Art Review: Teresa Celemin's 'Works on Paper,' Studio Place Arts | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Art Review: Teresa Celemin's 'Works on Paper,' Studio Place Arts

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"Holes in My Childhood" - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • "Holes in My Childhood"

Walking in the front door, visitors to Studio Place Arts in Barre generally discover multimedia group shows with works hanging on walls or from the ceiling, or perched on pedestals and plinths. Current case in point: "Deep Blue," featuring works inspired by water and oceanic life. But viewers should not overlook the second- and third-floor galleries.

The upstairs at SPA is a different world, each floor typically featuring a single artist in its narrow hallway. Burlington-based Teresa Celemin's "Works on Paper" currently fills the third-floor space. Seeing this exhibit is akin to taking a studio visit. Dozens of small drawings on notepads and Post-its hang from gold clips on a wire strung along both sides of the hall. Though interesting in their own right, these are perhaps most useful for the glimpse they provide into the artist's process. Celemin's sketches summon the imaginary worlds of Lewis Carroll or a sci-fi cartoonist.

Eight large, meticulous graphite drawings are the counterpoints to these sketches. The largest, the 73-by-36-inch "Holes in My Childhood," covers the better part of one wall. Celemin's sketches are not studies for these larger works, but one can see a progression from them to her more fully realized images, as well as the emergence of themes.

The third-floor gallery consists of a long hallway and a stairway surround yet somehow seems to encompass more. Perhaps that's because one must walk around the stairwell to see one of Celemin's drawings from a distance, and then back to view the details up close. Or perhaps it's because the narrow spaces almost demand that the viewer engage closely with each work. The gallery is both intimate and claustrophobic, creating a forced reckoning with each piece of art.

That reckoning is particularly fraught in the case of two works: "Front Row Fashionistas" and "Watching Louis CK Masturbate." Both are long horizontal graphite drawings on paper, created in 2018. The titles reflect Celemin's commentary on pop culture and politics, particularly as related to women.

Detail from "The Book of Half Women" - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Detail from "The Book of Half Women"

The 72-by-13-inch "Front Row Fashionistas" portrays 13 women seated (though no chairs are visible) and facing forward, as if waiting to be seen on camera. The proportions are cartoonlike: Their bodies consist of about 50 percent head, 50 percent legs, with arms and hands squeezed in and no torso whatsoever. The oversize heads and large eyes are almost comical.

Celemin takes care to make the women appear poised, relaxed and casual, yet completely self-aware of how they look. She seats them in pretzel-like gyrations (legs crossed or tucked to one side, or squeezed tightly together from the thigh up). These women might be the editors, celebrities and tastemakers who sit in the front row at runway fashion shows. The figures are disquieting and riveting, powerful and casual, sexy and untouchable. Celemin's pencil is pointed in its execution.

About that graphite pencil: It may well be the only artist's tool that all viewers have held and used. Pencils are used in grade school for making letters, in high school for doodling in notebooks. Adults might use them to scribble on cocktail napkins or Post-its, to take notes, make lists or sketch ideas. All of us are familiar with a pencil's function and its limitations.

Celemin knows no such boundaries. Hers is a world to be sketched and erased, enlarged and built obsessively, line by line — and, in some works, word by word. The resulting artworks are revealing.

In the 65-by-9-inch drawing "Watching Louis CK Masturbate," nine women appear in head-and-shoulder portraits, side by side as in a lineup. There is no caricature here; these are real women of various ages, looks, hairstyles and fashion sense, neither beautiful nor extraordinary, yet not ordinary, either. Each is simply unique.

While the women's expressions are unreadable, they hint at rage, scorn, bemusement, pity and horror. Celemin writes in her artist statement that she had seen comedian Louis CK's act in person four times and was a big fan. When she heard the news of his acts of masturbation in front of female writers, she thought, Really? Et tu, Brute? There aren't enough women in her drawing for a jury, but they seem to sit in judgment nonetheless.

"A Post-it shirt label" - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • "A Post-it shirt label"

Celemin was born in the Philippines and grew up outside Syracuse, N.Y. She writes that, at age 8 or 9, she taught herself to draw fashion illustrations from an old correspondence course her grandmother had taken. Later, she drew the models from Seventeen and Glamour magazines.

At 17, she won a blue ribbon in the national competition now known as the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and her work was exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Celemin received a BFA in illustration from Parsons School of Design and an MFA from the New York Academy of Art. Her drawing skills are masterful, but the fashion influence of her younger years shows through. Her faces also bear a resemblance, intentional or not, to Margaret Keane's "Big Eyes" drawings from the 1960s.

Much of Celemin's work draws on her own struggle, as a woman and an artist, to combat her inner critic. For artists particularly, that voice can be deafening to the point of inhibiting creation. Some use their art to break through and beyond the critic. In Celemin's case, her pencil works like a pole to vault her to the other side, producing a completed drawing that provides a sense of accomplishment.

At times she is less successful in this endeavor, going too far into a confessional mode. The most disturbing example may be "Sometimes I Really Can't Stand Myself," in which Celemin portrays herself punching herself in the face. Behind her is a vast field with a low horizon and sky full of cumulus clouds. A nearby chicken looks on as if reacting to the idiocy of her act. Celemin describes the tug of war with her inner critic and how it plays out in her accompanying artist statement.

Cramped handwriting is the most prominent part of "Holes in My Childhood." Long lines of text cover the full 73-inch width, from top to bottom. Thirteen blank white circles of different sizes break up the text. These negative spaces are strewn across the drawing seemingly randomly, creating a strong composition.

Some of these written lines are song lyrics in boldface; others are autobiographical statements. Celemin's writing provides a voluminous backdrop, perhaps ripe with its own references. But more interesting to the viewer is how the words create a wondrous ripple of undulating graphite.

At one end of the stairway rail, a table holds a small black notebook, which Celemin calls "The Book of Half Women" on her website. Each page contains one half of a woman's face, with the other half on the flip side.

The notebook offers an intriguing look at the two sides of a face, and the many faces of women. It's also an opportunity to hold and closely observe the detail of each drawing, seeing how a pencil in the hands of an artist can bring life to mere lines. And that, after all, is the point.

Closing reception and artist talk, Saturday, May 4, 2:30-3:30 p.m.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Drawing the Line | Teresa Celemin, Studio Place Arts"

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