Tragic Beauty

Elizabeth Wu, CityBeat, April 2009

“It’s a paradox — the beauty is so tragic,” Anna VanMatre says of the theme behind her latest series of graphite paintings, DeNatural Disaster. Her work is part of a group exhibition opening Friday at the Carnegie in Covington.

Originally from Poland, VanMatre moved to Cincinnati in 1997 and has exhibited throughout Europe, Israel, Africa and the U.S. VanMatre’s works, which involve painting with graphite powder, brushes, sticks and other tools, often relate to the power of nature. On her Web site, she writes, “I show the force and beauty of nature, its essential aesthetic and complexity, using a quite simple technique: graphite on paper, sometimes with a touch of color. Nature has an intensity that terrifies us, but a beauty which always amazes us. We are both witnesses and players in this great performance.”

In this current series, DeNatural Disaster, VanMatre explores the power and beauty of nature in its destructive state. Her large-scale works evoke imagery of waves and smoke, suggesting both literal tempests and firestorms as well as alluding to manmade disasters, such as war and pollution.

The pieces command attention; they look the way a siren sounds: jagged edges, bold strokes, warning tones of black, grey and red. The artist’s methods of cutting, tearing and doubling the surfaces of the paper give the paintings an explosive quality. Standing in front of these pieces, it is easy to feel that one is perched on a barren landscape, witnessing a great catastrophe. This lends a sense of danger, excitement and urgency.

VanMatre says, “I was told that the power of nature … is like the most amazing and wonderful thing we can see. So I always emphasize this. Some of my previous series emphasize the power and beauty of nature, like a beautiful volcanic eruption, with a lot of smoke and debris. It’s a devastating tragedy, but it’s so beautiful in the moment we see it.”

VanMatre says she wishes the interpretation of the paintings to remain open and deliberately does not specify which disasters are natural, man-made or a combination of the two.

“We are now in difficult times,” she says. “I try not to be political in this, but obviously the politics get into our lives whether we want them to or not. Metaphorical disasters, philosophical disasters, environmental disasters, war disasters — all of these are combined into one thing.”

Though on the surface, the voice of the series might seem dire, there is an undertone of inspiration. The absence of human presence and one’s personal insignificance in the face of a natural disaster is clearly conveyed in VanMatre’s work. Yet the immensity of nature, its beauty and its (sometimes destructive) power is a source of comfort for the artist.

She describes the feeling of being confronted with the vastness of nature, portrayed in one of her paintings of the sea.

“You feel like you’re nothing, you’re so small,” she says.

However, this picture of a limitless ocean and a world without boundaries gives VanMatre a feeling of empowerment.

“I am physically small, but this (image of vastness) gives me the opportunity to do whatever I want. It gives me this strength,” she says.

CityBeat, April 2009