Krista Svalbonas: What Remains |  Marshall Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

BY Leah Ollman, March 1, 2024

Photographs are starting points for Krista Svalbonas, raw elements to cut, rotate, and recombine, or source materials for work that has, in the past, incorporated industrial felt, wax, silkscreen, paint, gold leaf, and more. Her vigorous negotiation of texture, surface, form, and space serves well, and aptly, her interest in architecture, place, and belonging.

At Marshall, works from two engrossing recent series – Displacement (2018-22) and What Remains (2020-24) – nested the personal within the historical, addressing the plight of Baltic citizens (like her parents) who became refugees after the Soviet takeover of their countries, and those who stayed, suffering cultural suppression under Soviet power. In both series, Svalbonas selectively laser-cuts text or geometric patterns into her own straight black-and-white photographs on paper, enabling the substrate to carry multiple messages simultaneously. Dissonance is the operative force throughout. 

Krista Svalbonas, What Remains (10), 2022. Courtesy the artist and Marshall Gallery

Each work in the Displacement series merges a photograph of a building in Germany that had been used to house postwar Baltic refugees with the text of an archival letter written by the displaced appealing for assistance or asylum. Svalbonas compresses the text, minimizing spaces and lines, so the words become dense patterns, legible mostly along the top, where contrast is greatest against the underlying white mat, or beneath the bottom edge, where the floating image casts crisp shadows. “To Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt,” begins one letter. “…human rights which make life worth living must be granted,” ends another. The works enlist the viewer’s body, since shifts in perspective and distance affect the layered visual field. This instability registers physically. The inauspicious buildings – some of them former homes, some industrial-looking structures – are made to bear the voices of their former occupants, yet neither words nor images can be read completely or clearly, since each functionally interrupts and displaces the other.

Krista Svalbonas, Hamburg, 2022. Courtesy the artist and Marshall Gallery

In What Remains, the Philadelphia-based Svalbonas pairs photographs of Soviet-era architecture in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia with traditional Baltic textile patterns. Representations of the buildings, most of them aggressively bulky concrete apartment towers, are left intact, while all of the remaining space around and slightly encroaching upon them from below is laser-cut to resemble lace, with its repeated, interlocking stripes, diamonds, or stars. The contrasts here are strong and immediate between the depersonalized, hard surfaces of the buildings and the intimate, delicate, domestic (read feminine) associations of the textile patterns. The visual disparity registers viscerally, as tension reverberates between the cold tones of the prints and the warm glow emanating beneath them caused by the singes of the laser cuts. 

In rendering her photographs porous, Svalbonas not only activates them spatially, but also induces them to operate analogously to memory, ever incomplete and ever oscillating. The frictions she stages materially echo those experienced by tens of thousands of Baltic citizens during and following the second World War – between continuity and rupture, endurance and dissolution. These works are as deeply intelligent as they are emotionally searing.