East City Art Reviews—Charma Le Edmonds Untold Stories

By Eric Celarier on July 18, 2022
Charma Le Edmonds, Untold Stories at Glen Echo Park Partnership’s Popcorn Gallery, Photo Credit: Emily Boa

Untold Stories, on view at Popcorn Gallery in Glen Echo Park, features a group of paintings by Charma Le Edmonds, the final output of an esteemed figure in the Washington DC area art scene. Tragically taken from us in a car accident a little over a year ago, Edmonds’ was not able to install her own work. However, Jack Rasmussen, Director and Curator of the American University Museum at the Katzen Center, was able to anticipate what may have been her choices by working closely with her husband, Scott Severson. Though her practice included sculpture, ceramics, bookmaking, installation, and set design, this exhibit is not a retrospective, but focuses on a series of enigmatic paintings created by the artist over a five-year period.

Building on Surrealist strategies that employ uncertainty to reach states beyond ordinary reason, Edmonds fills these oil on linen panels with beguiling shapes. Evolved from an automatic drawing approach, she developed images from her daily sketches into highly refined paintings with no fixed meanings. In Edmonds’ own words, “I feel this intuitive process creates a psychological depth using veils of layered colors and patterns contrasted with solid blocks of color and intricate detail, mirroring the overlays of experience in our day-to-day lives.” [1]  Though her forms evoke the natural world’s repetition and organic contours, as they do in 3.31.18-5.31.18, viewers are not given any firm indicators of what we might be looking at, no matter how familiar these compositions might be. This uncertainty stays true to her Surrealist roots, opening the door for explorations into her own sense of who she was.

Charma Le Edmonds, 3.31.18-5.31.18, oil on linen panel, 16” x 20”, Photo Credit: Scott Severson

Not even her titles, such as 7.8.18-7.6.19, give us a clear direction for what we are seeing because these names only refer to the dates in which these pictures were made, giving us little referential help. Edmonds has faith that the viewer will understand how deeply personal these works are without naming them. By withholding such information, she attends to the needs of her viewers by promoting private interpretations that are more meaningful because these doors are left open. Edmonds says, “Each painting has its own story but I have chosen not to title the work and instead date the start and end of each piece. The spiritual essence or impact of each painting can then continue to evolve as the viewer brings their own life experiences to the work.” [2]

Charma Le Edmonds, 7.8.18-7.6.19, oil on linen panel, 16” x 20”, Photo Credit: Scott Severson

Where her predecessors like Hans Arp might be satisfied with flat opaque compositions, Edmonds adds volume to her works through diaphanous layers and gradient shading. Creating illusions of floating, spinning, darting, or swimming biomorphic bodies set in an indeterminate environment, Edmonds’ paintings are carefully constructed to create illusions that defy absolute recognition, while still recalling the world around us. We don’t often know where we are in her pictures or what scale we are in, but we can be sure that it comes from reality filtered through her own experience. Works like 3.12.20-7.21.20 could just as easily be read as meteorological phenomena as they can microscopic organelles. Jack Rasmussen commented, “I cannot emphasize enough her extraordinary craftsmanship. Charma had amazing skills, and she put them seamlessly in the service of her aesthetic and emotional vision.” [3]

Charma Le Edmonds, 3.12.20-7.21.20, oil on linen panel, 16” x 20”, Photo Credit: Scott Severson

Part of this vision is a spiritual one, including not only the wonders of the universe, but also its difficulties. Edmonds was very upfront about her struggles with cancer and the loss of a child, so her pictures do not always reflect the lighter side of life. Taken from her description for her 1993 show New Works on Paper at The Washington Project for the Arts, she said, “The images are personal but go beyond that by representing the struggle of recovery and fundamental human conflict. It is a search for beauty in nature and harmony between life and death as a source of strength and reflection.” [4] The accompanying catalog to this show, Untold Stories, uses similar language. Perhaps, we can see what she was getting at in works like 9.29.16-5.7.20. Yet, no matter how euphoric or awful her experience, this work never trades on vacuous adulation of the miracle of life nor delves in dramatic self-pity over life’s pain. They are sober evaluations of the real, thus, she was not just interested in giving us a personal account, but was looking to direct us to something much more universal.

Charma Le Edmonds, 9.29.16-5.7.20, oil on linen panel, 16” x 20”, Photo Credit: Scott Severson

These truths could unfold in many ways, but the best description of her methods might be as wordless narratives. Edmonds was acutely aware of the importance of her indigenous origins. “As a native Choctaw,” she writes, “storytelling is a part of my heritage.” [5] Rasmussen agrees that her cultural roots were important to both her identity and the work. In an interview for this review, he commented “I think it (her ancestry) is central, both in her use of organic, biomorphic imagery and in the fact that Choctaws were known as great storytellers.” Yet, where her works may have important elements of Choctaw history and morality told through the personification of the living world, Edmonds’ paintings do not express these elements in any overt way. Instead, she gives us is an unerring respect for the nature of everything, including metaphysical realities that may go beyond our sight. In a cosmos that never sits still, it should be no surprise that her landscapes would be on the move; and, where there is movement, there is story. By balancing forms precariously, repeating them to imply action, or manipulating them in order to direct our eyes within compositions in paintings like 10.15.18-11.9.18, she is able to freeze the subtle activities of life so we can explore them over time, allowing us to peel back the layers within the pictures, and, perhaps, even in ourselves.

Charma Le Edmonds, 10.15.18-11.9.18, oil on linen panel, 16” x 20”, Photo Credit: Scott Severson

Charma Le Edmonds created paintings that on the surface seem simple, yet are cunningly sophisticated. By harnessing the power of ambiguity, she requires our participation in the picture making process. The differences in every viewer multiply the possible interpretations. By directing our attention to what might be moral through her unconsciously derived elements, she opens the door to the mystery of everyday reality in a restless world, freezing it long enough for us to ponder.

The Charma Le Edmonds’ show, Untold Stories, at Glen Echo Park Partnership’s Popcorn Gallery runs through July 31, at 7300 MacArthur Boulevard, Glen Echo, MD 20812, Open Saturday and Sunday 12-6PM, Phone: (301)634-2222, info@glenechopark.org

[1] https://charmaleedmonds.com/about/
[2] https://charmaleedmonds.com/about/
[3] Quotation taken from direct communication with Jack Rasmussen for this article.
[4] Quotation taken from Charma Le Edmonds’ description for her show New Works on Paper at WPA, 1993 provided through direct communication with Scott Severson for this article.
[5] Artist’s statement in the catalog for Untold Stories.