Wednesday, October 29, 2008

missing the forest for the trees

Barbara Page, Time's Magic Carpet, watercolor

From this week's Ithaca Times:
MOTE hosts Barbara Page exhibition

Arthur Whitman

Silhouettes resembling cut-away tree stumps contain strange two-dimensional micro-worlds, densely packed with forms that feel organic but are hard to place: microbial blobs and tubes, evocations of aerial views of land and water, concentric striations focusing the eye inward. The palate is autumnal: purples, browns, yellows, oranges, grays and silvers, broken occasionally by bits of green and other (often unexpected) colors.

Such forms and associations characterize the watercolors that make up Barbara Page's intriguing new show "Missing the Forest for the Trees." These paintings are currently on display at The Museum of the Earth. The natural history museum setting is appropriate, as her near-abstractions depict cross-sections of petrified wood: fossils in which gradual mineral accretions both replace and immortalize the original organic matter.

These artworks are clearly the products of close observation and careful rendering. (Visitors will want to compare them with the actual mineral specimens on display.) Nevertheless, the artist's stated goal is to invoke a state of romantic "reverie," and to evoke associations with vastly different types of environments, from the physiological to the geographical. Although the show is uneven, the best work on show achieves both with considerable grace.

There's a somewhat tedious repetitiveness to "Missing." With the exception of one monoprint (Tietea), these are all watercolors. The color is often too thinned and ineffectual. Nearly every single piece shows a roughly round or rectangular shape the petrified cut-away silhouetted against paper white. Typically, at one or more points, the shape is cut-off at the edges. This regularity and detachment preserves the fossil's specimen-like character while inhibiting closer engagement.

While the juxtaposition of (relatively) dark and clearly outlined forms against white backgrounds calls to mind the minimal abstractions of Ellsworth Kelly, the intricate inner patterning of these silhouettes allows for a very different sort of tension from Kelly's uninflected geometry. How well this tension is played out is a fairly good indicator of how effective each of these paintings is in general.

Fandango #15 is a standout piece in this and many other regards. The fossil image is unusually dark, dominated by pools of black and dark gray, which makes it pop out (or draw us in). It has a visual weight, which pushes towards the lower right corner. There is a lot going on. A brief anatomical list: lakes of color; stiff, branch-like rivers in contrasting tones; curving, racing streaks of white; a warm, lightly colored clearing in the middle, dotted. The specimen and the painting has an irrepressible dynamism that belies its literal deadness. (There is an analogy here, painting and fossil.)

Two pieces escape the central silhouette format, creating a greater sense of dislocation in the viewer, who is plunged further into their alien worlds. The patterned surfaces engulf nearly the entire paper. Although not fully effective, this approach demands further exploration. Far Fling is the more familiar of the two, with its roughly concentric ordering and cell-like forms. Split is something else entirely; its all-over marking suggests a chaotic tangle of rivers, lakes, and islands. There is a weird and again not quite successful tension between the piece's Abstract Expressionist-like wildness and it's typically tight rendering and wan, thinned-out color.

Visitors to the MotE will have two comparative benchmarks. One is Page's own epic natural history Rock of Ages Sands of Time, which is permanently installed right beyond the museum's lobby. The mixed-media piece represents 550 million years of evolution in a sequence of panels and skillfully combines painting and relief. The other is an impressive selection of real wood fossils, displayed in scattered vitrines. (Some of these are marked as sources for specific paintings.) Both display a richly engrossing feel, which unfortunately leaves all but the best of the watercolors looking weak in comparison.

Page is clearly engaged in a fascinating project. Deriving abstraction from the close observation of nature, "aerial" perspective, organism-as-landscape all of these are ideas worth pursuing. I would like to see a greater experimentation with composition, format, and media. It is not clear, for example, that watercolor is serving this dense, complex work very well. There is a need in this work both for illustrational precision and painterly lushness something difficult to pull of in any medium but particularly so in watercolor, which offers limited potential for revision.

It would also be useful to vary the size of the works more. The standard format here is 22' by 30', a safe, middle-of-the-road landscape format, which fails to do justice to the subjects' essential strangeness. Working big or small would alter the relation of our perceiving bodies to these micro-worlds in potentially exciting ways.


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