If you have ever stood in front of a Mark Rothko painting—one of those iconic, massive abstract paintings of hovering rectangles so identified with American art of the mid-20th century—and wondered what it’s all about, then you would be sure to benefit from a trip to James Gallery in the West End.
That’s where the exhibition “Surface” explores the rich and complex context of contemporary abstract art with artists whose work embraces the endless possibilities of surface without the cynicism that burdened painters of previous generations.
Using vivid color, intricate compositions and innovative techniques; the artists open up to the possibilities of surface treatment in refreshing ways. The work featured demonstrates the vibrancy and validity found in the renewed energy and its ability to push the boundaries of technique and composition. These compositions touch on questions of restriction and freedom while making connections among sensibilities rather than styles.
Take, for example, the paintings of Maura Robinson. This Manhattan-based abstract artist creates oil-on-canvas paintings that are in many ways similar to those of Rothko. That is to say, they are paintings built up of multiple thin layers of oil paint that seem to shimmer on the surface.
Those similarities are most obvious in her large-scale works, such as “Eggplant Shimmer” and “Big Orange,” which visitors will be confronted with when first walking into the gallery. But smaller works by Robinson in the back of the gallery, such as “Powder Drip Gold,” slowly reveal a delicate interplay of contrasts between layers of color, as well as gold leaf, enabling the artist to challenge traditional notions of deep pictorial space.
“While I consider myself a purely abstract painter, meaning that I have no desire to find representational anchors in the work I make, I must also admit that my various influences include organic patterns and forms, such as bodies of water, clouds or lichen,” Robinson says.
“I feel this has freed me to concentrate on the presence of light and reflectivity in the ocular experience. This, in turn, enables me to deal more singularly with color, form and sensual content.”
Maura Robinson’s “Speechless” series of rhinestone-encrusted wood panels look like the remains of a set from The Wizard of Oz.
While Maura Robinson’s paintings give consideration to the spiritual dimensions of color and, in the case of her arched-format pieces, often seem to seek the contemplative qualities associated with votive traditions, the gripping characteristics in much of her work from the last decade seem to be rooted in her investigation of perception and in her exploration of ways to merge content with an evocative surface.
The large Guardian I (1989) can be regarded as Robinson’s breakthrough to new possibilities for generating a range of sensations from a non-descriptive painting. It followed a period in which she concentrated on Minimalism, and it announced a new emphasis on sharpening the viewer’s perceptual responses by involving the eye in variegated, mottled color and in paint that could be perceived as rubbed, scraped, abraded, built-up and rubbed and scraped again in a process that encouraged coalescing marks to gradually become suggestive and infer different spatial positions. At this point the artist was pushing the approach beyond the tactile and reaching for ambiguities of perception. She was also starting to test how paint could simultaneously be both real and metaphorical.
Subsequent steps created and expanded upon a sense of erasure and a feeling of blur, which questioned focus and also managed to slow down the visual engagement with a work. Frequently there is the implication that evidence of a past is being eliminated or obscured, and often, too, there is the sensation of a ghost-like form.
Erasures, ghosts and shadows invite memories, and this allows Robinson to insert content references through her manipulation of paint and her choices of other materials. Pieces in the Carnivale series, for example, add tassels, feathers or fringe to shape recollections of special events. For Robinson, embellishment and ornamentation can be interpreted as a sign of the preciousness consciously or unconsciously associated with life’s distinctive rites.
Much thought has also been given to arts’ emotional usefulness, and how spiritual content can stem from Minimalist concerns. There are instances in which the ghost forms are intended to offer evidence that a specific human karma has been left. The most successful works contain “voices.” In one small triptych, referred to as The Finger Box, rows of small spots are intended to recall the way women in concentration camps placed blood marks on a wall to count the passing days.
The Box Series, Robinson’s most recent efforts to broaden the art experience, are her most challenging. Their paired inner surfaces are tonal fields in two emphatic colors that resist harmony or reconciliation. Surfaces, too, intentionally vary the character of their pigment application to deliver a subtle message about struggle.
It is Robinson’s intention that the act of opening each hinged box serve as a parallel to passing through a gate. What she achieves is still more complex, for she quietly introduces adjustments to the flat space of her preciously gilded cover, and then to the infinity of her articulated color field within. As in most of her work through this productive decade, the possibilities for creating an absorbing mood are strong.
