Prima Materia or Primal Matter is a term for the starting material for all things – matter that is fundamental and profound — which alchemists seek in order to actuate their alchemical transformations. The prima materia – sometimes referred to as the “Philosopher’s Stone”- is so valued as an idea that it has been reframed to sit in any belief system, including being drafted into Christianity in the Renaissance by such as the Swiss physician and botanist Paracelsus, a man famous for his pragmatism – he was the first proponent of the scientific method of empiricism. Most agreed that earth, air, fire and water were essential ingredients in the prima materia. Paracelsus added three additional elements for medical diagnosis and cure: sulphur, mercury, and salt. Martin Ruland’s “Lexicon of Alchemy and Alchemical Dictionary”(1) (1612), gives fifty options, including: dew; fog; shade; the morning star; heaven; the bride and mother; Eve. According to “The Mystica” (2), certain colors are important characterizations of the material: melanosis (blackening), leukosis (whitening), xanthosis (yellowing), and iosis (reddening) – the blackness symbolizing the initial state of chaos, out of which came everything.
What is for sure is that prima materia has different meanings for different thinkers: philosophers, physicians, alchemists, and also artists – each “school” bringing its own interpretations of what constituted this elemental material, and to different ends. The work in artist Marianne Van Lent’s solo exhibition, entitled “Prima Materia,” at The Painting Center, 547 W 27th St. in the Chelsea area of Manhattan, is concerned with this alchemical quest for transformation in her work and in nature. Van Lent is a dual resident of the Hudson River town of Athens and the lower west side of Manhattan. Holding an MFA from Cornell University, she has exhibited widely in the US and Europe.
In this exhibition of new work, we witness an inquiry into those elements that might indicate the essential elements of being. Describing herself as a painter of the natural world Van Lent says, “My work relates to the process of transcendence and transformation in which magic occurs through abstraction.” The work contains recurring motifs such as: vessel or vas shapes, cell-like clusters, spinning entities, vapors, and mists.
The perspectives in the pieces are ambiguous and Van Lent has achieved interesting and complimentary opposites in the same works – many manage to combine the monumentalism of landscape while also enveloping one in the intimacy of microorganisms – the paintings, Jelly Fish, Rose Garden, and Sapped (Calined Oxide), all from 2014, have those qualities.
Furthermore, the paintings offer a simultaneous sense of weightiness and airiness – this is achieved partly by the surface of the pieces. Van Lent covers the support – usually stretched canvas – with a Venetian plaster. This material is troweled on to create a variety of textures, and is an excellent surface for the method of “Fresco Secco” used to make the artworks. Fresco Secco is pure pigment in a water-base applied to dry (secco) plaster. Van Lent also uses polymer to further disperse and, paradoxically, bind the paint which is glazed on in layers. In addition she uses stencils to great graphic effect against the fluidity and luminosity of the glazes.
The works often start with an underpainting gleaned from details of old masters’ works such as Van Gogh and Constable. Little of those underpaintings survive visually into the finished work, just traces of pentimento. In the painting Venetian, a large and exceptionally airy piece, I was struck by a strong echo of Turner’s paintings of Venice, particularly Santa Maria della Salute (1840) in the use of cerulean blues and golden ochers. Perhaps influenced by the title, the jewel colors applied through stencils put me in mind of Venetian (Murano) glass. In fact, the stenciled shapes signify the micro-cellular structures we carry within our bodies.
A strong motif present in many of the works is the “Vas” whose symbology is deeply connected to the feminine principle. It is also very much in concert with some of the 50 items offered by Ruland’s “Lexicon of Alchemy and Alchemical Dictionary,” including that of the prima materia being connected to the mother and to Eve, incubators of life. The “Vas Hermeticum” in which, it is said, lie all opposites, is an important symbol to Van Lent, and is the subject of one painting. It was also a beloved symbol of Carl Jung’s – a vessel, he believed, signifying a perfect representation of the analytic relationship.
How an artist’s work transforms from one form into another – a kind of alchemy in itself – is always a curious thing, especially when that transformation is quite radical as is the case in this artist’s work. The new paintings contain a strong sense of landscape which is, indeed, the route through which Van Lent’s work traces its descent, but with only a passing resemblance to those earlier, relatively conventional, works. Reading her catalog essay, my curiosity was piqued by a mention of the work being filtered through autobiographical experiences. I then learnt that the change in direction came about through a temporary but severe decline in the artist’s health and the battle that ensued to regain well-being. This forced Van Lent to look inward – literally inward – at the microbiology of her own body. This, in turn, led to a different kind of outward focus to ways that primary elements in our world are being altered by technology. For instance, the tinkering with our food sources through the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) – animal and plant biology whose genomes have been precisely altered at the molecular level by the inclusion of genes from unrelated species.
The artist examines our fragile position in the universe as we, of the natural word, intersect with the technological world. Van Lent’s vision is not pessimistic in the least and the paintings are beautiful; her aim is not necessarily to envision for us an ugly future (although deadly bacteria can come in pretty packages), and at the end of her catalog essay, she refers to the ancestral footstep walking behind us. But we can suppose she also wants us to consider how our prima materia, the essence of who and what we are, might be affected and altered over time, and how it might impact our descendant footsteps walking ahead of us. Please scroll down for details about the gallery’s hours and exhibition events.
1.Ruland, Martin. “Lexicon of Alchemy and Alchemical Dictionary.” Pub. 1612, Frankfurt
2.“The Mystica” is an on-line encyclopedia of the occult, mysticism, paranormal, etc. http://www.themystica.com
Featured image: New Jungle, 2014, 48 x 48
All images are courtesy of the artist. All are Fresco Secco and dispersed pigment in polymer on canvas.
The exhibition “Prima Materia” is on view through March 28, 2015 at:
The Painting Center, 547 W. 27th St, Suite 500, NY, NY 10001. Gallery hours are Tuesdays — Saturdays, 11 — 6 pm.
There is an artist’s reception on March 5 from 6―8pm. There will be a closing reception and artist’s talk on March 28 from 4 — 6pm.
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. In addition to her art-making, she is also the company manager and designer for The Woodstock Players Theater Company—as the company designer she is responsible for everything from the website to the set design. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication. Claire Lambe’s art work can be seen here: clairelambe.net/