Avant-garde of Consciousness

‘Be a friend to yourself, love yourself, trust yourself’—
so declares the opening work in this expansive new presentation of Avant-garde of Consciousness from Austrian artist Elisabeth Sula. Trust in oneself as an active life choice is a predominant theme in Sula’s work, an idea that reverberates through her paintings, which expand and reflect upon this mantra in a variety of literal and figurative ways. If the concept seems deceptively simple, it is pleasantly complicated by works like the luminous abstraction in another room that reads ‘Do not believe everything you think, enjoy life.’ So are we not to trust in ourselves, after all?

Trust, Sula suggests, particularly as a means to self-awareness, is ongoing act of conscious labor.
With her latest works, she proposes the need for a kind of deconditioning of the modern mind, a shedding of old skins and perceived limitations. In the series Rising, dense linear strokes give the works a vibrating energy, and evoke the feeling of looking out a window through slatted blinds onto a vibrant world pulsing with possibility. The series title alludes to the limits to our perception of reality imposed by old wounds and traumas, and the need to rise up and let go of the fears and frameworks that stifle our capacity for growth and change.
Her I Choose… series speaks to a similar rejection of fear and prioritization of self-knowledge, with each work detailing a different call to psychic action.

With her consciously subversive placement of the ‘I choose dignity’ work from that series—in the chapel, precisely in the place where the cross would typically be hung—Sula also addresses another layer of conditioning to contend with: the diminishment of the feminine within the largely patriarchal world religions that have governed our society for centuries. The blood-red background of the painting is a nod to women’s role as life-givers, but equally the shame and degradation to which they have historically been subjected. On either side of this altar to womanhood is a selection of sculptural works from the series The Feminine is our Healing Force; their supple curves suggest a certain feminine quality, yet they also bring to mind a more fundamental sort of life form—a single-cell organism, linking the notion of feminine dignity back to the very origins of life on earth. Equally, they might be read as a set of ancient runes or symbols, whose legibility depends upon tapping into a deeply primal state of being.

With artworks in the exhibition ranging from the utterly abstract to the highly figurative, seen all together they begin to take shape along a single continuum, where at one end hyper-realistic painted photographs of flowers give way to organic forms in a dynamic dance of growth and regeneration, which in turn give way to emotive swaths of pure color and texture. The sense of formal and aesthetic balance within these works stands in direct opposition to the imbalance that Sula suggests is a result of the suppression of feminine qualities in women and men alike, key among which are empathy and compassion. Sula’s riotous use of color, drawn from Eastern, particularly Indian color palettes, becomes a symbol of the richly saturated world that lies beyond the limits of our present vision—the natural order that has always been underlying but subdued. Meanwhile, text weaves in and out of the displayed works, the phrases less commands than koans, invitations to join the artist on this journey of at once personal and societal reckoning, out of which a new avant-garde of consciousness just might arise.

Elizabeth Breiner
Art Critic, June 2021