Vera Klement: Art Commentary by Gregg Hertzlieb


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Vera Klement (b. 1929)

Expulsion, 2009-2012

Oil, charcoal, and gesso on canvas, diptych, 69 x 80 inches

Gift of the Artist

Brauer Museum of Art, 2015.15


     Expulsion is a major painting diptych given to the Brauer Museum of Art by the legendary Chicago artist Vera Klement.  Klement's bold creations involving multiple canvases and enigmatic, iconic images have long been admired regionally, nationally, and internationally, with her work appearing in significant public and private collections.  Through her unique style and formats, she uses personal and specific subjects to engage timeless themes.

     Klement with each painting explores her past, her Jewish identity, her experiences with countless works of art and literature, to create pieces that are intensely personal but also broad, general, universal in their meanings.  A professor for decades at the University of Chicago, Klement teaches with her art, urging viewers to seek varied and complex interpretations of the references that exist in her work.  She draws freely from poetry, art history, and her own life, reducing and abstracting until her edited subjects stand in isolation thickly painted on grounds of white gesso.  Viewers facing a typically large Klement diptych or triptych see, for example, a tree on one canvas and a washtub on the other and must reconcile the two in terms of their relationship; occasionally, the artist chooses a poetic title to help with this reconciliation.  Even if viewers do not discern a literal relationship between or among the artist's chosen subjects, they still can enjoy sensing an intuitive relationship, or they can delight in creating relationships on their own.  Ultimately, marveling at Klement's considerable skill at applying paint is the greatest reward of all in viewing her work.

     Expulsion is definitely one of the artist's more clearly narrative paintings, with the depicted elements relating to the title and its body of rich associations.  On the left is a scintillating field of color that becomes more dense toward the top and seems to present a distant horizon line.  On the right on a separate, narrow canvas are gestural paint passages of blue and black seeming to lie all on the surface, not grabbing the eye with bright dabs of color but calling attention instead through their darkness and downward drippiness.  The field of yellow invites, tantalizes in its expanse, whereas the blue and black seems less welcoming, less pictorially pleasant in its palette and paint application.

     Between the two areas of color is a figure drawn in charcoal, with hands covering the eyes and face.  Klement got her idea and inspiration for this figure from the Adam and Eve figures in the painting The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1425-1426) by the Renaissance artist Masaccio (1401-1428).  Adam and Eve in the Masaccio painting look anguished, expelled from the garden because of their choices.  Klement's figure appears less anguished in the face, but the expression that can be seen is not exactly clear, and the body fading off into gesture and then into the white of the surface is ghostlike in its effect.  Perhaps serene, perhaps resigned to a dark fate, the ghostly figure leans toward the darkness.

     Expulsion as a title seems to direct viewers in this instance because the three components of this work—the yellow pointillist field, the charcoal figure, and the blue/black canvas—correspond with the basic elements of the well-known biblical expulsion story.  The field on the left, shimmering in its dabbed impressionism and bright with pleasant colors, could be Eden, with the artist attempting through ordinary means to capture the vibrant majesty of the paradisiacal garden.  The narrow field on the right, with its darker coloration and indistinct brushwork, is less immediately or conventionally appealing in its look and seems to represent a destination that the figure has fallen from grace to inhabit.  Just as one reads from left to right, so this painting seems to unfold from left to right in the story it presents.

     Expulsion, then, may well be Klement's treatment of a classic theme.  Her treatment connects to a long line of precedents and conveys the caution in the tale as well as any other.  Yet so many other Klement works are not read as narratives so easily, and because of that perhaps viewers might pause in simply or merely placing this work in a traditional context.  The figure, drawn with charcoal and sitting as dust on the surface of the gessoed canvas, occupies a different plane, a different surface somehow—it seems less caught in a cataclysmic event and more the product of a memory, where time and again people face an exquisite perfection but must turn away toward a realm less ideal but more suited to the imperfection, the brokenness that is integrally human.  Klement's painting offers viewers an expulsion where the figure drifts toward a heavier transcription of the world, with the light beyond the figure's capabilities for full appreciation; arising from and destined to dust, the figure resigns itself to longing for what can be and accepting what is inevitable.

     By exploring light and dark, color and shadow, Klement investigates how people see.  She also reveals that by covering their eyes in sadness, people cannot see except by embracing hope, embracing a wish, embracing a glimpse of what was once for a moment.


Gregg Hertzlieb is Curator and Director of the Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University. Hertzlieb is the editor of the books The Calumet Region: An American Place (Photographs by Gary Cialdella), published in 2009, and Domestic Vision: Twenty-Five Years of the Art of Joel Sheesley (2008), as well as a contributor to The Indiana Dunes Revealed: The Art of Frank V. Dudley (2006). He has been awarded the Edward L. Ryerson Traveling Fellowship by the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and a Conant Writing Award for Poetry from Millikin University.  His artwork has been exhibited widely, including at the Aron Packer Gallery, August House Studio, the Central School of Art and Design in London, Columbia College, Elgin Community College, the Goodman Theater, and Struve Gallery.