A studio visit with a mid-century artist
Posted by: Daria Dorosh
Artists who span the 20th and 21st century were shaped by two significant events. One was World War II in the 1930s and 1940s, the other was the shift from analog to digital in the 1990s. As children, we experienced the helplessness of losing our home and family members to war. In midlife, we encountered a paradigm shift that undermined our foundation as artists when a culture based in materiality changed to one based in ephemeral code.
Esther Podemski is a mid-century artist from that transitional period. I feel a resonance with her work, and relate to her color sense, her abstraction, and use of figuration. Her father was an expert tailor, and as a child she was dazzled by the aura emanating from large hanging paper patterns, shapes that he magically turned into men’s suits.
As artists often do, we recently traded our work. On making a second studio visit to choose a work in our exchange, I was stunned to see something in her abstract paintings that I missed on my first visit. Esther and her husband have a discerning collection of art from different periods. As I looked at their collection again, I reflected on how they seemed to choose art with a spiritual quality beyond a particular time and place. When I entered her studio, these thoughts led me to see her work in a whole unexpected way. I had read Esther’s writing about her current body of work. Yet, what I saw had to be described differently.
In this series of abstractions, there was a pervasive oval shape lying down in the center of each painting. The shape hinted at something missing, or perhaps a container waiting to be filled. It was not ominous, yet it had a power to evoked the ultimate empty space that waits for each of us. It should have been frightening, yet it felt comforting in a transcendental kind of way, and was even playful in color and mood in several of the works. The powerful central form grounds the composition while lines and shapes surround it in a seemingly infinite number of ways. But it is a heavy shape, especially when it is black, a deep hole with an eternal presence that has always been there, even as we go about our time-based lives. Plato’s dialogues on being and becoming came to mind, evoking the relationship between body and spirit. I was surprised how deeply she understood this oval shape and was able to reveal its multi-faceted complexity with abstract forms. I finally chose a small painting with a red oval, surrounded by white, black, and a little yellow.
Esther is a visual artist who has also made films on deeply moving topics. Her last film, The Peasant and the Priest documents the passage of cultural history in Italy. Another, House of the World, revisits her family’s experience of the Holocaust in Poland. Feelings of anger, betrayal, and sadness can surface when such difficult themes are expressed in narrative form. But in the abstract space of a painting, a grander understanding of life comes through, one which encompasses more than the temporal.
In the end, these are healing paintings, a gift from the artist as she comes to terms with her life experience, and in the coded language of abstraction, tells us what she has learned.