The olfactory dimension is rarely accounted for in the discourse of painting. We talk about material bases, about colors and canvases, stretchers and frames; we talk about a whole arsenal of gestures, about a brushstroke done this way or that, about raking, dripping, scraping, you name it; we talk about the dialectic of figure and ground or impasto techniques. But what about the smell of painting? It is strangely ignored but, then, just imagine the scent of fresh oil paint, of paint yet to dry. Heavy as it is, it fills the room and creates an almost bodily yet strangely ephemeral presence countering and, at the same time, supplementing the flatness of the canvas on the wall. Scent, thus, can add a whole layer of meaning and authentication to painting.
You won’t find the smell of oil paint in the work of Anna Virnich, even though the olfactory features quite prominently here, just as you won’t find any brushes and paints here, even though Virnich’s work is clearly painterly in nature. The works in the exhibition Lightning Visible, No Thunder Heard—her second with the gallery—almost all refer to the set of techniques, styles and looks commonly addressed to as “painting.” But instead of applying paint onto the canvas, Virnich sews and stitches together by hand different fabrics like polyester, velvet, cotton, silk, even leather or metal mesh. While some of these fabrics are see-through or semi-transparent and thus offer a barely disguised glimpse of the simple wooden frame constructions behind, others are shimmering or even wrinkly, highlighting the surface. And while fabrics replace “paint” and, at the same time, the “canvas,” seams and stitches function as equivalents of lines and gestures. In this way, Virnich quite literally “sutures” her single elements into a disparate yet carefully composed whole that signifies “painting” without actually being it.
Nothing here, then, is “authentic,” but rather stitched up to form a phantom body reminiscent of something else. And this is where the olfactory dimension comes in again. This starts with Virnich’s titles. Even though the works in the exhibition are technically all untitled, they come with quivering subheadings offering descriptions of moments, places, bodies, and scents. Beautifully poetic, yet quite straightforwardly descriptive, these lines often read like descriptions of perfumes; they create a whole new set of references, full with feelings and memories—dense atmospheres that evoke “images” in their own right: “some smoked Cigarettes, Neroli, creamy white flower (Your Skin)”, “Summer/ Twilight/ Berlin Balcony” or, else “white moss, hinoki wood, dog rose, tar, face cream”.
For Lightning Visible, No Thunder Heard, Virnich adds another element—a raised wooden bed, lacquered so as to shimmer in pearly colors similar to many of the fabrics in her paintings. Planted in this bed, a plethora of mostly white and lilac local flowers exude a heavy scent. And like the evocative titles, this scent adds a tint of sorts to the paintings in the room; it inevitably “paints over” them and supplies an additional layer, an additional body.
But even though very present, this body remains strangely ephemeral. We are precisely not talking about the material base here, the material “body” so often referenced in modern painting as a dialectical counter to the immateriality of the pictorial space (canvas, stretchers, color). Rather, things go the other direction here, adding another phantasmagoric layer. Scent extends the game of painting to just another rather ghostly and even more immaterial dimension. It adds phantom limbs to painting’s phantom body; abstracts once more what is already abstracted; is all the more intense the more fleeting it becomes: pure atmosphere, yet the concrete “so-and-so” of something—this scent, not just any scent; a bodily presence that does not need to materialize as an object. Scent, in other words, is painting vanished into thin air.