Sonja Kobrehel – an artist and a game plan

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Lately, time has been flying by. With all good intentions, I took several pictures of Sonja Kobrehel’s work at the University Women’s Club, Vancouver at Hycroft way back in February or March.  The pictures have sat in my picture files since and every time I look at them, I am reminded that I wanted to say a few words in support of her exhibition. The exhibition is over, so I’m too late for that.

It’s never too late, though, to bring that attention of a good artist to my readership. Kobrehel’s work is so colourful and light.

As I was minutely looking at her work during the exhibition, one of my friends came by and said, “I don’t really understand what one sees in this kind of art,” which stunned me. It really shocked me, I think, because I was feeling such  joyousness from looking at it. It reinforced for me a)  that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and b) my art education has been so profound and lifelong  that I see things differently from other people. Sometimes the abstract is unreadable by the uninitiated.

“Why is this work important?” my friend continued. I promised to explain it one day, and perhaps that is what I am trying to do here today.

What attracts me to them is her use of colour and symbols. I went back to her web site:

http://www.sonjakobrehel.com/index.html

That daunted me a bit. I read the accolades and explanations that she already has garnered and I realized that I couldn’t speak to her work on that basis. At least, what had already been written there was more eloquently written than I could, not knowing about her Eastern European background and the iconography, the symbols with which she creates her images. So I encourage you to go there and read about it.

I’m going to shift gear here, so bear with me.

I often have discussions with Mrs. Stepford next door. She is also an artist and she has a fine analytical mind about contemporary art. She was trying to pin down why she likes my dabblings and why she appreciates what I do as an artist.  I just do it, and have the hardest time coming up with a spiel about it that makes it intelligible to other.

She said something like this – that I devise my own game plan and then go about making endless variations on the elements that I have chosen to work with. That I come up with so many variations that sometimes don’t seem to be cohesively connected and then become visible when a whole body of work is seen together amazes her.

So, back to Kobrehel:

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On an imagery level, what I like is that she uses a set of icons, visual elements, that she plays with from painting to painting, arranging them in various compositions, changing their sizes and therefore their importance in one setting as compared to the next in which it might have a much diminished importance, but another takes on a greater power. In other words, she plays with them in unending variation.

The ability to work in series with similar icons or images is an important attribute. It shows that the artist is not randomly daubing paint to canvas but has a purpose, a message that bears working with.

The next reason that I find her work fascinating is that  she is working with images that are not familiar to me and at the same time, there is some archetypal pull, some feeling that in the human experience, the symbols belong to Everyman. There are circles and egg shapes, a fool’s hat, a cross and hook, half-moons, hearts, birds, teapots, ladders. Some are commonly understood, some are esoteric, and according to the web-site, Egyptian or Eastern religious symbols. They are used out of context. That is, the egg is not in a usual egg situation. Ditto for the moon, the hearts, the teapots and the ladders.

What this accomplishes is an image with mysteriousness. Why are these symbols placed one against the other? Do they have a significance? Or, do they add up in a symbiotic whole to a feeling, a sentiment of nostalgia or of well-being, gladness, wistfulness or comfort? It is the ambiguity that draws me in, trying to come to an inner sense for me, of the work that I am looking at.  Ambiguity, for me is a strong attribute of paintings.

I don’t want to be told everything. It’s why I am most often uncomfortable with Realism. Everything is spelled out. It only takes a minute or two to “get the picture”.  The technique of copying nature onto a canvas may be admirable, but it’s just one element in the artists arsenal of weapons.  With Kobrehel’s work, I don’t immediately “get the picture” (and may never ultimately do so) and so it’s interesting to figure out why my initial reaction was to love it. It engages me. It makes me think, not just rationally, but emotionally too.

And when the emotional and rational evaluation of the image is done, I see that, on a technical plane, Kobrehel’s work is also fascinating.

She seems to compose chiefly on the “spatial relationship” method of composition, although the other methods are working too. It’s one of my favourites of all the compositional methods  and by far the most abstract of compositional ideas. The icons are placed about the picture plane to draw the eye around. In one, for instance, there are three objects in the colour red on a largely beige coloured canvas. They act as an implied triangle that leads one’s eye around. Then there are three other objects in a different colour, also acting as a triangle, pulling one’s eyes away from the first, so that the eye travels around and around within the entire image, comfortably being able to stop at this icon or that for closer inspection.

