The Art of Sylvia Baechli

Jane and Kimberly discover more than art on a page with the work of Swiss artist, Sylvia Baechli; they find a way to draw a path forward into the unknown.

 First of all. Thank you, Kimberly, for finding this artist. She is a gem. I wish we could see an exhibit of her drawings as well as go to the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva to see the installation where she curated juxtapositions of her own drawings next to pieces of tribal and ancient art. We are at a bit of a disadvantage talking about her art without being able to experience her work up close and personal. Still, from what I can see of her line drawings second hand on her website and what I read about her in the interview The Spaces In-Between, I feel she is a very exciting artist. How did you find her?

 I read the interview and while looking through the images was quite struck by the visions of her large, swooping black-lined drawings in relation to adjacent statues of anthropological importance. It was as if she was breathing new life into ancient history through the vehicle of contemporary art. We don’t see a lot of this sort of interaction and it thrilled me to consider the way the old and the new can dialogue with each other, and even spur fresh connections in the brain. We’ve all seen these pieces of historical antiquity ad infinitum, but next to Sylvia’s work, I was led to remember the way all art continually inspires generations of artists. It is an eternal conversation brought to life again.

 I have to separate my responses to her work a bit. First the fascinating concept she used in the museum show. Like you mention, she explains the organizing principle conceived to set her drawings next to ancient sculptures as if the art, old and new, were having silent dialogues. Once I figured out what she was doing, I really liked it. This kind of exhibit has a name, “Transhistorical,” and it’s beginning to catch on as a way to show art in major museums. The old is new; new is old. And viewers can feel (or not) the connection.

 I like the potential these kinds of transhistorical exhibitions present. I can imagine museum education departments encouraging classes of young budding artists to create their own works of art in this vein. It would be wonderful to see what a bunch of crayon-armed kindergartens might draw in reaction to a Picasso or stone fertility goddess or a Mark Rothko. Which leads me back to what I love about Sylvia’s artwork, it’s a testament to wonder, experimentation, flow, inspiration, and discovery.

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 Her website provides many examples of her line drawings. This is where I really got interested in her art. It’s so dynamic. I would love to run my fingers along the lines of her drawings and feel into her beginnings, her close encounters, her cross-overs and her endings which, like periods at the end of sentences, draw you into what’s coming next. In truth, it is the inspiration I felt to pick up a piece of charcoal or fill a paintbrush with color and see where your own lines might take you that took me most by surprise. Her drawings are alive with a palpable invitation to connect the imagination with feeling and being.

 She describes her artistic process as one of “groping and playing.” Rather than coming to the blank page with an intention toward narrative, she approaches the white space as if the brush is a conductor’s baton, feeling into a piece of music, led by the cadences of intuition. Yet her score displays itself as color and line, its different densities and delineations of volume portraying her emotional state, or reaction to her current place, or to objects at any given time. What profoundly moves me about her work is the simplicity that results, an extreme economy unfettered by much illustrious detail. The process and the pieces loom very Zen-like to me and bring to mind the concept of pruning the extraneous to find nuggets of the pure and subtle joy in life.

 Nice metaphors. I admit to being on the lookout for art that goes beyond visual appreciation of an artist’s genius to let me in on the excitement of creation. Sylvia Baechli does this in two ways. One, she anthropomorphizes her lines so that they move and interact with one another begging viewer to ask questions like how did such a thin beginning become so expansive, is that line getting so close to the other trying to dance, what makes one squiggle want more space and another squiggle seek comfort at the side of the page? A line holds so much meaning. The other aspect of her lines is that they’re timeless. When she curated her contemporary ephemeral, fleeting art alongside the ancient, forever lasting art of the museum collection, they seemed to have a lot to say to one another.

 Your talk of squiggles as animate spirits seeking to claim their own space on the page reminds me of the sparkling rush of a high I felt the first time I was given a blank white book and markers as a child. I think my resonance to Sylvia’s work hearkens back to that high for me. We talk a lot about the women we consider to epitomize the definition of a heroine and a lot of our conversations in this vein circle back to who we were as little girls, in those days when we were unfettered by concerns on how to survive, or make a living, or find validation from external forces—those days when we were left free to inhabit our own interests and curiosities, in that brief pocket of time when the world was our oyster. Sylvia’s drawings conjure that spirit for me. As a grown woman, she practices the magical dance of possibility and spontaneity, every fresh piece of paper or slick of canvas inviting spontaneous creation. How exciting is that?

 You caught it in that run on sentence! The sentence as line! Yes, I believe it’s the energy in the act of sheer primal making that she captures in her drawings. Picasso made the merging of ancient and modern forms famous in his paintings and sculptures but Baechli has fun with the connection of sameness and oppositeness in her museum exhibit with Barbier-Mueller collection. We probably all let our art objects talk to one another in our homes by how we position them, some close together, some across a room. In fact, now that I think about it, this is a very feminine trait. It’s a relationship act of placement in decorating. Space is created for our selves to exist within and around a personally pleasing, albeit non-verbal dialog. I’ve often been taken by how ancient, primitive renderings like cave drawings have no trouble holding their own, side by side, with modern art but her exhibit offers a fresh perspective.

 This conversation is making me look around the room where I’m sitting. Her exhibit made me reconsider my own objects and the way I like to capture images in time and place. Her practice of drawing makes me more discerning in what I’m making as an artist and what I place around my own home. It’s as if I am now looking at things around me with fresh eyes and considering what is and is not clutter.

 Once upon a time, a long time ago at The Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, I partnered with the graphic designer, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville to create a Feeling to Form workshop for emerging women artists. We sought to give students an organic connection between feelings and form. I was of course, as a psychologist, interested in women, myself included, finding and affirming an integral feeling of worth and wholeness in being female. Sheila was encouraging originality in design, helping women build confidence in themselves as worthy design adversaries to men in the 70’s and become influential designers of the future. Women in our classes created work not unlike Baechli’s. And the adventurous lines of their drawings worked as both a mirror and a path, taking women further than they might go with words and containing reflections of emotions that could not be denied as authentic. Exciting.

 And as relevant today as then. As I sit here writing this, I think, if I were a color right now today what would it be? And it’s fuchsia! A bright plopping ball of fuchsia splatter. And what would that ball like to do? Dance with a think black line of debonair density? Or a meek little baby yellow? I’m driven to clean off my desk and just feel with paint. I’m grateful for Sylvia’s work, for making me feel like a little girl again.
JAS: That’s great. Makes me smile and say “me too.” But you’re ahead of me. I have no idea where I would go. I want to get out a big pad of drawing paper and find out. Time to find out, one more time, start making up the future, making the invisible visible. Think I will.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Sylvia Baechli”

  1. What an energizing dialogue! Or dialogues I should say . . . between the two of you and between Baechli’s drawings and ancient art. That leap into the void of possibility seems both thrilling and edgy. Simple drawing tools open up a timeless flow in the world of the imagination, between different cultures, eras, and worlds. I can barely wait to go to her website, and then take out my drawing pad!

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