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Drab 

How drab! Victoria Selva’s work has something “drab”, she has been told. In current English, “drab” refers to something or someone “dull, cheerless, lacking in spirit or brightness” but it also is a colour (“dull gray, dull  brownish or yellowish grey”) and “any or several fabrics of this colour, especially thick wool or cotton”1. As a  matter of fact, Victoria’s painting does look drab, as her poetic writing lacks brightness. Haunted by ghosts of  Nina Simone or Janis Joplin, of the Everly Brothers, the Fugees or Buffy Saint-Marie, it recalls these variously  famous singers she heard on a jukebox in a Mid-West-diner, during a trip through the United States in 2017.  She had gone to plant nettles in the desert and to visit a nuclear crater. On the way, she had to stop, wait  endlessly for some authorization then got bored and decided to head back to France after burning her clothes – that’s what she says anyway. On her return, she made a model of the crater she had not seen, with the ash she  had brought back home. 

This was a crucial turn in Victoria’s work: the actual experience of the wasted site did not take place but that didn’t matter. From then on, Victoria would work on landscapes as a dreamer rather than an explorer, or, more  accurately, as a virtual explorer: she would surf on geographical institutes’ websites from her studio desk,  collect 3D-simulation maps and aerial views to store in her Personal Computer’s memory then transpose in dry  sculptures, drawings or paintings. The “Garden” series, for example, doesn’t represent actual nature. Rather, it  gathers ideas of outdoor sets where signs of vegetation organise mental spaces on the canvas: little green sticks  looking like grass stand for open horizontal zones (voids); tightly drawn, long vertical lines with green strokes looking like tall plants – nettles for instance – stand for volumes (solid mass). This abstract landscape floats over a grey, thick, dull cover. Victoria casually explains that it is made of ash. Nothing to do with a celebration  of live nature, then. It, really, is drab. 

Quite sensibly, her next step would be still life. In 2020, she painted the same vase thirty-six times with  gouache on canvas. The group of pictures is plainly titled Natures mortes (Still Life). Pushing forward Victoria’s logic, Natures mortes belongs to the traditionally lowest of art genres; she chose an indiscriminate subject – a  bouquet of standard flowers standing in an ordinary vase she had made in ceramic – and gave it a tersely  descriptive title; she applied children’s paints in faded colours with an unspecific technique – neither  hyperrealist nor expressionistic – on small-size pieces. As for protocol, she executed hers with some  indifference – painting again and again that same vase but rather weakly: some paintings are left unfinished, the  process is sometimes suspended, the series itself just stopped. Victoria painted again and again until she got  too bored, until the drive to paint had dried up. 

Except for the ash used to silhouette the vases, there is nothing special. Except for this – which is something – nothing to catch the eye: the ash-cake* had something sharply funny; the crater* had something impressive;  the gardens* had something you could project into as in fragments of a maze. But Natures mortes denies  admission. The only image I can conjure up is that of Bartleby: a quasi-character that rejects characterization,  confining itself to words, words combined into a text, a text that tells of the deliberate self-contraction of a figure right to its complete withdrawal, a withdrawal that we keep studying today. Bartleby2 could be read as an  anorexic text that stays with but resists us. It stays and resists full stop, as Natures mortes does: a pure mute  sign.  

Ash, also, has something to do with resistance. It is what remains after burning: discharged of the water living  matter is mostly made of, they are pure carbon atoms, an ultimate residue of life. In spite of its dull texture, ash contains, in a way, fire’s light and warmth, as well as its might and destructive violence. It is a funny heavy grey whose lifelessness contains all living colours. Victoria’s use of ash switches her work from painting to a  conceptual process that aims to convert or dissolve matter into image. It might also be seen as a grieving tribute  to ordinary women, who accept their assignation to the domestic sphere – in Victoria’s case, home as well as  studio. 

It reminds me of a Chalamov short-story named “Graphite”3: because graphite is one of the only elements that  can resist Northern Siberia’s extremely severe conditions, it is used both by Soviet geologists to mark (on the  trunks of pine trees or rocks or other parts of the landscape) mines-to-be (gold or uranium seams) and by gulag  authorities to identify dead bodies: incarceration numbers are written in graphite on wooden labels strapped to  the corpses’ toes. Both want to make sure the information – the name of the dead, some promise of a gain – will  remain until the end of times. Definitely drab! 

The reason why I think of graphite is because besides painting with ash, Victoria also draws in pencil – with this  unrelenting self-restraint of hers: sketches for paintings, different points of view on Natures mortes’ vase and,  recently, a series entitled “Pull” (Jumper). She explains that she drew it stitch after stitch, as she had knitted it.  The sequence of operations is similar to that used for Natures mortes: knitting one stitch at a time, as women  have done forever in their homes; then drawing one stitch at a time again with pencil, thus converting the actual  crafting into representing; then, drawing again two more times the jumper, one stitch at a time again. As the  flowers of Natures mortes are deprived of the slightest glow, the potential sensuality of Victoria’s jumper is  cancelled both by the technique (it looks like a steel mesh coat or some galvanised drawing) and by the minimal  shape the garment is given: a cross slit in the middle once knitted, a T-shape when sewn together and finally a  square as it is folded. 

Looking at this unrelenting will to focus on subjects that keep fading out, you might feel shaken, as if looking at  a fire that was dying out forever. During my first meeting with Victoria Selva, we discussed Zabrisikie Point’s4 last shot: a house repeatedly exploding that Antonioni filmed from all sides, zooming in on details in slow  motion (ultimate enjoyment in destruction). The explosion is real (the camera filmed it) and fictional (the  character is dreaming it) and metaphorical (consumer society as whole explodes together with the villa, to Pink  Floyd’s soundtrack). Repetition could well shed a telling light on the 36 versions of Natures mortes: endless  mourning and infinite enjoyment of art. 

 

Julie Faitot, July 2022 

*Victoria Selva’s artworks as quoted in the text are: 

Pull (Jumper) (in progress), series of 3 drawings, pencil on paper, 66 x 78 cm each 

Natures mortes (Still Life), 2020-2021, series of 36 paintings, gouache and ash on canvas, 38 x 28 cm each Composition, 2020, pencil on paper, 24 x 18 cm 

“Jardins” (Gardens), 2019, gouache and ash on canvas, 120 x 80 cm or 120 x 70 cm each J’ai du plâtre dans la bouche quand je veux te parler (I Have Plaster in my Mouth When I Want to Talk to  You), 2017, ash, MDF, Plexiglas, neon lights, variable dimensions 

Joyeux anniversaire (Happy Birthday), 2013, ash, variable dimensions 

  

 

1 https://www.dictionary.com/browse/drab (July 8th 2022) 

2 Hermann Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener – A Story of Wall Street, first published in Nov. And Dec. 1853 issues of Putman’s  Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art (New York).

3 Varlam Shalamov (translated by Donald Rayfield), Kolyma Stories, 2018-2020, New York Review of Books. : « The original  manuscript of Kolyma Tales was taken to the United States in 1966. Individual tales were published in the New Review between 1970  and 1976. The russian version appeared in print only in 1978 by Overseas Publications Interchange Ltd in London. They could only be  printed with a note claiming that they were being published without the author’s consent in order to protect Shalamov. In 1980 John  Glad had Kolyma Tales published from his own translations, which featured a selection of the stories. The follow-up book, Graphite,  offers further stories from Kolyma Tales. » (Source : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kolyma_Tales; July 23rd 2022, 16:11) 

4 Michelangelo Antonioni, Zabriskie Point, 1970.

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