Anna Virnich, Untitled #44 (Nov 15:58), 2017, polyester, tulle, and nettle on wood, 69 7/8 x 120".

Anna Virnich, Untitled #44 (Nov 15:58), 2017, polyester, tulle, and nettle on wood, 69 7/8 x 120".

Anna Virnich

Arratia Beer

Anna Virnich, Untitled #44 (Nov 15:58), 2017, polyester, tulle, and nettle on wood, 69 7/8 x 120".

What hit you first about these works was their scent. Sweet and subtly intense, it was not so much perfumed as organic. It was also vaguely familiar, even if it was not what you’d expect from a group of abstract paintings. This disconcerting quality is a deliberate component of Anna Virnich’s work. Even before you realize what’s happening, your experience of looking is pervaded by the sense of smell, which combines with the picture’s visual meaning to become part of its elusive materiality.

Virnich’s work is particularly concerned with the interplay between materiality and perception. Her large panel pictures look like paintings but are actually produced without a single brushstroke. They’re collages that the artist has sewn together using carefully chosen fabrics—most of them thin and translucent, though they can also include materials such as leather—stretched over wooden frames. But alongside their visual qualities, these works are characterized by the particular scents of the materials she employs: the smells of textile dyes, for example, or of certain kinds of fabric, and sometimes worn pieces of clothing.

While these fragrances are usually so subtle that their effect on the viewer is largely unconscious, the four works on view from the series “Leather” (all works 2017) had the distinctive scent of finely tanned animal skins. To make these remarkably painterly works, Virnich hand-sewed calfskins together in irregular curving lines and stretched them tightly over the support, then worked them over with a mixture of hot beeswax and oil. The artist flung, poured, and dripped the material onto the surface, in some places leaving it to run. The evocative mixture of scents from the leather and the wax combined with the work’s visual and textural elements to form synesthetic compositions that confronted the viewer with a substantive physicality: overlapping skins, irregularly hand-sewn edges, traces of staples, occasional folds protruding from the tightly stretched leather, discolorations and stains showing where the wax had run. In such ways, the aesthetic artifact was closely conjoined with its natural materiality, its sensory qualities intensified.

Likewise, in works such as Untitled #46 (Okt 18:00) or Untitled #45 (Nov 16:16),Virnich assembles specially selected textiles into compositions on the basis of their color, transparency, and texture. Minimalist stripes and blocks of color from materials such as satin, raw silk, and tulle bring to mind Color Field painting but show no painterly marks. Rather, they seem almost to float—an effect even more striking given that these landscape-format works are ten feet wide. The effect of, say, Untitled #44 (Nov 15:58) is disconcertingly beautiful: Though recognizably a single piece, it nevertheless implies such variations of depth that its unity seems almost inexplicable. One noticed, for instance, that a piece had been cut out of the semitransparent fabric backing the collage, producing nuances of black—perfectly exemplifying how Virnich paints without using the materials of painting. There are no illusions or tricks here, but there is a special magic in how these pictures foster and celebrate the qualities of light.

Jens Asthoff

Translated from German by Nathaniel McBride.