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Art Focus

Your Kid Couldn’t Do That!

Nuances in Abstract Painting at the Stanek Gallery, Philadelphia

“The Connoisseur” by Norman Rockwell: cover of the January 13, 1962 Saturday Evening Post

Can you remember the days when abstract art was widely misunderstood, ridiculed, and even feared by most Americans? I can.

While visiting a museum in college I once watched an irate mother drag her kids away from a Robert Motherwell painting, shrieking: “Get away from that piece of garbage!” And who hasn’t attended a gallery opening at which some self-proclaimed expert stationed himself/herself in front of a brushy abstraction, drink in hand, declaring: “My kid could do that!”

Yes, for decades after Life Magazine called Jackson Pollock “Jack the Dripper,” abstract art had the power to touch some deep insecurities. Fortunately, those fears have largely vanished—like polio—and defensive outbursts over abstract art have gone the way of iron lungs.

Contemporary Abstraction—especially by women artists—is varied, vital, and right there in the flow of the cultural mainstream. Some of this may have to do with the success of Mary Gabriel’s blockbuster book “Ninth Street Women,” which recasts the story of American Abstract Expressionism to portray brilliant women—not just hard-drinking men—as being crucial to its Bohemian mojo. Netflix plans to turn Gabriel’s book into a series, begging the question: who will play the young firebrand, Joan Mitchell?

A staple of contemporary art for over seven decades, abstraction no longer stands as a threat to representation: the two are no longer seen as enemies. In fact, based on the hybridity I am seeing in contemporary painting, the two approaches have been having quite a bit of sex lately. A sampling of the works on view in the Stanek Gallery’s virtual exhibition Nuances in Abstract Painting reveals just how broad and receptive to fresh source material the practice of abstract painting has become. And there will be no need to shut your laptop if the kids glance at the screen as you look over the show.

Hollis Heichemer, I-7, 2018. Oil on mylar mounted on board, 18 x 12 inches.

Hollis Heichemer’s paintings have a sense of tension about them. Her recent oil on mylar “I-7” is resolutely abstract but you can still feel the wind blowing through it. There is a sense of “thingness” in her work that comes from her acute visual sensitivity and ability to generate nuance. Instability is part of it too, as Heichemer’s process seems to involve generating and partly subduing an ever-present chaotic energy. It is forceful work—literally—which has a level of painterly sophistication that is hard to miss.

Deborah Fine, Burning River, 2019. Mixed media on canvas, 48 x 48 inches.

“Burning River,” a mixed media piece by Deborah Fine, has a palpable sense of atmosphere and space. Like Heichemer, Fine seems to have one foot planted in the real world even as she reaches towards the unknowable. With its pinkish-grey tones and soft, pulsing forms, “Burning River” offers a nod towards the stained canvases of Helen Frankenthaler. Then again, it displays an intuitive and underlying grasp of atmospheric perspective that goes back to Impressionism and further. To make a “convincing” painting out of such evanescent material is an impressive feat. If you don’t agree, go ahead: try it at home and let me know how it goes.

Nicole Michaud, Adjoining the Sky, 2018. Acrylic and oil on panel, 8 x 8 inches.

Nicole Michaud’s “Adjoining the Sky” measures only 8 inches across, but it feels much larger. Full of unfoldings and undercurrents, the work has a concentrated elegance. Open to sensation and to improvisation, Michaud has found a way to let nature come through her and emerge transformed into formal richness. And the work is beautiful, which always helps.

Barbara Fisher, Tangle 28, 2019. Acrylic and pencil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches.

A continuing role for abstraction is to stand for interiority. Barbara Fisher, whose paintings channel a chaotic nexus of ideas, memories, and psychic states, creates works that explore her inner life. Fisher’s “Tangle 28” seems to be expanding—like a cosmos—exploding with flotsam and jetsam that includes recognizable traces (a lace doily) and skeins of quirky abstract webbing. Something is emerging here, something both revealing and engaging. Fisher has managed to find the intersection between spontaneity and memory and the results have a magnetic draw.

Moe Brooker, It’s Always When, 2006. Mixed media on panel, 36 x 36 inches.

Rich inter-weavings of color, texture and pattern ignite the cultural and spiritual emanations of Moe Brooker’s work. The artist’s conviction—that questions can be answered by the process of aesthetic searching—endows “It’s Always When” with a knowing, optimistic glow. The concentrated power and maturity of Brooker’s art is the residue of struggle, intellectual inquiry, and years of hard work. Don’t let Brooker’s apparent ease with brightness and visual rhythms fool you: your kid couldn’t do this.

That is, unless your kid has something pretty special going on…

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John Seed

John Seed

John Seed is the author of “Disrupted Realism.” He has written for the HuffingtonPost, Hyperallergic, Arts of Asia & other fine publications. johnseed@gmail.com