Landscapes Burnt by Night, Evi Keller or the Art of the Origins

By Olivier Schefer
Ancient and future times (…) rise up within us, as from deep hiding places….
Novalis, Henri of Ofterdingen

There are rare works of art, painfully beautiful, that conjure up a world before any other aesthetic and formal consideration. They upend our theoretical divisions and our historical splits. When facing them we do not ask “Is it beautiful?,” “Is it new?,” but rather “Where are we? When are we?” There is something here that mauls our aesthetic habits and our comfort as a viewer.

The first time that I had the privilege to enter Evi Keller’s studio, I had the very unsettling impression that I was in presence of a fossilized, quasi-pre-historical piece of memory, all the while facing an extremely contemporary oeuvre.

Matière-Lumière – such is the one and only title that the artist gives to her oeuvre in its various shapes, which already complicates the task of future historians and archivists. It is, on many levels, an enigmatic and monumental work. Monumental in its psychic dimension, rather than merely colossal – an unhappy term that designates many current artistic practices seeking sensationalism and occupying space.

With Evi Keller, the immense world whispers in our ear.

Her work, which deploys plastic, sound and pictorial matter, is full of minute nuances of light. It does not tell any story. It presents itself to us before all narrative and brings us back to the heart of the elements, to the profuse and disorderly chaos that runs under the stable lines of creation.

Matière-Lumière, sans titre, ML-V-17-0921, détail

The first German Romantics, of whom Evi Keller is, in her way, an extraordinary descendant, called original creation Kunstchaos – the chaos of art, artistic chaos— when it draws its sources from natura naturans. In his great novel of infinite nature celebrated through poetic expression, Henry of Ofterdingen, Novalis writes the following, which could have been written to describe the work of Evi Keller: “I might almost say that in every line chaos should shine through the well-clipped foliage of order.”

Artworks that are worlds, such as Matière-Lumière, forge their solitary paths away from schools and debates about art, while still contributing to redefining the terms of art through their primal power. The sculpted architectures of Étienne-Martin’s Demeures (Abodes) come to mind. After World War Two, the artist tirelessly rebuilt his lost childhood home in shapes of cocoons, protective envelopes, big boxes full of corridors, terraces, and turrets. They are houses of the past, built from obsession, of which Gaston Bachelard could have said that they sheltered both the I and the psyche. The artist sewed and sculpted, in 1962, an extraordinary coat of materials (fabric, trimmings, metal, rope, and leather), Demeure n°5, in which he was photographed, draped with a huge shamanic garment. Looking at Evi Keller’s work also brings to mind Kazuo Shiraga’s primitive and savage practices. This artist, linked to the Gutaï movement, put an end to traditional easel painting, painting the canvas directly with his feet, or while swinging from a rope. He would roll himself into mud, confronting the spiritual energy contained in matter. Evi Keller keeps her creative process secret, but she works on the plastic film of her canvases with ashes, India ink, and various pigments and varnishes. Like Shigara, she treads into that space, confronts it in the most physical and haunted way possible. She might well sleep in it, rolled up into an immense chrysalis.

Her work is also reminiscent of the raw and primitive shapes of Jean Dubuffet, who liked to compare his materiologic canvases to “wandering patches.”

All this somehow marks a path, and reassures our eyes. While it is possible to inscribe Matière-Lumière within the relation of the romantic to the nocturnal, materialist and primitivist aesthetics (the vertiginous colorful stretches of Claude Monet’s Nympheas also came to my mind), Evi Keller’s art remains unique, as does the experience we have of it.

Beneath the archaic motives and elements one finds that most primordial of all elements, our sensations. Keller’s work revives in each of us primal impressions that had been buried.

As a child, I remember having seen, on a freezing day, one of the house’s windows covered with frost. The ice’s translucent veins, delicate and fragile, were swollen in places. They sometimes drew thin branches. The window became a monstrous excrescence with a troubling, unknown beauty. The frost seemed to have swollen on a glass skin.

In Biffures, Michel Leiris describes the delicate and poetic analogy uniting glass and lightning. Could he not be talking about the delicate and deep link between matter and light? “Just as there was, in the sky, this multiform lightning (perceived either in its nakedness, or through a louver or a window, barely cracked or entirely diaphanous), there was sometimes, on earth, black ice. Going from the lightning to the black ice, from the sky’s fixed windowpane suddenly lighting up to the temporary vitrification of a patch of the ground’s surface, I am suddenly starting to become slightly troubled.”

Beautiful and troubling indeed, Matière-Lumière does not leave us unscathed. Evi Keller, entirely devoted to her creation, of which she is the ferrywoman, the Pythia, and the medium, invites us to return to a fetal position, to rediscover an old path leading to a first night of the world.


