Monday, 1 December 2008

Nostalgic Work Prods Loss Of Artist Sister

Date written: March 2006

Charlotta Westergren still vividly recalls that beautiful day when the police called her. It was a day of budding leaves and spring crushes which was instantaneously transformed into a nightmare. Her sister Carolina had been apprehended shoplifting at Bloomingdale’s with a perverted, clownish grin of stolen lipstick smeared across her face.

Seventeen years later, Westergren, still dwells on how she, at age 18, became the protector of her older sister who has never fully recovered from her nervous breakdown. Carolina, the sensitive, introspective art student, has never painted again. In a reversal of intended fates, it is Westergren who is the established artist now dwelving into her relationship with her sister in her fifth solo gallery show, “Åhus, sommaren 1974,” at Bellwether Gallery in Chelsea.

Picking up literally where Carolina left off, Westergren has remade a number of her sister’s pre-illness paintings. The repainted versions are bright and unfussy whereas Carolina’s originals – available in the gallery’s press kit for the show but not exhibited – were dark and foreboding. Westergren has replaced clutter with monochrome backgrounds. Saccharine colors replace mauves, browns and somber beiges. “I think I was trying to repaint the past,” says Westergren, 36, “trying to clean it up.”

She sits in the gallery’s office as the rain drums the skylight above. Tiny hands with chewed-down nails grasp a yellow pencil as though Westergren is holding a magic wand to ward of evil spirits. Mostly known for her candy-colored paintings that revisit happy memories from her childhood in Sweden, it is the first time she has subjected herself to quite so intimate, and public, therapy through her art. “The process is about learning something…” she reflects in a later telephone conversation, “and one of the thing that was so unresolved was my relationship to my sister.” Westergren originally studied to be an architect at Columbia University, but found herself drawn to art. “The thing about being an artist is that you don’t chose it, it choses you,” says the petite, 5 feet 4 inches tall Westergren whose wavy tresses of oat-blonde hair fall past her shoulders. “I was assigned the role of ‘Anything Other Than…” There wasn’t room for two artists.” A dainty, slightly upturned nose and expressive cornflower blue eyes lend the artist an elfish air. She perches precariously on the edge of a transparent plastic chair in the office. As she crosses her legs, she tucks the right foot around the left ankle, contorting her legs into a sinuous knot.

The art world was supposed to be inhabited by Carolina, and Westergren suffers from what she terms survivor’s guilt. The artist is interested in exploring memories and alternative versions of past events. A painting at the gallery depicts a young woman at a party, standing alone as others mingle. She looks apprehensive and alone in Carolina’s original painting. “There was tension between the characters in that painting,” says Westergren, “that revealed something about what Carolina may have been feeling.” In Westergren’s rendition the young woman appears at ease.

This wish to undo the past by painting away the anxiety and unease is also a means for Westergren to admit that she mourns the sister she once had. “She’s not dead yet, she’s a person who has a voice, who made this work, is in the world, and it was a really kinda back handed way of giving Carolina a show,” says Westergren, her voice speeding up, its timber revealing both sadness and anger.

Rivalry means that sibling relationships are a mix of love and of hate, Westergren observes frankly. As an artist, Westergren has always been attracted to dichotomies. “It’s disarmingly playful…” says Bellwether director Erica Samuels. “On the surface it’s clean and can be termed pretty, maybe, but underneath the surface of it there’s something ultimately a little bit dark, or a little bit strange.”

In previous work, Westergren explored less traumatic memories of her childhood in Sweden. Her father, a journalist, was relocated to London when Westergren was 8. When her parents told her of the impending move, she threw a tantrum, ran into her room and kicked a hole in the wall. “I feel like Sweden represents something that was not only left behind but actually taken away from me,” says Westergren. “I think it has come to represent something that is more magical than it is.”

As a child in Sweden, Westergren spent hours lying on the moss-covered forest floor watching insects toil away. Among her older paintings, exhibited by Elizabeth Dee in New York and by Mary Goldman in Los Angeles, there are detailed depictions of peeling birch bark and long stemmed mushrooms.

Alongside her paintings, the Williamsburg, Brooklyn-based artist has also exhibited sculpture and installation. At the SubUrban show in 2004 at the Knoxville Museum of Art (KMA), she tacked sequins to an enormous wall, creating a moving, glittering iceberg mosaic. “What has always stood out about Charlotta, says curator Nandini Makrandi who worked at KMA at the time, “is her ability to paint incredibly well, her unique perspective and her interest in experimentation.”

More recently, Westergren has experimented with new materials. For a time, she painted on silver lame, a fabric that alternates from reflecting light to becoming transparent depending on the viewer’s angle. Nowadays, she uses car paint on aluminum. The result, she says, has “a kind of luster and jewel-like quality.” Through maximizing the pretty and aesthetically easy in this manner, she means to criticize the art market, which to her mind has become too commercialized. Artists, she says, have been turned into court jesters. “I saw that people just wanted me to pump out these products,” says Westergren, whose collectors include New Line Cinema co-CEO Michael Lynne, “and I think I found that to be a problem.”

There is, of course, an inherent paradox to criticizing the art market by accommodating it, yet this contradiction is oddly fitting for the strong-spoken artist whose personality is simultaneously sweet and tough. She is gregarious, open, humble and expressive. As she talks of her colleagues she refers to them as “cutie pie” and “lady bug.”

When it comes to her art, however, she will fight tooth and nail for perfection. When she first used wild flowers made of sugar for a show in Los Angeles, she enlisted the help of French pastry chef Andre Renard. It soon led to fierce arguing. “She knows exactly what she wants,” recalls Renard with a laugh. He used a traditional technique to make the flowers as transparent and glass-like as possible. Westergren drew inspiration for the flowers from a Swedish myth that placing seven flowers under your pillow on Midsummer’s Eve will conjure a dream of your future husband, and she used them again in the Bellwether show where they hung from the ceiling.

Westergren wanted the fragility of glass and the degradability of sugar to communicate her ruminations about the nature of memories. “The way she explained it to me, it was about heightening memories, sweetening the past,” says Samuels. Westergren has also considered humans’ tendency to gloss over memories, to remember the good rather than the bad, and to dismantle and reconstruct the recollection of past events. “It represents ideas in childhood,” says Westergren’s LA representative Mary Goldman, “that are these ideas that are really tenuous but end up not really being true.”

For Westergren, whose family lived in London, Tunis, Paris and Chicago after leaving Sweden, her childhood memories have also been tainted by a search for identity, which she believes is common among ex-patriot children. “The way we form the notions of who we are comes from this idea that you mix some of those memories with who you want to be…” she says. “And you create that narrative of your life.”

This same them was present in her MFA degree show at Tuft’s when she graduated in 1995. She based her work on a line from an August Strindberg novel. “The imagination grounds itself in reality,” she paraphrases, “but it spins and it weaves new patterns and it’s mixing memories and experiences and you then improvise to make a sense of who you are.”

Travelling as a child and teenager Westergren and her family was the constant. She is still a Swedish citizens but says she doesn’t feel Swedish. “But then again I don’t think I feel American,” she says. “I certainly don’t have a sense that I’m an American person.”

She is instead a creation of her many memories of childhood, of spending summers in Sweden, of her home’s traditions and folklore that survived in her mind as she moved from country to country. She is also the survivor of a family tragedy. Her sister was initially excited about the show at Bellwether but suffered a relapse and could not attend. They used to draw together as children, lying on their bellies in the countryside attacking paper with pencils and crayons. The beach was not far away from the two young artists, and, at Bellwether, Westergren has reconstructed the light and the scent of the seaside. At the back of the gallery, a temporary installation contains a white-painted, brightly-lit, cubic space. A hidden ionizer purrs from above, emitting the artificial smell of seaweed and salty sand. The smell and bluish light of a Swedish summer day on the beach are artificially reconstructed in Manhattan as the rain falls outside on Tenth Avenue.

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