Maura Robinson’s formal rectilinear works have been called minimalist, but they have nothing of the emotional austerity that we associate with minimalism. In fact, Robinson’s gold leaf and oil paint works on wood are deeply felt, meditative and rich. The artist, who is represented by Art Space in Los Angeles and Genovese Gallery in Boston (her work was shown in Art Space’s recent “Balance Brought Forward” group show and last year’s “Post Minimalism” group show at the Genovese) uses the strictures of her minimalist-inspired form to give voice to a wealth of ideas and emotions—not dampen or eliminate them, as many minimalists could.
Robinson’s fascination with texture is what saves her work form austerity. In each of her pieces, she goes beyond color, shape, and plane to convey a sadness and a sense of the past. Banner #15 is a case in point. This wood painting is divided in two: the top is a deep coal gray, the bottom a luxuriant, nearly regal purple. At the center, a rectangle of gold leaf blinks out of the darkness like the sun hitting a window pane on a cloudy day.
The remarkable thing about Banner #15 isn’t the play of darkness and light, but the texture of the work. The paint nearly chips off the wooden surface; it is veined with cracks which weave their way into the gold leaf, where they become even more pronounced, as the creases do in smoothed-out aluminum foil. The shopworn look of Banner #15 contrasts with the soft glow of the gold, referring to the perennial richness of the past. Everything old is new again, according to Robinson, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect.
More recently, Robinson has incorporated canvas into her paintings, and has begun to play with the previously distinct formal lines between her shapes. One untitled piece is made up of a long stretch of canvas—deep, musty green fading to near black. At the black end of the canvas, a small section of wood plated with gold extends the work. The delineation between canvas and wood is clear, but the black paint seems to seep like a virus over into the gold in thin, dry brush strokes. Only at the far end if the work is the gold clean of paint, and even there it is scuffed up with tarnish.
While her works are rich and evocative, Robinson’s abstract formalism puts the viewer at a useful distance. Ultimately, they function as a sort of Zen koan, asking questions that we don’t immediately comprehend, that we may never be able to understand from a purely intellectual standpoint, but that sit with us and percolate until they answer themselves.
But the show’s real gem is that which best reflects its titular assumptions, Maura Robinson’s gold rectangle situated in a black field. Unlike a strictly minimal piece, both the artist and the materialvs idiosyncrasies are apparent. The instability of the black paint gives way to slight fissures, majestically setting off the thick opaqueness of the gold center. The result is a bit of a contradiction—minimalism with painterly affects—but only in the literal sense. Visually, the elements fittingly complement one another.
Other works in the show can be more rewarding. Maura Robinson’s brooding geometric paintings with accents of gold begin to seem like altarpieces; they suggest epiphanies more readily than Mark Rothko’s dark paintings furnishing the otherwise empty chapel so celebrated in Houston.
Of the New Yorkers, Maura Robinson is the star. Robinson is a traditionally trained gold leafer, and the addition of metal leaf to her paintings gives them the preciousness and remoteness of Early Italian or Byzantine religious works, where gold skies stood for heaven. Robinson’s works are abstract, but simply by dividing the picture horizontally, she can imply landscape. This is her strategy in a tiny and quite satisfying little painting on board, “Monolith.” The bottom part of this skinny, vertical piece is a richly mottled and burnished gold, its blackened spots suggesting antiquity. Above the gold is a flat, blank, black area, and across the black hovers a thin gold thread, like a tightrope. Robinson likes to juxtapose the bright aggressiveness of the gold with paint that modestly recedes into space. In an untitled work, gold stripes on the vertical edges act as heralds and sentinels, proclaiming and protecting what’s inside: fat horizontal strokes of gray, topped by a layer of dirty yellow. There is a pleasing balance here: Robinson juggles her small vocabulary with skill, and despite her restricted menu of ingredients, these works don’t come across as minimalist.
The gleaming minimalist abstract paintings of Maura Robinson glow softly in the next gallery. Their nesting rectangle format strongly suggests the pristine alchemy of Eric Orr’s early work. However Robinson’s burnished surface of intense color and precious metals have a distinctly Renaissance aura. The process is stunning but the images are static, their abstract spiritually tired.
Maura Robinson’s paintings on panel, part of the “Five Stars” exhibit this summer at Gallery V, marry the austere to the luxurious.
Composed, in a sense, of nothing but rectilinear figures—usually the dreary fare of minimalism—they at the same time radiate the soft glow of old gold and silver, literally expressed through lines and patches that shine from behind scrims of subdued color.
Robinson, a New York artist, thus brings to the grammar of modernist art the appeal of the antique, and to the advantage of both. The longer one looks, the more one finds within the indeterminate depths of her painting.
She also shows a group of watercolors—which when seen in company of the subtle blend panel pieces, look disappointingly loose and dependent on the forced vigor of scrawly, meaningless lines.