On Friday we are opening an exhibition of abstract paintings by three very talented Vancouver-based artists at the Gam Gallery. I wrote an exhibition statement for the occasion and thought this would be a good forum to share it – a small online exhibition, if you will.
The Landscape of Abstraction
Maegan Elise, Barbara Hinton Wood, Mel King
March 15 – April 19, 2012
Gam Gallery, Vancouver BC
The Landscape of Abstraction brings together three distinct artists who each explore the complexity of our relation to nature through abstract painting. These artists employ the logic of composition and rhythm in painting as a parallel to the dynamic processes found in nature, moving beyond the tangible and toward the spiritual or emotional qualities of nature that may nevertheless be experienced directly.
Maegan Elise’s paintings blur the lines between interior and exterior worlds and play with the conventions of landscape painting. Abstracted fragmentations of locations (whether real or imagined) draw upon memory and the viewer’s psychological interpretation of both the artwork and the physical environment. Her Lions and Lemons series was created in response to District Six in Cape Town, South Africa, where over 60,000 residents were evicted from during the Apartheid government. Elise’s paintings become meditations on the history of this landscape. In Uninterrupted 1 and 2 (2011), a diptych work which has here been installed with the two paintings facing one another in the window alcove, small houses painted in white with red roofs stand in lonely isolation against a striated and vast backdrop. Illegible text is scrawled across the top of the canvas, faintly, as if whispering the history of the place where thousands of houses were demolished. Although the tenor of the paintings is dark they nevertheless speak to the memory of the land, with both cognitive (the landscape of the mind also has its own patterns of striation) and physical connotations. In this way, the forlorn houses also signify a form of healing or hope, which is similarly apparent in Lemons and Gold (2011), with its luminous sky, verdant greens and a small rainbow-like form springing from the earth itself.
Barb Hinton Wood’s work is about reconciling the man-made and natural elements of life. The workings of the city exacerbate a feeling and a reality of extremes, which play out on a personal, community, systemic and global scale. Using formal tension, she draws on organic influences, understanding that they carry knowledge of natural cycles, rhythms, patterns, history of the land and a connection to culture and traditions. Through this exploration duality falls away and it becomes clear that things are much more fluid and expansive than they first appear. The three large panels included in the main gallery space, while not necessarily referencing conventions of landscape painting directly, nevertheless capture the rhythm and flow of nature’s processes. Elizabeth Grosz argues that art accesses and intensifies affect from the chaotic force of the world and, in doing so, makes legible what is normally illegible. Rhythm, according to Grosz, is what constitutes the matter of the universe from which art is drawn; the pure sensation of art, therefore, is the rhythmic and material undulations of the universe.1 Hinton Wood’s work visualizes these undulations, the series’ title of Elements pointing to the larger natural forces of the universe at work in and through art.
Mel King explores painting as a phenomenological experience that derives its power from nature, using Chlorella – an ancient type of super algae – as well as incense ash as pigments in her geometric yet ethereal works. The materials used signal a relation to their natural origins: Chlorella is lauded for its health benefits in digestion, while the incense ash is a combination of natural fragrances and Moldavite – a substance that is extra-terrestrial in nature and possibly formed by a meteorite colliding into Earth and fusing with existing rock to form a new kind of crystal. A rhythmic interplay of forms across the canvas moves the composition beyond the simplicity of positive and negative space, suggesting a relation of transformation in both painting and in nature. Forms simultaneously emerge and blend with one another, making their boundedness a matter of uncertainty – a strange experience in a composition that is so heavily geometric. Such interconnectedness is not unusual in nature, however, and the titles of the paintings, Behind the Stars (2012), Drifting In and Out (2012), Mass Transit (2012) and Under the Years (2012) each connote a profound movement and depth. Writing about contemporary painting, David Joselit describes this movement as transitivity, “expressing an action which passes over to an object,” meaning that the paintings (a discussion which is similarly applicable to King’s works) embody the passage of time within their marks and materials, while also extending outward into the social – or in this case, natural – networks surrounding it.2
Each of the artists in the exhibition recognize this capacity of art to speak both to its internal material existence as well as its connection to the external world, making abstract painting a significant vehicle to communicate with and to parallel the dynamism of the natural universe.
1Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).
2David Joselit, “Painting Beside itself,” October 130, Fall 2009, pp. 125-134