Artists often divulge and explore personal histories in their work: sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly. A theme, a process, a recurring motif, a fetish object — even a color scheme — can be used to wrestle with issues and/or celebrate something about themselves. It's rare, though, when artists are able imply whole cultural histories through expression that is utterly personal. That's what's going on at the Offramp Gallery's new show of Edith Hillinger collages: "Fusion: A Collision of Cultures," through July 26.
Though a veteran artist, Hillinger is no household name, even in art circles. Perhaps this is due, in part, to her peripatetic life. At three, her family fled the Nazis in Hillinger's native Germany and settled in Istanbul. Hillinger's father was a Jewish Bauhaus-trained architect who studied under Bruno Taut —known for his large municipal housing complexes in Berlin. The refugee family moved to New York in 1948 and Edith studied at Cooper Union and New York University. For some time now, she has been a Berkeley resident.
Another factor in Hillinger's obscurity may be the eclectic nature of her work. The collages use ink drawing/painting and collaged fragments with cutout shapes on black-painted backgrounds. Or are they foreground pieces that sit on the crème-colored shapes?
The largest elements in Hillinger's pasted canvases are simplified combinations of angles and contours. They suspend on the picture planes like templates, prototypes or parts in a workshop. The flat forms contrast to the congested networks of ink markings and patterns on crème papers, which always seem to conform to an obscure, individual logic.
Sitting in the sunlit book annex of the Offramp Gallery, the petite Hillinger recently spoke about her work and its origins. "My father was a big influence on me," she says. "He always drew in India ink and I did that too, from an early age. So in my pieces you can see the Bauhaus minimalism that I grew up with. I've found something that my father didn't have, though. In Japan I've found cartridges that fit into a pen/brush. They allow me to draw and draw, with no interruption of the line."
A student of Zen Buddhism for many years, Hillinger's Japanese component dates back to Bruno Taut, who fled Germany for Japan. Upon his death, some of his Japanese artifacts were bequeathed to Hillinger's father. Her collages are a combination of the meditative and the spontaneous — much like the Japanese sumi ink drawings and paintings.
Hillinger will return to the Offramp at the close at the of the show's run to give a gallery talk on Sunday, July 28, at 2 p.m.
"In Istanbul," she continues, "I saw the beautiful, geometric Islamic designs and loved them; I also heard a lot of the Turkish music. So my markings and shapes and colors speak about many different cultural influences. I wanted to combine the finely designed and adorned surfaces that I saw in Turkey and the minimal forms of the Bauhaus and resolve the two."
The subject of music is not out of place in a discussion of Hillinger's work. Her collages have poetry to them: The black voids act as rests to the busy fragments of ink-covered designs. Those are counter-balanced by the large, flat shapes and sumi-executed flourishes. She understands visual rhythm the way a journeyman musical arranger does. It's that balance that orders her work.
"I have a love of many different cultures," Hillinger explains. "And the deeper you look, the more you can see the connections different cultures have to each other. Look at the zigzag lightning bolt motif. You can find that in African designs, Moorish windows, the quilts that the American slaves made, on a Marine's tattoo, on a Native American weaving or face painting, or on a surfboard.
"The creative process is mostly unconscious," she stresses, "but all any artist can do is to authentically speak about your experiences."
Where: Offramp Gallery, 1702 Lincoln Ave., Pasadena
When: Through July 28, 2013. Closed Mondays through Thursdays.
More info: (626) 298-6931, offrampgallery.com
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.