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Conduits of time: 'Of A Place' by Gretchen Scherer at Taymour Grahne Projects

Of A Place, a solo exhibition by American artist Gretchen Scherer in London, provides a glimpse on statement European architecture and interiors with a contemporary lens.

by Divya MenonPublished on : Apr 15, 2023

Do spaces affect behaviour?

A strange equation binds imagination and reality, one that befits a narrative in itself. At times imagination is a walk towards reality, at other times, a departure from truth. And interestingly, between imagination and stark reality is a magnificent space punctuated by immense possibilities. A space where the past, present and future exist bereft of jurisdictions of any kind. It is in these very profound intervals between a dream-like state and the concrete actuality where American artist Gretchen Scherer finds her inspiration to birth paintings where the present and the past converge through a rare arrangement of ideas and practices.    

Sir John Soane's Museum, Breakfast Room, Of a place, 2021-2022, Oil and Acrylic on Panel | Gretchen Scherer | Of A Place, Taymour Grahne Projects |STIRworld
Sir John Soane's Museum, Breakfast Room, 2021-2022, Oil and Acrylic on Panel Image: Courtesy of Monya Rowe Gallery, NY, Taymour Grahne Projects and Gretchen Scherer

From dressing rooms to libraries, closets to fire places, dining halls to museums, her works are a celebration of dramatic interiors. Antiquated European homes, estates and art museums where history lies buried under layers of time and circumstance, have almost always been her protagonists. Extravagant and opulent, complete with baroque and ornate forms, they lie soaked in the grandeur and play of time! But, engage a little longer with these compelling works of art and what becomes palpable beyond their shimmer of elegance is mystery.  

Standing before her miniature representations of monumental buildings, the luxurious interiors simply absorb one into the conundrums of time, from where people of the past begin to play out their roles. Imaginary faces of former inhabitants flash before the mind’s eyes. From a state of absentia, they implore and summon you to engage in dialogues. The interiors where human presence is made conspicuous by sheer absence seem to be suddenly suffused with imaginary activity and conversations. The flat two dimensional works inundated with inanimate objects suddenly turn into an experience, eerie and otherworldly. 

Osborne House, Dining Room, Of a place, 2022-23,Oil and Acrylic on Panel | Gretchen Scherer |Of A Place, Taymour Grahne Projects | STIRworld
Osborne House, Dining Room, 2022-23,Oil and Acrylic on Panel Image: Courtesy of Monya Rowe Gallery, NY, Taymour Grahne Projects and Gretchen Scherer

She recently exhibited solo exhibition Of A Place at the Taymour Grahne Projects in London. On the occasion, speaking to Gretchen for STIR was akin to walking down unusual lanes of artistry leading to interesting revelations about her unique artistic practice and her works that transgress from being objects of mere visual delight to grandiose psychological and emotional engagements. So what goes into the making of these highly detailed, structured, composite works? The first sprout is evidently imagination beginning with an image in her mind, followed by a meticulous process of research and piecing together of different elements until something quite different from the original spark takes form. Talking about how her imagination has directed her towards reinventing spaces, she says, “Imagination is very important. Sometimes the idea for the painting begins with a vision I have in my mind and throughout the process of composing the works I am seeing and feeling the way things could be. The paintings do end up being very different from the places they come from but all the elements: the paintings, the furniture, the architectural elements come from somewhere in the collection. Then I begin sketching to find the composition. I collage using sources from the internet and sometimes books as well, to create a study for the painting. I then draw onto the panel with pencil while viewing the collage. Finally I add colours in thin layers of oil paint and small brushes. I have a deep love of painting, architecture and history. In my paintings I combine my interests but I also try to let go of all the information in my head and just paint. It’s a little bit like historical fiction. I start with something real but invent a lot along the way. I know a painting can’t exactly tell a story, but the stories give me meaning within the works.”

Ham House, The Queen's Bedchamber, Of a place, 2022-2023, Oil and Acrylic on Panel  | Gretchen Scherer | StirWorld
Ham House, The Queen's Bedchamber, 2022-2023, Oil and Acrylic on Panel Image: Courtesy of Monya Rowe Gallery, NY, Taymour Grahne Projects and Gretchen Scherer

She elucidates this by talking about the genesis of two paintings—Kedleston Hall, Saloon and the Burghley House, Blue Silk Dressing Room, both of which adorn the walls of the Taymour Grahne Projects as part of the ongoing exhibition.