Where large rectangular blocks of colour make up the background of a painting, she understands the visual weight of each and adjusts the size of the shapes accordingly so that the  shapes are in balance.

For an artist (me)  who is familiar with these principles of colour weights, the manipulation of shapes to create balance or imbalance, compositional considerations, these paintings are full of richness underneath the apparent imagery. It’s as if Kobrehel is more concerned with these than the actual icons.

The last thing I am going to mention is technical quality of paint handling.

Kobrehel paints with a build-up of layers with each layer contributing to the final surface quality. It provides a richness of colour, a depth, even if the   colour on initial view looks, for instance, red. That red may have yellows and oranges and cream colours underneath that alter the final quality of the block of redness. It’s not flat.

The colours are fresh and lively. This may seem simple, but it’s not. Too often, colours are overmixed and become as a result rather muddy-looking. Kobrehel’s are clean and light. It’s that quality of colour mixing that keeps these images fresh and happy. Kobrehel also knows her colour mixing so well that one colour never jars against another.  It’s so easy for an amateur to put a lime green against a red, but it will clash and blare like a ill tuned trumpet. When Kobrehel does this, though, the colours sit together like sensitive lovers. They are individual and opposite, but they marry comfortably and easily. This is no mean feat.

The quality of the drawing is also fresh. There seems no hesitation in the markings, but that does not make them simple. The forms, the fool’s hat, for instance, is lightly rounded on the edges giving it a three-dimensional quality. The shadows lurking behind these objects serve to lift them off the page in an optical illusion. The icons live. They pop off the surface and tempt you to touch the canvas just ot make sure they aren’t really trying to escape.

Kobrehel is an adult who has been able to recapture that childlike ability to create her own symbols and express them as a private language. I find her work fascinating to look at.

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I hope this will explain to my skeptic friend and give her something to think about when next she comes in view of a work of art that is more difficult to perceive on first view.

So thank you, Sonja Kobrehel, for making my day – not just in February when I  saw the real thing, but today, as I look at it all again and am delighted by what I see.

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3 Responses to “Sonja Kobrehel – an artist and a game plan”

  1. forestrat Says:

    I looked at the top image for a while before I started to read your post. The colors of course caught my eye at first and then the shapes reminded me of things I would see in a Dr. Suess book which you gotta love.

    I have no clue as to the symbolism either. It just seemed fun and happy and enjoyable to look at and imagine what the things there might be.

    I thought that the objects were actually things applied to the canvas. The 3D effect of her painting fooled me.

    MDW

  2. lesliepaints Says:

    Art is so subjective, don’t you think? I have learned that the more I look at and take in the wider my appreciation becomes. I don’t fully appreciate what I see fully until I get home. The really good art, I see again in my mind’s eye. I like this art. It’s fun, original and colorful. Thank-you for sharing her with us.

  3. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Forest Rat, Thanks for your comments. I too find that these paintings evoke a childlike happiness and that’s a good thing.
    Leslie, I agree, Art is subjective. We have emotional response that pulls us in or keeps us at bay. As an initially response, I was drawn in to this work instinctively. It rang pleasant bells for me.
    It was my friend’s objections that made me analyze the paintings more profoundly. And on that point, I might differ a bit from the statement that art is subjective.
    For sure, we all have our own responses, subjective ones, as to whether or not we like or dislike something, but I also know that work can be good even if I don’t like it. I suppose I can say that because I have had a lifetime of working with the underlying principles of art – have taught them, have used them and now they are pretty much core values for me.
    When I don’t like someone’s work but I realize it is, nonetheless, good work, I try to find the redeeming qualities of it so that I don’t trash it out of hand.
    BTW, you may notice, I am only interested in talking about the work I find good. I’m only interested in encouraging artists and the understanding of art. You won’t find me disparaging work I don’t like – I simply don’t speak of it.
    Besides, I’m a firm believer that all artists running the gamut from sheer beginners to long in the tooth practitioners, are all on a path. If they don’t start on it, they will never move forward. Someone whose work I think is weak today may be fabulous a few years down the line from their persistence in trying to express their own particular vision. They need encouragement, not criticism, to move forward.
    Once again, Thanks for your responses.
    K

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