visit this place as well. We recognize this because scientific ‘discoveries’ are known to happen in laboratories on opposite sides of the world without communication between the discoverers.”

It is this mental sphere the title “Geist: Ghost, Mind, Spirit/Premonitions” refers to. The German word “Geist” has no direct translation in the English language. It encompasses the meaning of the words ghost, mind and spirit. All of these meanings directly relate to Jourdan’s work, which is the very reason why she chose the title “Geist”: Mind relates to the collective aspects of intellect and consciousness, which are manifest in some combination of thought, perception, emotion, will and imagination. There are many philosophical as well as theological theories of what the mind is and how it works. Pre-scientific theories concentrated on the relationship between the mind and the soul, the supposed supernatural or divine essence of the human person. Modern theories, based on a scientific understanding of the brain, see the mind as a phenomenon of psychology, and the term is often used more or less synonymously with consciousness. This is at least what my dictionary tells me. Ghost and spirit are just as hard to capture: An incorporeal but ubiquitous, non-quantifiable, substance or energy present individually in all living things. Unlike the concept of human souls, which are believed to be eternal and preexisting, a spirit develops and grows as an integral aspect of the living being. A ghost is usually conceived as a wandering spirit from a being no longer living, having survived the death of the body yet maintaining the mind and consciousness. All of these aspects are closely related to the Geist paintings: While obviously the emotional side of the perception of minimalist art is informed by collective intellect and consciousness, there is also the philosophical and spiritual realm that is involved not only through the process of their creation. It is an archaic, symbolical and universal language. And the spirits of those who perished on 9/11 are an omnipresent and integral part of the paintings as well as inside the sculptural objects of the hourglasses. Which leads me to say: Human vision is limited. We can basically only see three pigments: Red, yellow and blue. Which I trust was Barnett Newman’s thought. Still, we tend to believe in what we see and forget about the fact that it is what we feel that broadens our horizons.

I do hope that art history can provide some insight into art and the complex process of it coming into being after all. However, I also like to underline that a genuine understanding can just as well be reached by just exploring your own reactions to Jourdan Arpelles’s Geist series.

Marcel Krenz is an art historian, journalist and consultant who lives and works in Cologne, Germany.