It’s always surprising to me how people rank art genres (or almost anything) 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 proof of the nonsense that underlies our human penchant for hierarchies, two shows occupying opposite ends of this particular spectrum provide proof that both are of equal value.
One show is “Leslie Parke: Beyond the Senses” at the Moss Galleries in Falmouth (until June 4). The other is “Back to the Figure” at the Alice Gauvin Gallery in Portland (until May 28). What Parke accomplishes with abstraction would not only be impossible with figuration; that would be irrelevant. Likewise, what the four artists (Simon Carr, Mark LaRivière, Ying Li, Thaddeus Radell) of Alice Gauvin’s show do is irrevocably linked to form and corporeality.
In moments of great wonder and connection, it is possible to lose our sense of body and fully merge with an experience. Teachers and spiritual practitioners have known this for centuries, but probably everyone has had a taste: to completely dissolve into a feeling of love or ecstasy, or to become the music we listen to.
This is exactly what inspired Leslie Parke’s shimmering and delicately obsessive paintings in “Beyond.” In one video, she recounts a listening experience of jazz musician Nick Hetko when, suddenly, “The whole audience exploded in pixelated colors all over the room, like tiny bits of colorful confetti floating through the air. C It’s like I joined the confetti; I was pixelated too.
No body, no form – not a phenomenon that you can express through figuration. The antecedents of these paintings were landscapes Parke made during a residency in Giverny, the Normandy commune that inspired Claude Monet’s water lilies. There she painted tree trunks and branches behind dense fields of spattered paint. The effect was trees in such floral profusion that the frame of the trees almost disappeared.
In a way, Moss’ paintings simply remove all armature to focus on the splashes. One work, “Springing from the River,” still retains a sense of landscape, though barely. All the other canvases (and there are a bit too many in this space, as each really needs air around it to fully absorb its immersive effects) are completely abstract, although they can at times evoke rain, streamers, pearl necklaces and, in the case of “Wisteria”, a flowering vine.
Many are underpainted with metallic pigments, giving the surfaces an otherworldly sheen that is mesmerizing. But what is most amazing when approaching the canvases is to see that Parke did not simply splash paint. The artist came back and sketched thousands of these spots of different colors.
This is impossible to appreciate in a photograph because it happens at such a micro level. Marveling at its minute degree of focus and thoroughness, I kept thinking that each of these sketches required a choice. Parke didn’t decide to border all red splatters with pink or all blue splatters with black. They are variously surrounded 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 layered color onto his surfaces. In “Wisteria”, for example – the most imposing and largest work – the upper third of the painting is densely layered with all the colors of its palette. But the concentration of purple thins and dissipates lower down, where long strands of yellow suddenly dominate.
Certainly, we can think of purple as flowers and yellow as the vines they cling to. But in reality, it is only a formal idea. Parke transmutes our experience of nature (as she did in Giverny, albeit rooted in traditional representation) into something more mystically immersive. She has in fact transcended the limits of what our eyes can perceive, enlisting a deeper, evanescent organ of consciousness that absolutely unites us with this flora at the most cellular level.
Any representation would have kept us in the perpetual orbit of the familiar and the aesthetic. 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. Stick with it long enough and you too – like Parke during Hetko’s performance – might feel dissolved into millions of particles.
“Retour à la figure” does not entirely avoid abstraction. In fact, these artists practice, as Gauvin points out in his press materials, what the artist and theorist Louis Finkelstein called “pictorial representation”. All studied at Parsons in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the figure as a subject saw a resurgence of interest (after being largely ignored in a wave of Abstract Expressionism). The proponents of this movement were the teachers of these artists: namely, Leland Bell, Paul Resika and Albert Kresch.
Before discussing the specifics, however, I want to point out how great it is to see a drawing exhibition (LaRivière also exhibits sculpture). There’s something about the animating potential of line and the liveliness of a sketch that’s often underestimated as somehow “preparatory.” But the designs can feel immediate and vital in a way that approximates the spontaneity of creation. I appreciate Gauvin’s willingness to focus on this form.
These artists did not return to the figure in an academic context. Rather, they harnessed gesture, emotion, and the vigorous energy of abstraction to create dynamic figures, emotionally or physically (or both). This form of representation of the figure has a precedent. Alberto Giacometti’s portraits of the 1960s, in particular, are a prime example. Giacometti blended oil and drawing on canvas, creating a furious frenzy of lines and strokes that felt charged – as if his figures were emitting force fields of static electricity or, conversely, the world’s own corrosive energies. threatened them from outside.
Li does it incredibly effectively. Painter of gesture above all, she brings this gesture to her drawings. But Li also studied calligraphy in her native China, and it’s obvious she reveres the line’s animating potential. His charcoal portraits buzz with life. But what’s most interesting is that the characters themselves seem to be outwardly placid, creating a fascinating tension.
“Claire” and “Roger” look calm. Claire has her eyes closed and Roger remains still, gazing patiently ahead of him as he quietly extends an arm behind his head. Yet the two subjects, and the spaces around them, seem to come to life as a line. We understand their shapes as particular densities of lines, dots and squiggles that coalesce into a form.
Radell’s drawings appear kinetic, his figures appearing to swirl and dance in space. He also uses color, but it is not confined to the lines of his bodies, adding to the feeling that they are moving on paper. Carr’s drawings are more like figure studies for his paintings, so feel preparatory rather than works in their own right.
LaRivière’s drawings and sculptures are the highlights of the exhibition. Made with a ballpoint pen, the drawings show great dexterity and fluidity. Two are clearly figures from classical paintings, the others from original compositions. All look like they were created in one sitting using a continuous flow line. They reminded me of the perpetual drawing I used to do as a child with my old Spirograph (the circular motion of it, not the automaticity). A gorgeous piece in red pen, “In the Time of Corona IV”, almost looks like a classic bathers composition.
And his sculptures – whatever the medium – have a wonderful sense of hand-shaping. The white glazed ceramic figurines are particularly interesting as they represent crude versions of the ancient art of chinese white, the white Chinese porcelain figurines originating from the Ming dynasty. These ancestors were delicate and perfectly modeled. But LaRiviere does something more expressionistic with them that gives them a huge tactile presence despite their small size.