Kedleston Hall, Saloon, Of a place, 2022-2023, Oil and Acrylic on Panel | Gretchen Scherer  |Of A Place, Taymour Grahne Projects |STIRworld
Kedleston Hall, Saloon, 2022-2023, Oil and Acrylic on Panel Image: Courtesy of Monya Rowe Gallery, NY, Taymour Grahne Projects and Gretchen Scherer

"In Kedleston Hall, Saloon, the source imagery of the room in real life is wider and shorter. But I extended the wall space to include many paintings from the collection. The floor is also different. I read that it used to be marble so I placed a pink marble floor from the Marble Hall at Kedleston instead of the wooden floors as it is now. I do make a lot of changes to each room but I limit myself to one home/collection at a time. The door frame in the painting is also from the Marble Hall. All the furniture in the centre of the room in the painting is also from the collection and so are the drawings floating through the air. In the detail you can see the little portraits. They are about 1.5 inches by 1.5 inches to give you a sense of scale. I was drawn to this place because of the neoclassical architecture and the round room. A challenge for me was linking the bottom of the painting with the top half of the painting. So I brought in the floating drawings. I was hoping to make the room feel activated and alive and maybe spinning a little bit while the symmetry of the floor and the overall composition grounds the space.

Burghley House, Blue Silk Dressing Room, Of a place, (2022-23), acrylic and oil on panel | Gretchen Scherer |Of A Place, Taymour Grahne Project | STIRworld
Burghley House, Blue Silk Dressing Room, 2022-23, Oil and Acrylic on Panel Image: Courtesy of Monya Rowe Gallery, NY, Taymour Grahne Projects and Gretchen Scherer

In the Burghley House, Blue Silk Dressing Room, I was attracted to the unique shape of the room and the very bright blue walls. In reality there is a porcelain tree above the fireplace. I had that in the collage for quite a while and it just wasn’t working. So I placed a mirror from the collection and reflected windows on it. This helped to open up the space just enough. The ceiling is from the First George Room at Burghley House and the floor is also changed from carpet to parquet. I thought of how the name of the room could be reflected in what I put in it. I have also painted Burghley House a few times before and I always enjoy returning to it.”

Evidently Gretchen follows a very systematic process of creation where details are meticulously absorbed by her and weaved into the tapestry of her work. However, having said that, distortion to the original architecture of a given space is often one of the stages en route to the final piece. She believes that these distortions are guided by imagination but then some of it is also about scale. She says, "I miniaturise everything so that makes a lot more space to fill. So I might need to extend a wall, ceiling or floor bigger than it is in actuality. I also like to include many portraits on the walls so I may need to make a wall bigger to fit everything I'd like to include. I think part of it too is creating an environment that feels alive, from a person's perspective or as if someone had just been in the room."   

She believes that art and spirituality are interconnected and also talks about uncanny coincidences between situations crafted in her paintings and the actual back stories of the original spaces in real life. She feels that sometimes she is like a medium, delivering messages from an ancient world and another time into this modern space that we inhabit. Gretchen also recollects how her empty spaces that seemed to crave to be inhabited in some way were ominous when she staged her first solo with her gallery, Monya Rowe. She says, "It was at the very beginning of the pandemic in 2020. It was in NYC and we weren't able to open it to the public because of COVID. And then as now the spaces I depict are empty of people. I can't explain it! It's just something I do, but it must have a deeper meaning. I try to use the art on the wall, sculpture art, furniture and ephemeral objects to bring the space to life, like someone was just there or the spirits of the people who lived there can be found again.”

Monya of the Monya Rowe Gallery that represents her says, “Gretchen’s idiosyncratic paintings are endlessly rewarding for the viewer. Apart from the excruciating detail, which is so fun for the eye to absorb, her work is simultaneously humorous and poetic."

In Gretchen one encounters a certain unconventionality of purpose as an visual artist lost in the pursuit of inventing unknown spaces and structures from what already exists in perfect form. One also senses a vague paradox when she talks about her challenges as a creator of art that blends imagination with reality in a certain proportion. "It can be difficult to work within the constraints of reality. There is only so much material to work with and sometimes I do feel hesitant about changing things that already exist in the world in a certain way. But on the other hand if I let myself create completely imaginary spaces, I think I would still have to use some references from existing architecture and I feel I might just feel too overwhelmed by all the freedom. I find I'm more creative with limits.”

When asked about the inspiration to dive into historical edifices, she says, “I am inherently drawn to nature and ornamentation. Modernism has robbed us of this and rendered the forms of today rather flat and linear. I like details and I like to feel as though I am stepping into another world, one that I don’t quite understand. I feel a deep spiritual connection with those times.”   

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