Art review: Patt Franklin’s nature paintings blur the line between the real and the abstract


Patt Franklin, “Rainforest Series 1-9”, 2009-2011, oil on canvas. Photo courtesy of Mayo Street Arts

It’s always interesting to see artists working in different media. In some cases, as with Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso, the imagery of their painting translates quite intact to another medium. Degas’s bronzes seemed fairly faithfully lifted from his canvases, and Picasso’s Spanish folk iconography simply transferred to a different kind of surface in his ceramics. In other cases, the links are less apparent. While we can certainly see threads between Nancy Graves’ arboreal sculptures weaving through her paintings of aerial landscapes, the connection is more elusive.

We don’t have the opportunity to compare the ceramics of Patt Franklin (his primary medium for many years) with his painting in the beautifully sensual “Patt Franklin Paintings” exhibition currently at the Mayo Street Arts pop-up gallery on Washington Avenue (until April 24), which was curated by June Fitzpatrick.

But that’s not necessary, in the sense that the corporeality of clay – the substantiality of its mass, density and elasticity – seems deeply embedded in the way this artist applies paint to canvas. It is easy to imagine, if these works suddenly went from two to three dimensions, how Franklin would have shaped and molded these visual forms.

Just inside the gallery door are two of Franklin’s most recent works, “Of the Treehouse Tree 1 and 2”, both completed this year. There is also the first tree house painting, created in 1993. It is one of Franklin’s habits to make paintings in series, but not necessarily in a linear way. She can start a series, take a detour to another series, and then return to previous years later. It can also happen with individual paintings, as in one of two “Rainforest Series Diptych” works, one panel of which was painted in 2004, the other in 2009.

The names of the “Treehouse” rooms are attributable to a makeshift structure that once perched in a tree on his Gorham property. Like all his paintings, they are essentially abstractions. Still, we can definitely discern their resemblance to trees because we can make out branch-like shapes and hints of a green canopy.

Against a sky of vivid orange pinks at sunset, the trees exude a sculptural, three-dimensional property that is palpable. From a distance, they stand out almost like a bas-relief, an effect achieved by the contrast of the color of the sky, but also by the way they seem to occupy space on the canvases, seeming to both recede and rise from the surface plane. It also has to do with the dimensionality that Franklin embeds in the works with his dense layering of different unique color values, especially the greens.

It should be noted that these three works are the only ones in the exhibition executed in acrylic. Franklin always worked with oil paint, then applied a coat of a gloss medium which gave them a brilliant reflectivity, imparting a liquid quality to the colors and also intensifying their vibrancy. This medium turned out to be quite toxic, especially to her lungs, sometimes leaving her sounding like she was a bit breathless.

Several works in the exhibition simply do without transparent varnish. This is more than understandable given the circumstances. Unfortunately, in doing so, they lose something in the process. ‘Path’ (2002) and ‘Rainforest’ (2006), for example (the images are reproduced in the announcement of the exhibition), appear flat in comparison. Although they engage in the same energetically swirling, swirling brushstrokes, the matte quality of the paintwork tends to slow down – or in the case of “Path”, all but stop – the feeling of fluid movement that brings such life to other works. This is not a criticism; simply a health conscious reality.

In “Treehouse” canvases, the polymer emulsions, plasticizers, and silicone oils in the acrylic paints tend to mimic, but not exactly replicate, the clear sheen of the medium once deployed (one hopes, for Franklin, without toxicity). Suffice it to conjure up the radiant glow of earlier paintings like “Tidal” (1997) and “Tidals II” (1998).

Patt Franklin, “Tidals II”, 1998, oil on canvas. Photo courtesy of Mayo Street Arts

It’s probably obvious by now that Franklin’s inspiration is nature. However, super realism does not interest him. Indeed, this approach would dull the power of her canvases, some of which seem larger than the artist herself. Their size certainly helps convey enveloping environments in terms of experience. But walking the line between abstraction and representation, the unmistakable conclusion of these images is the sheer primal force of nature.

“Tidals II”, a densely layered work, depicts both the mighty rush of water crashing against rocks, the resulting foam and spray, and the woosh rising from the tides. It telegraphs the violent beauty and awesomeness of the event as perfectly as a realistic Winslow Homer seascape, but does so without clearly defining a single rock or saltwater cascade. It also brings us closer to the action by viewing it from a dangerously proximal aerial perspective that could make your heart race.

The sweltering rainforest ecosystem is another of Franklin’s favorite subjects. Imagine looking at a scorching jungle floor through a translucent piece of glass that blurs individual bioforms and you begin to understand the two “Rainforest Series Diptychs” and nine smaller “Rainforest Studies”. In the larger diptych, one can sense the presence of mosses, lichens, verdant foliage, dirt, decaying leaves and rotting wood, and occasionally areas of yellow and red tropical flowers. The painting abstractly evokes the endless cycle of teeming life and inevitable death and decay.

Patt Franklin, study for “Rainforest Series Diptych”, 2005, oil on canvas. Photo courtesy of Mayo Street Arts

The other diptych is set against a deep blue which, like the “Treehouse” paintings, practically brings out the greens and pinks of the canvases surface to the viewer. The pink markings are particularly reminiscent of the spiny spadix of the anthurium, which rises from the spathe, or modified leaf form of the plant. There could hardly be a more sexual species of flora. It bears both male and female structures and may recall the reproductive organs of both males (spadix) and females (spar). This only serves to emphasize the unceasing lushness and fertility of the rainforest.

Although Franklin herself was unaware of it, a friend who accompanied me to the show pointed out that one of the studies revealed what appeared to be a fairly clearly defined naked female torso. Franklin smiled mischievously and shrugged. “Yeah, probably,” she admitted. Whether consciously or unconsciously, however, it served to underline for me the deeper meaning of these ravishing works: nature always creates new life, the rhythms and forces of which are constantly moving, blooming and exploding from Franklin’s paintings.

Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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