It’s always puzzling to me how people categorize genres of art (or almost anything really) as good or bad or better than – especially when it comes to abstraction versus figuration. “There is no must in art because art is free,” said Wassily Kandinsky, and I couldn’t agree more. If you need evidence of the meaninglessness underlying our human penchant for hierarchies, two shows occupying opposite ends of this particular spectrum provide proof that both have equal value.
One show is “Leslie Parke: Beyond the Senses” at Moss Galleries in Falmouth (through June 4). The other is “Back to the Figure” at Alice Gauvin Gallery in Portland (through May 28). What Parke accomplishes with abstraction would not only be impossible through figuration; it would be beside the point. Likewise, what the four artists (Simon Carr, Mark LaRiviere, Ying Li, Thaddeus Radell) in Alice Gauvin’s show do is irrevocably tethered to form and corporeality.
In moments of great wonder and connection, it’s possible to lose our sense of body and merge fully with an experience. Spiritual teachers and practitioners have known this for centuries, but everyone has likely had a taste: completely dissolving into a sense of love or ecstasy, or becoming the music we’re listening to.
The latter is exactly what prompted Leslie Parke’s shimmering, delicately obsessive paintings in “Beyond.” In a video, she relates an experience of listening to jazz musician Nick Hetko when, suddenly, “The whole audience exploded into pixilated color all over the room, like tiny bits of colored confetti floating through the air. It’s as though I had joined with the confetti; I was also pixilated.”
No body, no form – not a phenomenon you can express through figuration. The antecedents for these paintings were landscapes Parke completed at a residence in Giverny, the commune in Normandy that inspired Claude Monet’s waterlilies. There, she painted tree trunks and limbs behind dense fields of spattered paint. The effect was of trees in such floral profusion that the armature of the trees almost disappeared.
In a way, the Moss paintings simply do away with all armature to concentrate on the spatters. One work, “Springing from the River,” still retains a sense of landscape, though only just. All the other canvases (and there are a little too many in this space, as each really requires air around it to fully absorb its immersive effects) are completely abstract, though they can at times evoke rain, streamers, strings of beads and, in the case of “Wisteria,” a blossoming vine.
Many are underpainted with metallic pigment, which gives the surfaces an otherworldly glisten that is spellbinding. But what is most astonishing as you approach the canvases is to realize that Parke has not merely spattered paint. The artist has gone back and outlined thousands of these flecks in different colors.
This is impossible to appreciate in a photograph because it occurs at such a micro level. As I marveled at her minute degree of concentration and meticulousness, I kept thinking that each of these outlines required a choice. Parke didn’t decide to border all red splatters with pink or all blue spatters with black. They are variously encircled by black, green, lavender, etc.
It was then that I took a step back and began to appreciate the extraordinary thoughtfulness and intention behind the way Parke has layered color on her surfaces. In “Wisteria,” for example – the most commanding and largest work of her – the top third of the painting is densely layered with every color in her palette of her. But the concentration of purple thins dissipates further down, where long strands of yellow suddenly dominate.
Certainly we can think of the purple as blossoms and the yellow as the vines they cling to. But really, this is just an idea of form. Parke transmutes our experience of nature (as she did in Giverny, though anchored in traditional representation) into something more mystically immersive. She has actually transcended the limits of what our eyes can perceive, listing some deeper, evanescent organ of awareness that unites us absolutely with this flora at the most cellular level.
Any sort of representation here would have kept us in the perpetual orbit of the familiar and aesthetically pleasing. In Parke’s “Wisteria,” we feel the downward gravitational pull of the earth, the spontaneous creativity of nature, the complex intelligence of the universe and the miracle of this and other organisms. Stay with this long enough and you, too – like Parke during Hetko’s performance – might feel yourself dissolve into millions of particles.
“Back to the Figure” does not eschew abstraction entirely. In fact, these artists practice, as Gauvin points out in her press materials, what artist and theorist Louis Finkelstein termed “painterly representation.” All studied at Parsons in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the figure as subject enjoyed renewed appreciation (after being largely ignored in a wave of Abstract Expressionism). Proponents of this movement were these artists’ teachers: namely, Leland Bell, Paul Resika and Albert Kresch.
Before discussing specifics, however, I want to acknowledge what a pleasure it is to see a drawing show (LaRiviere is also exhibiting sculpture). There is something about the animating potential of line and the vivacity of a sketch that is often underappreciated as somehow “preparatory.” But drawings can feel immediate and vital in a way that approximates the spontaneity of creation. I appreciate Gauvin’s willingness to concentrate on this form.
These artists did not return to the figure in an academic context. Rather, they harnessed the gesturalism, emotion and vigorous energy of abstraction to create figures that felt dynamic, either emotionally or physically (or both). This form of depicting the figure has some precedent. Alberto Giacometti’s 1960s portraits, particularly, are an excellent example. Giacometti mixed oil and drawing on canvas, creating a furious freneticism of line and stroke that felt charged – as if his figures emitted forcefields of static electricity or, conversely, the world’s own corrosive energies menaced them from the outside.
Li does this incredibly effectively. Primarily a gestural painter, she brings that gesturalism to her drawings of her. But Li also studied calligraphy in her native China, and it is apparent that she reveres the animating potential of line. Her charcoal portraits of her buzz with life. But what is most interesting is that the figures themselves seem to be outwardly placid, creating a fascinating tension.
Both “Claire” and “Roger” look calm. Claire has her eyes closed, and Roger stands still, his gaze fixed patiently ahead as he leisurely stretches one arm behind his head. Yet both subjects, and the spaces around them, seem to come to life as line. We understand their forms as particular densities of lines, jots and scribbles that coalesce into form.
Radell’s drawings feel kinetic, his figures seeming to whirl and dance in space. He also uses color, but it is not confined within the lines of his bodies, adding to the sense of them moving across the paper. Carr’s drawings look more like figure studies for his paintings of him, so do feel preparatory rather than works in their own right.
Both LaRiviere’s drawings and sculptures are highlights of the show. Made with ballpoint pen, the drawings illustrate tremendous dexterity and fluidity. Two are clearly figures from classical paintings, the others original compositions. All telegraph a sense that they were created in a single sitting using one continuous circulating line. They recalled for me the perpetual drawing I did as a child with my old Spirograph (the circular motion of it, not the automaticity). One gorgeous piece in red pen, “In the Time of Corona IV,” looks almost like a classical composition of bathers.
And his sculptures – whatever the medium – have a wonderful sense of hand-modeling to them. The white-glazed ceramic figures are particularly interesting because they represent raw takes on the old art of white of china, the white Chinese porcelain figures originating in the Ming Dynasty. These forebears were delicate and perfectly modeled. But LaRiviere does something more expressionistic with them that gives them tremendous tactile presence despite their diminutive size.
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