Artist to Collect: Marta Penter
The Silence at the Centre
written by Gary Michael Dault
For Brazilian painter Marta Penter, silence itself is the great subject. "In the midst of turmoil," she has written, "lies silence. That is what I encounter, that is what I photograph, that is what I paint." Our world is inescapably a world of crowds, of people in teeming multitudes. "All of them may be there," says Penter, "all of them occupying the same place, but each one of them [exists] within his or her own private and silent universe." Everyone lives, for better or worse, within what poet W.H. Auden once called "the cell of himself." The subjects that fill Penter’s acutely observed, large but simultaneously intimate paintings occupy social space – the spaces of cafes, busy sidewalks, beaches, packed subway stations. Although her subjects are frequently jostled together and almost claustrophobically juxtaposed, they never become parts of a characterless mass. Indeed, in her paintings Penter is always wonderfully attentive to the many social, individual cues of dress, hairstyle, posture and facial expression that identify
each being, defining the integrities of The Other. These are the same cues that help us negotiate our own way through the realm of others, and to carve out viable space there for our own bodies and minds. Essentially, Penter shows us people co-existing, performing their particular versions of the self. All inhabiting unique lives of their own as they move through the physical world at large. In terms of technique, Marta Penter is a highly effective colourist. Her frequent use of an almost monochrome palette, her grounds often suffused with a pure bone-white, lends her canvases of grouped figures a strange, dreamlike quality. Her virtuoso employment of realist techniques generates an effect, graphically speaking, that is not unlike the atmospheres of immediacy and exactitude conventionally associated with photography. What militates, in the end, against the photographic idea is her practice of inserting or highlighting certain figures or moments of significance within the paintings with a bright sapphire blue – introduced into her work, she says, by the experience of sketching one day in the park with that most abject of expressive tools, a blue ballpoint pen. If the interrupted monochromism of Penter’s painting (The Shock of the Blue) seems sometimes to hover above the photographic, the vast size at which she prefers to work can equally cite the epic scale of film as a formal source. Bigness, she maintains, allows her to immerse the viewer fully into the mise-en-scene of each painting. Given the largeness of her paintings, she is able, almost palpably, to enter her chosen social
space, shoulder her way through the ruckus to the subject she has her eye on, and isolate it (in blue), thus providing an almost voyeuristically acute sense of intimacy-within-immensity with its complexities and energies. Penter says that as she works, she identifies so closely with her subjects that she almost becomes one with them: "Whenever I represent a knitted blouse," she says, "it feels as if the brushes are the knitting needles themselves; it is as if I am knitting just such a fabric myself, stitch by stitch." As Brazilian art critic and professor Paula Ramos has written of Marta Penter: "It is the human that touches and instigates her; the human is the essence of Penter’s thinking and her work." In Penter’s hands, the monolithic "lonely crowd" of sociology is dramatically broken up into spots of time and attention – pools of visual concentration. Marta Penter was born in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1957, and acknowledges she was involved in art from an early age. She studied psychology before becoming an artist – an early interest that clearly continues to inform her preoccupation with crowds, and people and an individual’s place within that bustling, never-ending swarm of conflicting privacies in contention. Penter has exhibited at numerous galleries and art fairs both in Brazil and internationally, including the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rio Grande do Sul, and the Galeria de Arte Mosaico, Porto Alegre; Galeria Joao Lagoa, Portugal; and IV Bienal de Aquarela de Vina Del Mar, Chile. Penter comes from a family of 14 (11 of them women), and was raised in a big house with a garden, spending weekends at her grandmother’s farm. "So I grew up," she says, "in an environment
of animals and nature. My childhood was blessed with special scents, sounds and colours. It was in this atmosphere that I started getting interested in art. I drew frequently, attending several art courses when I was a teenager. I really loved making art." At university, she graduated with a degree in psychology. She explains, "I was interested in observing human behaviour, which later came to be the chief subject of my paintings." When her second daughter was born, she stopped working as a psychologist and, having once given up painting, now took it up again and began her career as an artist. "From that moment on I have never stopped." Asked about influences on her work, Penter cites her family, mentioning, in particular, the great contribution of her daughter Laura, who works for her – with her – and who accompanies her on her trips around the world. Penter says,
"Laura is a huge influence in my work. In addition, the great Masters of art history have always been at my side, shortening paths and dialoguing with me." She cites Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, watercolourist Elizabeth Peyton, Egon Schiele, Lucian Freud, Gerard Richter, David Hockney, Klimt, Caravaggio and Rembrandt Velasquez as some of the artists she most admires. It’s a rich list. Her answer to the question "What kinds of things do you keep in your studio for inspiration?" is quick and emphatic: "Many travel photos! This is my greatest creative treasure!" When asked about her daily life, about its satisfactions, Penter claims that her favourite thing to do on weekends is "to be at home with my family and my dog. I like cooking, reading and watching movies! Generally, on Fridays nights, my husband and I go out to dinner. I’m really quite a simple person with simple habits. But," she adds, "I like special and unique things!"
Those ‘special and unique things’ for her, are part of what most of us would simply think of as slices of everyday life. In Penter’s world, ordinary people go about doing ordinary things. Which, beneath her brush, no longer appear ordinary. Looking closely at Penter’s paintings we can agree that, as Paula Ramos has pointed out, the artist’s groups of heterodox people inhabit more than what she calls "waiting places." Penter’s places are areas of potential exposure, where people stand, seeing, but hopefully not being seen themselves. That is the enigma of the queue. "Queues," notes Ramos, "have a role that is above any consideration of common sense." The gathering, the wait, embodies the time in which people are turned back on themselves, turned inward in pursuit of an almost defensive rumination. This is one manifestation of the Theatre of the Self. Penter’s work isolates the genuine drama of the person who is seen but not aware of being seen. In her hands, each of Penter’s people is first, a denizen of everyday space and second, a player in the artificial space of representation. "How can we tell the dancer from the dance?" poet W. B. Yeats once asked. The answer, in Penter’s work, is that the dancer’s life (the people Penter actually paints) is a continuum, whereas the dance (the Penter painting itself) is a construction – frozen in time and space, locked, examinable, analyzable, discussible, deconstructible. There is life (people in queues, for example),
left, The Jacquard Jacket, oil on canvas, 55" x 55" above, Photograph of the artist in her studio
Girl with the Polka Dot Bag, oil on canvas, 47" x 47"
Girl with the Blue Beach Chair, oil on canvas, 47" x 47"
NYC 5th Avenue Subway Station, oil on canvas, 55" x 55"
Selfridges & Co Bags, oil on canvas, 55" x 55"
top, NY Fashion Week Blue Jeans, oil on canvas, 31" x 75"
bottom, NY Fashion Week Blue Skirt, oil on canvas, 31" x 75"