When Simple Is Anything But Basic
The artwork of Laura Marconi, Nancy Neill, Gary Jenkins, Mary Powers Holt, and Jeff Thomsen is being presented at the Cerulean Arts Collective Galleries from April 10th through May 5th. These are all artists who work within the visual art tradition of drawing and painting. But I would also say that they go beyond the traditional-- whether in the way they handle their
materials, the straight-forwardness of their compositions, and the pure joie de vivre of the moods they suggest. In a way, their work reminds me of the song “Simple” by Florida Georgia Line. Like the song says, these artists “make a lot out of a little”, but each in their own, very unique way.
I start in the gallery of Laura Marconi. The paintings in this gallery can be divided into two
bodies of work based on two separateresidencies— one in Barcelona, Spain and the other in
Iceland. Marconi unites these experiences through her choice of subject and her handling ofcomposition. What I would call “architecture” and “architectonic”. So, for Barcelona she sets her sights on windows and particularly the reflection on the window’s glass. For Iceland she pinpoints the ridged and rugged structure of the landscape. In both cases she gives us just enough information to have us perceive in a specific way. In the case of the windows, all the pieces are the same size—10 inches by 8 inches. But the presentation of the window itself can change. Most, like Window Reflections #2, Barcelona, have both the window and the frame around the window. Some, like Windows Reflection #8 and Windows Reflection #6 show only the interior structure of the window. Another difference in the compositional organization of the Barcelona pieces relates to time and movement. For example, two arched windows, Windows Reflection #2 and Windows Reflection #5 show varied vantage points of looking—one angled and slightly off-center, the other straight-on. This leads to a sense of two contrasting experiences. One of movement and passing, the other of stability and stillness, perhaps even meditation. And because all the Windows Reflection pieces are framed the same and laid out in a grid-like structure, I find myself relating each and every one to another. The device of sharing the surround and casement to the window also works well with the color. The colors of the reflections are generally bold while the windows’ structure is black or muted. Having the window’s shapes break up the pattern of the reflection integrates the two and keeps them on the same (flat) plane. As I look, I find myself concentrating less on the window concept and more on the interaction of the geometry. Similarly, in the Iceland paintings Marconi relies on delineated, shaped areas that build. These areas, by size and configuration, produce a solidness of land featuring flat spaces that roll into hills and formations. In Black Hills, Iceland a gray trapezoid describes the ground plane. It sits in a greenish area with a cut-in of red. Undulating stripes of gray, gold, and finally black fill the bottom of the panel while the top is a blue with speckled white that reminds me of lingering twilight. I feel like I am entering an expanse of land, first rising, then falling, only to continue rising and falling in waves. The most architectonic paintings out of the works on Iceland, though, are the ones featuring icebergs. Four of the 8 iceberg paintings seem to be the same iceberg so to view them as a series is to experience a time-lapse-- I am floating out to sea along with them. Marconi moves us closer then further, from side to side, and even the iceberg seems to turn as in Metamorphosis. Most of her descriptive powers are featured in the iceberg rather than its setting as she lends it cragginess and a shimmering white or icy blue color. Titling one The Iceberg Church (on the post card, above), it relates it even closer to a building than just a formation. But I think Disappearing Iceberg could also be called “Reclining Iceberg” not only because of its shape but because of her treatment of these as living beings to contemplate.
Rich is definitely a word to use in describing the artwork of Nancy Neill. These works are of oil pastel on paper in square formats. The square is the perfect composition for her work
because squares create a space in which the eye roams in a circular pattern rather than just back and forth as in a landscape orientation or up and down as in a portrait orientation. Even when the color action is in horizontal striates, as it is here, the shortened horizontal focuses attention. And there is so much going on in color and materiality not to be missed! In Untitled 8.18.4 Neill poses a strong contrast in value between the upper, lighter, and lower, darker, portions of her paper. At the same time, this lighter, primarily blue-gray area melts into the vivid blue middle which is held up by a dark and warm bottom portion. Each of these areas, aside from having marks that slide one color area to the next, are also interrupted by contrasting colors. Sometimes this is done by marking over as with the yellows and whites in the lower areas. Sometimes this is accomplished by scraping to reveal as the yellow in the sky. Sometimes, most often I would guess, it is a combination of the two and I am guessing this because of the cleanness of the color. This way of working not only causes our attention to flow but sets up relationships between the areas. It also creates space as the shards of color, like the light blue and white at the bottom left, seem to float like clouds over the warmer ground. And the island of orange toward the right is blended into the dark ground to create a light that gives the oil pastels, which can be very surfacy, dense and wax-like, a glow. Although the materials and methods used in Neill’s work are similar and consistent, there is
a great deal of variety. The sizes range from 8 inches by 8 inches as in Untitled 1.18.3 to twelve by twelve as in Untitled 4.18.5 to twenty-two by twenty-two. And it is nice to see that each work does not lack for detail, possessing its own personality even in the change of size. As described above, the compositions can be propelled by contrast of value, but other contrasts, like contrast of temperature as in Untitled 1.18.5 or contrast in texture as in Untitled 8.18.3 with its velvet, blue sky. Funny that I am speaking about these as landscapes when they are not particularly a place at all but rather formations of color. Take, for instance, Untitled 2.19.1. A basically white, somewhat homogenous work that not only separates into planes of "ground" and "sky" because of the inserts of color, but because of the directional application of the colors. Like Nature, these pieces confront us. They can have both turbulent because of the textured marks and stillness because of the rubbed in and blended color. I am reminded by them of standing before a body of water with a distant yet busy horizon.
