It is always confusing to me how people categorize art genres (or almost anything real) as good or bad or better than – especially when it comes to abstraction versus figuration. “There is no need for art because art is free,” Wassily Kandinsky said, and I can’t agree more. If you need proof of the futility underlying our human propensity for hierarchies, two shows that occupy opposite ends of this spectrum provide proof that both have equal value.
One show is “Leslie Parke: Beyond the Senses” at the Moss Galleries in Falmouth (until June 4). The second is “Back to the Figure” at the Alice Gauvin Gallery in Portland (until May 28). What Parke achieves through abstraction would not be impossible through figuration alone; that would be irrelevant. Likewise, what the four artists (Simon Carr, Mark LaRiviere, Ying Li, Thaddeus Radell) do on Alice Gauvin’s show is irreversibly related to form and physicality.
In moments of great wonder and connection, it is possible to lose a sense of body and completely merge with the experience. Spiritual teachers and practitioners have known this for centuries, but everyone probably had a taste: to completely melt into a feeling of love or ecstasy, or to become the music we listen to.
The latter is exactly what prompted Leslie Parke to sparkle, delicately obsessive images in the film “Beyond”. In the video, she describes the experience of listening to jazz musician Nick Hetko when, suddenly, “The whole audience exploded in pixelated colors all over the room, like tiny pieces of colored confetti floating in the air. It was as if I had merged with confetti; I was also pissed. ”
No body, no form – not a phenomenon you can express through figuration. The forerunners of these paintings were landscapes completed by Parke at his residence in Giverny, a municipality in Normandy that inspired Claude Monet’s water lilies. There she painted trunks and branches behind dense fields of spray paint. The effect was of trees in such an abundance of flowers that the armature of the trees almost disappeared.
In a way, Moss images simply remove all the armature to concentrate on the spray. One work, “Spring from the River,” still retains a sense of landscape, but only still. All other canvases (and there are a few too many in this space because everyone really requires air around them to fully absorb their impressive effects) are completely abstract, although they can sometimes cause rain, ribbons, strings of pearls and, in the case of Wisteria. blossoming vines.
Many are under-stained with metallic pigment, which gives the surfaces an extraterrestrial glow that enchants. But what’s most amazing as you approach the canvases is to realize that Parke didn’t just spray paint. The artist returned and sketched thousands of these stains in different colors.
This is impossible to assess in photography because it happens at such a micro level. While I marveled at her petty degree of concentration and meticulousness, I kept thinking that each of these contours required choice. Parke did not choose to trim all red spots to pink or all blue spots to black. They are differently surrounded by black, green, lavender, etc.
Then I took a step back and began to appreciate the extraordinary thoughtfulness and intent behind the way Parke applied paint to her surfaces. For example, in “Wisteria” – the most commanding and greatest work – the upper third of the painting is densely layered with each color in its palette. But the concentration of purple is diluted and dispersed further down, where long strands of yellow suddenly dominate.
Surely purple can be imagined as flowers, and yellow as the vine they cling to. But really, this is just an idea of form. Parks transforms our experience of nature (as it did in Giverny, albeit anchored in traditional representation) into something more mystically more immersive. It has actually transcended the boundaries of what our eyes can perceive, including some deeper, transient organ of consciousness that absolutely unites us with this flora at the most cellular level.
Any kind of representation here would keep us in the eternal orbit of the familiar and aesthetically pleasing. In Parke’s “Wisteria” we feel the descending gravity of the earth, the spontaneous creativity of nature, the complex intelligence of the universe and the wonder of this and other organisms. Stay with this long enough and you – like Parke during Hatt’s performance – could feel yourself dissolving into millions of particles.
“Back to the picture” does not completely avoid abstraction. In fact, these artists practice, as Gauvin points out in his newspaper articles, what artist and theorist Louis Finkelstein called a “painting depiction”. They all studied at Parsons in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the figure as a subject again enjoyed respect (after being largely ignored in a wave of abstract expressionism). Proponents of this movement were teachers of these artists: Leland Bell, Paul Resika and Albert Kresch.
Before I discuss the details, though, I want to admit what a pleasure it is to see an exhibition of drawings (LaRiviere also exhibits a sculpture). There is something in the animating potential of the line and the liveliness of the sketch that is often underestimated as somehow “preparatory”. But drawings can feel immediate and vital in a way that approaches the spontaneity of creation. I appreciate Gauvin’s willingness to focus on this form.
These artists did not return to the character in an academic context. Instead, they used gesturalism, emotions, and the powerful energy of abstraction to create figures that felt dynamic, either emotionally or physically (or both). This form of figure representation has some precedent. An excellent example is the portraits of Alberto Giacometti from the 1960s. Giacometti mixed oil and drawing on canvas, creating a furious frenzy of lines and strokes that felt charged – as if his figures were emitting fields of static electricity or, conversely, the world’s own corrosive energies threatening them from the outside.
Does it make it incredibly effective. Primarily a painter of gestures, she incorporates this gesturalism into her drawings. But Li has also studied calligraphy in her native China, and is clearly respecting the animating potential of the line. Her charcoal portraits are buzzing with life. But what is most interesting is that the figures themselves look as if they are calm on the outside, creating a fascinating tension.
Both “Claire” and “Roger” look calm. Claire has her eyes closed and Roger stands still, patiently pointed forward as he casually extends one arm behind his head. Yet both subjects and the spaces around them seem to come to life as a line. We understand their forms as special densities of lines, lines and patterns that merge into a form.
Radell’s drawings act kinetically, and his figures seem to rotate and dance in space. He also uses color, but is not limited within the lines of his body, which contributes to the feel of moving on paper. Carr’s drawings are more like studies of figures for his paintings, so they feel like preparatory, not like works in themselves.
And LaRiviere’s drawings and sculptures are the highlights of the exhibition. Made with a ballpoint pen, the drawings illustrate tremendous dexterity and fluidity. Two are clearly figures from classical paintings, the rest original compositions. They all telegraph the feeling of being created in one sitting using one continuous circling line. They reminded me of the timeless drawing I did as a child with my old spirograph (circular motion, not automatism). One beautiful piece of red pencil, “In the Time of Corona IV,” looks almost like a classic swimsuit composition.
And his sculptures – whatever the medium – have a wonderful sense of hand modeling. White glazed ceramic figures are especially interesting because they represent raw conceptions of old art Chinese white, white Chinese porcelain figures dating back to the Ming Dynasty. These ancestors were gentle and perfectly modeled. But LaRiviere makes something more expressionist with them that gives them a huge tactile presence despite their small size.