Exhibition Essay (2008)
For this group of works, new, American, and sublime are all tags that can easily stretch and challenge definition as well as stress interdependency. Yet each definition is vital to tap into the engaging spirit that employs labor, subject, tradition, style and the painted object.
For a proper context, how far back do we need to go? How many allusions are pertinent? Mark Rothko, Joan Mitchell and their associates' desire to tap into creating a physical recreation of psychological reactions to the world and ideas in and around them? The Hudson River School painters and their ambition to amaze with a showmanship of effects and extraordinary views divined from above? For painters like Bernard Chaet, Laurel Hughes and John Lees, Turner may be the comparative artist where there is both a longing for a lost arcadia and a modern, virile need to translate atmospheric effects in all their natural vastness, beauty and violence. Here rough, worked surfaces and myriad un-interpretable techniques begin to capture a sense of awe and amazement that mingles with veneration.
Simultaneous to Turner (and across the ocean) one could witness "manifest destiny" in the works of Allston and Cole, their path to Church and Bierstadt, the underappreciated Luminists, not to mention trailblazers like Charles Burchfield, Marsden Hartley and Albert Pinkham Ryder. Jake Berthot, once a painter of severe, distinctive forms, has shape-shifted to a painter of miraculous luminosity on par with Charles Inness' late, great, intimate landscapes. Yet in Berthot's work, there remains the formal tug of structure via abstract, compositional grids and an undeniable solidity to his tree forms. Bill Jensen, now known for his whirlwind of color and virtuosic transparent strokes, is represented here with iconographic passages that connect to the American modernists of the early 20th century. Like many works in this show, Jensen's paintings urgently state their purpose while swirling and exploding. The drawings and paintings of Gregory Amenoff and also Joan Snyder's pools and flower fireworks seem to activate, as Dr. Robert Hobbs said of Richard Pousette-Dart's work, references to an "iconographic burgeoning life, energy, light and darkness." They also recall Burchfield's and Arthur Dove's synesthetic display of the sound and smell of nature - promoting an impulse to experience form, pattern and color as portals to fully enjoy far beyond the walls of the gallery.
Finally, John Walker is represented by works where painted surfaces are brewed as much as they are attacked. The pieces, large or small, invite the viewer by means of a heaving and exhilarating challenge. The works, like many in this gallery, are not reassuring. They may even introduce themselves with a tinge of anarchy. As James Elkins said of Monet's late works, the paintings and drawings in this gallery "depend from first to last on two nearly indescribable requirements: the precariously balanced viscosity of the pigment, and a nearly masochistic pleasure in uncomfortable twists and turns." In the end, and with close looking and with a willingness to be "mesmerized by uncertainty,"artwork can produce experiences that are transcendental, haunting and sublime.
acting chair, Department of Art/associate professor of art,