Walking down the hallway I caught sight of the geometric abstractions of Gary Jenkins. These were some of my favorite paintings from last season at Cerulean Arts Collective--
colorful, confident, and unique. They made me think of music. The closest I could come for referencing this work to another artist was, perhaps, Willem de Kooning. But that was mostly due to Jenkins’ palette and the way he let his color-shapes jump and dance, like de Kooning’s “Ribbon” paintings. So I was very surprised when I entered his gallery and saw a series of portraits and paintings based on Art Historical works. Woman With a Fan (After Picasso) greeted me at the entry. Although I recognized the configuration of the painting as one from Picasso’s “Blue Period”, the paint application reminded me more of Cezanne and his many portraits of his wife. It was followed by two works, one on cardboard, one on canvas, called After de La Tour (No. 11 and No.13, respectively). These were not the whole painting of Georges de La Tour’s The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs. Rather, Jenkins honed in on a section featuring the hands.
This was followed by his two renditions of the child-portrait of Edward VI by Holbein, the Younger. Once again, one on cardboard and one on canvas. Altogether, as a wall, the color red uniting them, they made a handsome arrangement. But I also noticed that there were differences in the treatment between the paintings although the colors were mostly the same. In the pieces on cardboard the areas were outlined in black. This made them each separate islands and caused the painting itself to be less about unifying to create the look of particular objects than about the interaction of shapes. The next wall I would call the blue wall as it had paintings with a predominance of that color. Girl with a Basket reminded me of early American limner paintings. Two Women on a Beach, with blue water filling the background, skewed toward either Milton Avery or early Richard Diebenkorn. In both there is a whittling down of information and the information is suggested by color and color/shape relations. Three portraits of white-haired men follow—Philadelphia Native Son (which I took to be a self-portrait and is pictured above, on the card), Samuel Beckett, and Cezanne. (Beckett and Cezanne are two artists—one literary, one visual, who played with the elements of their art.) In these studies Jenkins adds a bit of provocation—he allows islands of the ridged paper of the cardboard to show. In Native Son and Cezanne they are about the eyes, while in Beckett one is at the area of the brain, the others at the mouth and neck. The last wall held a still life and two small paintings based on the cherubs in Poussin’s The Birth of Venus. The still life interested me because much of the still life and its color reminded me of Giorgio Morandi’s works—a still life that is still in color and in the ordinariness of objects. Yet, this one also has a shaving cream canister in red, white, and blue and a golden cherub. Is this a group-portrait through bricolage? As for After Poussin, No. 4 and After Poussin, No. 8, I found their relationship curious, not unlike the After de La Tour paintings. No. 4, with its outlined
cherubs, concentrates on the figures while
No. 8, with its outlines and contrast of colors of the background, takes the negative spaces and makes them the subject. This play of color and form appears to be at the center of all of Gary Jenkins’ paintings. Whether it is a section from a known painting or an original composition, something in the line of representation or his geometric abstractions, the whole group is a masterclass in perceiving and idiosyncrasy, appreciation of Art and appreciation of the commonplace.
There is an ease to the paintings of Mary Powers Holt. But don’t confuse “ease” with “easy”
here as these are anything but. The compositions are purposeful. Just take a look at Birdhouse in Snow (pictured on the card, above) where the inverted V-shape carries the eye back to the middle of the painting then up and out with the isles of white in the background.
