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Fan Mail: Julia Westerbeke

Using strategies of asymmetry and organic mirroring, Julia Westerbeke explores abstraction as a vehicle of human imagination and a catalyst for subconscious thought. The artist cites science fiction and the biology of natural forms as two of her main sources of inspiration, and her paper-based explorations evoke a certain duality inherent within organic life—the ordinary morphing into the extraordinary, the mundane inspiring spurts of wonder.

Julia Westerbeke. Geophony, 2015 (detail); punctured and carved paper; 22 in x 15 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Julia Westerbeke. Geophony, 2015 (detail); punctured and carved paper; 22 in x 15 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

In Geophony (2015), Westerbeke uses simple mark-making techniques to create intricately textured layers of thick watercolor paper. The title of this work is interesting to consider. As a scientific term, “geophony” refers to the sounds naturally generated by the geophysical activity on Earth, which includes wind, rainfall, thunder, and volcanoes. Here Westerbeke’s fascination with the mysterious attributes of nature manifests itself in a physical interpretation of the aural wonders of that which cannot be seen, only heard.

Julia Westerbeke. Afterimage IV, 2015; punctured paper; 32 in x 48.5 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Julia Westerbeke. Afterimage IV, 2015; punctured paper; 32 in x 48.5 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

The idea of absence informing presence is another one of Westerbeke’s curiosities. Invoking Gaston Bachelard’s concept of “psychic weight”—in which the French philosopher explores the power that certain imagery has in eliciting personal memory—Westerbeke’s series involves a degree of abstraction that aims to do just that. In Afterimage IV (2015), viewers are drawn in to an elaborate braille-like composition, subtly texturing the outer sides of a plain white canvas while leaving an amorphous space of openness in between. By creating a visual balance between what appears to be a complex process of creation and the airiness that surrounds it, Westerbeke allows viewers the ability to flow between the artist’s state of consciousness and their own, projecting patterns of association and memory onto the empty canvas.

Julia Westerbeke. Afterimage IV, 2015 (detail); punctured paper; 32 in x 48.5 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Julia Westerbeke. Afterimage IV, 2015 (detail); punctured paper; 32 in x 48.5 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Westerbeke’s production is gradually moving toward various modes of minimalism, and her technical strategies embody this trajectory. The artist’s matte-white compositions retain a purity that emphasizes the textural aspect of the work. In Paramnesia (2015), the surface of the thick watercolor paper is painstakingly punctured into a pattern that is evocative of the artist’s fascination with the complex microcosms found in nature. Using the line as the core of her process, Westerbeke describes her production as beginning with a traced pattern on canvas. She then moves into a meditative trance in which she allows the pattern to flow organically, driven by a subconscious movement that Westerbeke describes as “ritualistic.” In this way, the repetitive act of the texture-making process becomes Westerbeke’s translation of the idea that the subtle can give rise to the sublime, and the physical can manifest the metaphysical.

Julia Westerbeke. Paramnesia, 2015; punctured paper, frame; 30 in x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Julia Westerbeke. Paramnesia, 2015; punctured paper, frame; 30 in x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Between labor and play there is an intensity, and Westerbeke’s ethereal, hushed aesthetic produces a tension that captures the essence of human life—the shifting modes of consciousness and subconsciousness, the space between the realms of the ordinary and the extraordinary, the relativity of the human body to itself and to the universe. Westerbeke doesn’t attempt to reconcile these polarities; a simple answer may not be readily available, and perhaps it is precisely in the in-between-ness of these states, generated by paradoxical modalities, that one can find room for respite and contemplation.

Julia Westerbeke. Paramnesia, 2015 (detail); punctured paper, frame; 30 in x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Julia Westerbeke. Paramnesia, 2015 (detail); punctured paper, frame; 30 in x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Julia Westerbeke is an artist, curator, and educator based in Brooklyn. She holds an MFA from the University of California, San Diego, and a BA from Barnard College, Columbia University. Past exhibitions include Deluge at the DeYoung Museum, Staccato at den contemporary, Alien Organic at compactspace, and Morphology at A.I.R. Gallery. Her work has been featured in On-Verge, the WILD Magazine, Art Ltd, Les Femmes Folles, the Hollywood Sentinel, and the SF MoMA blog, among other publications and news sources.

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