One might say, rather quickly, that Keller’s work is a visual art composition, on the hinge of painting and sculpture, and that it employs sound and light. But it does not belong first, or mainly, to art history. It links back to the origin of things, retracing its multiple and fascinating metamorphoses back to the moment when the Western concept of Nature was forged, that of world as subject. There too our gaze turns to the early Romantics and these ingenious lines in which Novalis imagines, at the beginning of his initiatory story The Novices at Sais, a multiplicity of interwoven forms and meanings, “grand coded writings that can be seen everywhere; on wings, on egg shells, in clouds, in snow, in crystals, in rock formations, in frozen waters, inside and outside mountains, plants, animals, human beings, in the lights of the sky, in polished and grazed birch tar and glass cups, in iron filings around magnets, and in strange, chance conjectures.”

Through the interplay of light projections and sound variations, Keller applies herself to recreate the processes of natural creation: according to the movements and the intensity of the light beam, a variety of materials manifest themselves on the drawn canvas. The huge sheet that constitutes the body of her installation – floating cloth, wall, giant piece of bark – seems to go from being solid and mineral (rock, stalactites) to being liquid (oozing stones, boles of crystal and frost); fire also takes over and one is soon blinded by the black sun of Nervalian melancholy. We could, at times, have the impression that we are watching the wall covered with saltpeter, which Leonardo da Vinci urged aspiring painters to contemplate attentively so as to see new shapes rise. But it is a wall whose shapeless shapes come to life, become wrinkled, unfold, and transform under our very eyes.


In fact, these light and material variations have nothing formal about them: Keller mimes the alchemical and poetic transmutation of the materials. And when a white light suddenly takes over Matière-Lumière, it is as if we were seeing a William Turner painting whose burning sun, the literally blinding one from Regulus, were going through a lead and petroleum night. For Keller has built her work around a central core: carbon. That of the oldest coal forests, humus deposits, of stratifications of bark and rotten wood. This fundamental material of the universe, problematic during our Anthropocene era in the form of coal, becomes in this work the heart of all that is living, and of our most burning questions.

Clearly, apparition is a relevant concept here, in the quasi-epiphanic sense of the word. Keller, conscious of this theophanic dimension, rightly refuses to let herself be boxed into a religious ideology. When it is universal, art consoles us, without pretending to save us. There is no deus ex machina here. Keller’s work unveils wounds, old rifts, the disquieting beauty of carbon; she rearticulates something that was broken, and magically protects us from violence without diverting us away from it. I will not speak about “re-enchanting the world,” a hackneyed expression that hides the essential, the obscure part of reality, without which there is no light. By manipulating rough pebbles, brine, blocks of salt and crystals, Novalis, again, sang, as a modern-day orphic poet, of the mythical times when trees and animals spoke. “In olden days,” he wrote in a fragment, “the spirit manifested itself in all things. Today we only see a lifeless repetition that we do not understand. We lack the key to the hieroglyph. We are still living off of the fruit of better times.” And if the world, in his view, must be romanticized, it should not evoke a subjective coloring, filed with prettiness: the romanticizing of the world is a fundamental operation aiming to surmount centuries of intellectual and disciplinary compartmentalization: it is about linking the body and the spirit, the visible and the invisible, the finite and the infinite.

The spiritual dimension of Keller’s work is inseparable from the sensory experiences she invites us to undergo. It would be more accurate to speak of a contemporary form of sacred art, devoid of any religion or ideology. Sacred? Yes, if one remembers that this term does not refer to some unknown god or authority figure; it evokes above all a space separated from the common world, kept at a distance via a symbolic threshold. There is a topology of the sacred, as anthropologists of religions note, that consists in marking transcendence spatially, by defining a limit, establishing a threshold and spaces of transition (doors, columns, archways, peristyles). The one thing that can be said with certitude about the sacred, writes Mircea Eliade in his History of Religious Ideas, is that it is the opposite of the profane, just as eternity is the opposite of time, and the invisible the opposite of the visible.

What is above all at stake, in Keller’s work, is the conjoinment of contraries into an incorporation of distinct matters. The work entitled Réconciliation is akin to an initiatory stage, and a sacred threshold; it consists of a sort of frost stained-glass window in which a red matter seems to live and breathe. As the stain spreads, a precious vital fluid is created and endlessly diffracted.

Isn’t the luminous teaching of Matière-Lumière about leading us to the grotto of origins, like the underground mine where Novalis’ hero Henry of Ofterdingen goes with his friends on the trail of the celestial blue flower? Miners, notes this timeless text, are somewhat like “inverted astrologers. […] As they ceaselessly regard the sky, wandering through its immeasurable spaces, so do you turn your gaze to the earth, exploring its construction. […] To them the sky is a book of the future; to you the earth reveals the primeval world.”

One recognizes the obsessive fear of major artists through their fascinating quest for reconciled spaces and times. As Jean Genet rightly wrote, Rembrandt exalts the paradoxical beauty of Margaretha de Geer’s creased and wrinkled face. This fragile, decrepit face is not picturesque – the picturesque is but a mask. Rembrandt rips away all the veils and conventions, he sublimates, in these two portraits, austere old age, dazzling in a big white ruff of stars and snow.

Just like the rupestrian walls of Matière-Lumière, these crepuscular paintings shine in the darkness of the world.