The strong contrast color of the walls emphasize this movement back while the intervention of the tree limbs on the right sets the viewer back in space. Powers Holt is great with this step-by-step operation in looking at her paintings. In Early Spring, or as I like to think of it, “The Road Not Allowed to be Taken”, four beigy paths interpose a rolling field of green. The largest one, the one that would dominate and take your eye to the horizon is visually blocked but a dark, bare tree that stands like a silhouette or a crack in the composition. I can still perceive what is behind the tree, but I am pushed to notice and compare the other paths, too. It also helps that she does not show the foreground plane but rather places us right inside the action. This is different from her other paintings. In not allowing the landscape to emerge, she doesn’t give you footing or a place to stand. Instead, just like the tree here, our eyes reach to the sky, which could be another title for this piece, “Head in the Clouds”. Skies and clouds are an important part of each of these paintings. At least half of any artwork is devoted to the sky. From one piece to the next, each is very different. Some extremely active as in Rolling Clouds. Some quieter as in Shadows on the Hillside. Some contrasty as in Translucent Flight. Some colorful as in Electric Dusk. And just as the sky and the clouds can tell us about the weather, Powers Holt allows them to be an active participant to the painting, telling us about her attentiveness and choices. What I mean by this is, in these works the sky is not just a background on which a landscape takes shape but as nuanced and important as the placement of a tree, or a shadow, or any shape that makes up an object. All of this comes together for how the painting is oriented. Moreover, Powers Holt is a painter who likes paint. You can see it in the brushhiness of her strokes, the fullness of her color. And that color, generally speaking, is local color, that is, the color most people would associate with an object, as opposed to arbitrary or even optical. In many ways this makes the paintings more approachable but it can be limiting in translating to light and shadow, and some may even say complexity. But that does not happen here because the color areas often are broken into subtle pattern areas as in the water of Ocean Path. And the pureness of the different hues create a distinctive light—a light that makes the paintings themselves glow.
When last I saw Jeff Thomsen’s artwork, they included a few paintings of cats on beds or
quilts with their toys. These were charming—and I’m not even a cat lover. But no cats were to be found here. Instead there were some drawings of dogs and people from his travels sometimes even with their pets and light-filled drawings and paintings of what I am guessing is his neighborhood. The guess actually comes more from his titles which range from “Window View, March” to “Midday, When People are at School or Work” to “Sleeping Commuter”. In the gallery the arrangement on the walls divided the themes-- two walls of neighborhood-scapes, one wall of sketches from the train. All are refreshingly en plein air although some feel quick like February Dog and Walker and Sleeping Commuter with their slashing marks of paint
or pencil, respectively. While others feel more ponderous like Midday, Late Spring with its washed layers and color dabs. Moreover, pieces like Cherry Blossom Spring Study and Community Garden are so delicate and complex in their scrutiny of hue, value, and tone that I can practically smell the air. Thomsen is responsible for one of the grimmest paintings I’ve seen. The Late Cardinal is a lovely momento mori, dolefully gray with just a touch of color. Which leads me to another factor to Jeff Thomsen’s art—his ability to create mood. The mood is not over-the-top, neither uproarious nor solemn. It’s appreciative, what some might call
“blessed” and others might say enjoyable or affable. In his drawings like Portrait Model or On a Danish Train, there is enough paper left for me to imagine or for the subject to have room for a thought-bubble. I chose these two because of the similarity and the difference. In On a
Danish Train, the subject, a woman holding a dog, is presented at an angle against one side of the paper. The dog is curled into her lap, but there is enough room for the dog in the rest of the space. This indicates a relationship and interaction between the dog and the woman. In The Model the figure of the woman is squared to the corner of the page. There is a certain rigidity to the pose and I wonder what the blank she is looking and/or thinking about. I notice that one house appears in his works more than once—two in paintings, one as a drawing. In December Lights, Light Rain Effect a relatively dark painting is cut through with yellow lights. But touches of the green of lawn and trees and even some
pools of orange and red warm and illuminate the scene. Another darkish version of this house is a charcoal called Window View, March. On the right the front of the house is all a middling gray value. Charcoal strokes mark out details in the architecture. To the left is an island of dark foliage. Swooping from the foreground through the middle to the top is a contracting area of light with just enough markings to set up the layers of space that are filled. It is this area that describes the activity and dimensions of the space-- starting with the centered utility pole to each of the trees to the vertical lines of the house itself. And finally, the lovely Midday, When People are at School or Work (pictured on the post card, above). A colorful curve of shadows beginning with a purple foreground to green then brown and finishing in an arc of reddish-brown create a rainbow of coolish darks. In some ways these seem to be the subject. But as the orangy fringe of leaves along the top tickle down into a composition of pastel warms and cools, my eye drifts back into this tunnel of light and space. One of the things that many of the artists in this Collective exhibition did was provide a catalog with their materials. It is always nice to get to know artists not only by their presented artwork but by the words and some of their other works.
As mentioned, Laura Marconi, Nancy Neill, Gary Jenkins, Mary Powers Holt, and Jeff Thomsen will have their exhibitions at Cerulean Arts Collective from April 10 - May 5, 2019. You can check on their individual pieces by going to https://ceruleanarts.com/pages/exhibitions and clicking on their name or by going to https://ceruleanarts.com/pages/artists and clicking on their name.
Recently, I have also started a new feature primarily on Instagram but also carried on YouTube. Called “One Minute Crit”, I introduce each artist by saying a couple of lines about a selected piece or two. Hope you check this out and enjoy!
Laura Marconi's paintings on "One Minute Crit"
Nancy Neill's oil pastel paintings on "One Minute Crit"
Gary Jenkins's paintings on cardboard and canvas on "One Minute Crit"
Mary Powers Holt's paintings on "One Minute Crit"
Jeff Thomsen's paintings and drawings on "One Minute Crit"