Vera Klement Chthonic Urn (2003)
Oil on Canvas
University Club of Chicago

Klement chthonic urn 2003

Vera Klement (b. 1929) is an artist who embraces duality, isolation, and contradiction. Her art resides in an ambiguous middle between image and mark making, iconography and abstraction, and memory and timelessness, even during the time when the contemporary art world seemed split between styles of Abstract Expressionism and Pop/Chicago Imagism.

Her work stands apart, creating a practice that lives in its complexities and contradictions. Vera Klement was born in 1929 in Danzig (Gdańsk) on the Baltic coast, now Poland. At age nine, her family immigrated to New York City to escape from Nazi persecution. She studied at the Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture and graduated in 1950.

Klement’s early practice was influenced by Abstract Expressionism and inspired by the artists of the New York School. In 1965, she moved to Chicago and exhibited with “The Five,” a key group of artists in shaping Chicago’s art history whose work countered Chicago Imagism. Klement was interested in the relationship between abstraction and figuration and paint as both a subject on the canvas and a means to form an image.

 In the 1960s, she created window paintings; highly abstract representations of one figure looking out a window onto water or a sweeping landscape. These haunting abstractions are abundant with feelings of longing and isolation, two consistent themes in her practice. In mid- career, she created diptychs of disparate images that are never painted on the same picture plane.

These works evoke a sense of fragmented memories that suggest historic tragedies or traumas. This sense of a broken history is partially created by repeating the same objects throughout her career, including the vessel, head, boat, or tree. Klement called these images her “icons” and selected objects that were easily recognizable across multiple cultures and time periods.

Chthonic Urn (2003) is a diptych painting of juxtaposed subjects. The word Chthonic has meanings related to being “of the earth” or “from below the earth” and inspired Klement to render the vessel with a rich tactile brown color. Urns can contain the ashes of the dead and Klement stated, “As I painted the urn I thought of the Native Americans that once inhabited this land and the beautiful vessels they created.”  

On the left side of the diptych, a thickly painted urn fills the large white empty canvas. The base of the urn is a rich dark brown color layered with dark blue and sepia tones, which contrasts the warm light burnt brown of the highlighted rim. The paint is applied with thick strokes, and drips and splashes of the brown paint break past its form into the otherwise untouched white canvas. Juxtaposed next to the monumental urn, but separated from the first canvas by a gap, is Klement’s second vertical canvas.   This slender white canvas holds five separate cuts of loose canvas of landscape paintings. The landscape paintings are all similar in composition, color, texture, and technique. The highly textured paintings contain a central horizon line that divides a light warm blue upper portion from the earth-like brown, yellow, and green lower section.  

The relationship between the five scenes mirroring each other, yet still distinct, creates a complex totem of similar scenes. Each landscape is drastically smaller in scale than the monumental urn. Klement created a strong sense of isolation by separating the two canvases and inverting the natural scale of the urn in relation to the landscapes. The two canvases are familiar fragments of a metaphorical connection with life, death, and the earth, but they are spatially isolated. The tension that exists between the two canvases, and their formal qualities, is an iconic example of Klement’s career-long work with union and separation.

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