Concordance Among Variety, Paintings by Dona Nelson, Emily Davidson and Zachary Rawe at Atelier Art Gallery
Kate Brock reviews “House and Travels”, paintings by Dona Nelson, Emily Davidson and Zachary Rawe. Although each artist’s style of painting and subject matter is distinct, their handling of color and paint reveals their connection: Davidson and Rawe both studied with Nelson at the Tyler School of Art, and they all share an interest to break down the hidden categories of “abstraction”. and “representation”. Curated by the artists themselves, Kate Brock says it is a “stubborn and delightful group of paintings”, on view at the Atelier Art Gallery until April 15.
On display at Workshop Art Gallery is a stubborn and delicious group of paintings supported by reciprocity in a time of collective uncertainty. home and travel is an exhibition curated by artists Dona Nelson, Emily Davidson and Zachary Rawe. Although relatively wild in their variety – Rawe’s textual works next to Davidson’s abstract architecture next to Nelson’s tribute to his mother – the 26 paintings have real chemistry.
Both Rawe and Davidson are related to Nelson at the Tyler School of Art, where she has taught since 1992. The artists share a concern about how the crease between abstraction and figuration could be undone and revealed to be part of the same fabric. They are also generous in the conversations they have with theory or other artists, mentors and mothers, mushrooms and modernism. These borrowings become routes from which to depart or float while absorbing the range of responses painted through each of their bodies of work.
Nelson’s career-long push towards the formal and material limits of painting is a guiding line in his three works included in the exhibition. In “Mountain Road”, thick pink markings shimmer along a bumpy road. The forms of an autumn landscape, simplified and strong, frame a large blue mountain in the distance. The painting is a transcription of a much smaller painting by the artist’s mother, Opal. The original hangs alongside Nelson’s version, which functions as a sort of riff on the modernist master copies, but also as a serious study of his mother’s work. In Opal Nelson’s paintings, the gray and blue and yellowish strokes are more diffuse; it is a gentle mountain, framed by shades of trees.
‘House and Travels’, Nelson’s (and the exhibition’s namesake) double-sided gestural abstract canvas crosses the gallery’s second room diagonally. Like many of his two-sided works, it rests on a steel support. Yellow and red-violet pool around the blues and greens, covered with an opaque white medium. On one side, cheesecloth ridges have been glued to the canvas, outlining a structure of seams that reads like a house, a window, a frame.
Directly opposite are Davidson’s two paintings from 2021, “House Construction” and “House Window Frame”, in dialogue with Nelson. These are two views of a house partly open to the sky behind, the wooden frames forming a grid in the rectangle of the painting.
The construction of a painting – its body, its frame or cradle, its brushstroke – often gets lost in the language around the image. It’s clear that for Nelson, Davidson and Rawe’s respective trajectories, building with precision allows for spontaneity later down the line.
Many of Davidson’s paintings have fluid boundaries between recognizable forms and much more obscure territories of color and brushstrokes. In ‘Mercado’ (2021), a large ironwork-enclosed tree is surrounded by pockets of careful, lush strokes. The architectural logic of limits lies in his more vegetal paintings, in surprise inversions of transparent yellow-green space as in ‘Macedonia Road’ (2021), or in fleshy branches surrounding white flowers in ‘Ghost Flowers’ (2021).
Moving between inner space and environmental space, Rawe’s paintings often end up somewhere that isn’t either. In the case of the series “A Dialogue on Growth (with R. Morton and J. Halberstam)”, this space could be nothing. The phrase – “UNRULY NOTHING MIXTURES” – repeats itself on gray backgrounds framed by patterns that Rawe cites as borrowed from a Ree Morton design. There is a subtle sheen to the thickness of the oil paint in the nothing-paintings that reminds me of the mica dust of the Wissahickon Shale.
As a declaration, or an invitation, nothingness is seductive. The paints themselves are unruly mixtures, nothing direct in the sense of value. Rawe’s second set of works is a series of paintings from 2020: rambling mulberry trees, an owl against dense checkered foliage, or a bloody-mouthed cat. They are small panels, speaking of the intimate slowness of the work being done during a pandemic.
home and travel unfolds gradually, the connections between the paintings emerging subtly through the manipulation of paint, color. The show is punctuated by the feeling or hope that in the “unruly mixtures of nothing” there might be some kind of spongy composite between worn-out binaries, i.e. artist/outsider, abstract/figure, painting/surface, recto/verso, borrowed/original.
If there was a painting house, its rooms are as spacious and multiple as one can imagine.
“Home and Travel – Dona Nelson, Emily Davidson and Zachary Rawe”, March 18 – April 15, 2022 at Workshop Art gallery, 1301 N 31st St Suite 2, Philadelphia, PA 19121. Closing Reception: April 15. Gallery opening hours: 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays