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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Krista Townsend's Visual Paeans to Nature...and Painting

Looking at Krista Townsend's work, you would be surprised to learn that she trained as a medical illustrator. It is a rigorous course of study that combines advanced biology and anatomy courses with classical studio art training. Observation, dispassion and accuracy are required. This all seems a far cry from her exuberant and free visual paeans to nature. Learning about her process and looking closer at the work, you begin to see that the connection between the two is actually quite strong.

Every day, rain or shine, Townsend hikes with her dog in the woods outside Charlottesville. She goes to the same area day after day, observing her surroundings and experiencing naturethe sights, smells, sounds, weather, etc. These repetitive excursions, which suggest a kind of meditation, ensure a deep connection to her subject matter and become the inspiration for the work she produces in the studio. "I immerse myself in the landscape. I want to capture that experience of nature and offer it to the viewer," says Townsend. She takes photos on the trail, but these function purely as compositional tools; she relies on her memory to provide the rest of the information.

Already a keen observer, thanks to her science and art backgrounds, Townsend has augmented this skill through the repetitive regimen she follows. She's become particularly attuned to the natural world and portrays it with depth and sensitivity. Her work is not just a visual representation of nature, but an authentic account of the experience of interacting with it. This kind of attention to observation and the desire to convey a truth to the viewer is very much akin to the process and aims of medical illustration. But the way her paintings look couldn't be more different from the doctrinaire approach of those scientific renderings. With her highly keyed colors, slashing line and gestural brushstrokes, Townsend's works convey a joy, not just in nature, but in the act of painting itself—you can tell she revels in it.

The works pulse with energy and Townsend's process is very physical, her great arching strokes suggest the arc of her arm applying paint. Townsend is constantly moving as she paints—stepping back to regard the canvas, crouching down to work on the bottom, standing up again to reach an upper corner. A large mirror hangs on one wall of her studio, maybe 15 feet away from her easel. She is continuously checking it to see how her work reads from a distance.

Some of her paintings, Moss and Sticks, for example, are like deconstructed landscapes with the rectangular daubs of paint she favors, at once fracturing and building up the composition, while others like Broken Tree, verge into the abstract. While Townsend is painting from nature, she leads with the formal elements, not the narrative ones. She's not interested in recreating an exact replica of what is there, but rather the more intangible experience of being in that place.

Space is suggested, but Townsend's paintings have a distinct flatness. She wants you paying attention to what she's doing on the surface, not distracted by the visual sleight of hand of perspective. Yellow Leaves, with a close-up of the leaves of the title positioned against meadow, mountains and sky, presents the sense of distance, but without the illusion of depth. In a work like Evening Woods, Townsend creates a lively dialogue between foreground and background using light and shadow. While this piece is quite abstract, the way she conveys the quality of light glimpsed through leaves, is spot on. Vines, is a diptych of almost impossibly green leaves set against a dark background. The green works because it evokes bright sun on leaves. You can almost feel it, or recall how it feels, and smell the mineral tang of the loamy soil. It is a painting of fecundity and captures that distinctly Virginia summertime when kudzu consumes anything in its path and other plants run riot in the hothouse heat.

Townsend supplements her woodland rambles with visits to a friend's wildflower garden. The paintings inspired by it, Luna's Meadow, Yellow Echinacea Meadow, Wildflower Meadow, are more than just pretty pictures. Townsend is after a more holistic rendition of what it's like to be in that garden. To get there, she opts for unconventional compositions and an unsentimental approach, which add both interest and substance to the work. "These paintings are kind of messy--they're going off in all directionsbecause that's what the landscape is doing," she says. "Drawing has always been pretty easy for me and it has certainly been a focus of my training. What I love about these paintings is that they push me beyond that. I get a little lost in the abstract shapes, but then step back and see how it all comes together."

In her large, individual flowers, she zeros in on one component of the landscape, using scale and brushstroke to temper their prettiness. "When I was young, this was a challenge for me because I like the things everybody else likes and I wanted to paint those things, but now I want to paint differently. I don't want to paint just a pretty picture. This is what my college professors were trying to push, but I guess back then I wasn't ready for the message."

Townsend says she's affected by the weather, so what's going on outside shows up in the studio. She admits that winter is hard for her because she loves colors so much. Yet, the earthy tonalities and dynamic brushstrokes of Copper Beech in the Rain and Broken Tree show how adept she is at painting more subdued "rainy day" works.

When she's stuck, Townsend will turn the painting to the wall and it "will paint itself", meaning the next time she looks at it, she either decides she likes it after all, or she can now see what needs to be done to fix it. Such a painting is Hiding Place (pictured),  an immensely satisfying work which features a beautifully painted tangle of grasses that is both bravura abstract composition and mysterious nest-like form. Neon green dots and cerulean slashes add dazzle to the olives and ochres. There is such command and restraint in this work, it's startling.

Among the many qualities Townsend's work possesses, the most prominent is confidence. This is evident in the risks Townsend takes. She's able to take them because she herself possesses confidence, a result of her exacting training. She's got the artistic chops backing her up as she pushes herself to explore the far reaches of painting. One looks forward to seeing where she goes and whether it will take her to abstraction, or bring her back to the figure, a subject she has thus far avoided painting because of her training. In any case, based on this body of work, you know the future will be bright for Townsend whatever direction she follows.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Lisa Beane Tells the Truth

Lisa Beane has never shied away from addressing challenging political issues, but there is more urgency and audacity in her recent work. For the past two years, Beane has been focused on lynchings, drawn to the subject by the story of Farkhunda Malikzada, a 27-year old Afghan woman who was murdered by an angry mob in March 2015 in Kabul. The incident occurred after Malikzada confronted a mullah selling charms outside a shrine. A devout woman, Malikzada was offended by this blasphemous activity happening in such close proximity to a holy site. Her piety proved her undoing; the mullah became so enraged by Malikzada's scolding that he turned around and accused her of burning a Koran. Word of this alleged act spread quickly through the crowd, which attacked Malikzada. In a frenzy, they beat her, stoned her and ran her over, finally setting what was left of her body on fire and throwing it into the river all in the presence of policemen.

Beane saw in the outcry here in the States blatant hypocrisy and convenient amnesia. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that we were doing much the same thing. Between the years 1877-1950 there were nearly 4,000 lynchings in the U.S., the vast majority in the South. What is almost worse to consider is that these events frequently took on a carnival atmosphere with women and children in attendance. And these weren't mere hangings. Victims would be tortured with brands, their limbs broken and some were burned alive, all in the presence of ordinary, church-going folk. Crowds as big as 15,000 were reported at these barbaric events. A whole industry of souvenir photography arose out of the lynchings (not to mention other "souvenirs", ears, fingers, genitals). Many of the photos of actual lynchings were turned into postcards that still exist today complete with sickeningly glib messages inscribed by sender to recipient.

It is these hateful mementos that provide the inspiration for the core of this body of work with paintings composed like postcards. Recurring imagery features the crowd of lynching spectators and stamps in the upper right or left corners. It is in these little rectangles, that resemble religious icons, that Beane places the lynched victims. The stamps are one cent both because that was the cost of a postcard stamp back when these postcards were printed and mailed, and also because one cent is about the value the perpetrators placed on the human beings they tortured and hanged. Working from the original images, Beane embellishes them with paint and adds halos to their martyred heads, canonizing those whose suffering was on a par with any experienced by the roster of Catholic saints. Often, Beane juxtaposes them with vintage images of happy white people who are either okay with what's going on or unaware, as if to say both are guilty. For how can 4,000 lynchings go on unnoticed?

A commanding work, Sheet Cake, Beane's portrait of a steely-eyed Robert E. Lee in striking dun-colored coat and green vest and sporting a hip-hop stud in one ear, addresses the very thing that bedevils white supremacists and explains their anti-science bias, namely, that we are all descended from a common ancestor, "Lucy", an extinct hominin from Africa. Set against a blood red background, a trickle of which runs down Lee's face, the portrait presents not the Lee of Southern lore—a man of honor and integrity, tortured by his decision to break with his country—but the man who upheld a system that brutalized an entire segment of the population. Beane drives home this point with "Trans Atlantic Trade Inc." written across the bottom, referencing the slave trade, and the bar code numbers, which represent the 12 million enslaved people transported across the Atlantic from Africa.

In her work, Beane uses a combination of image and writing set against broad passages of paint that is sometimes a lyrical atmospheric backdrop and other times, an emotionally charged aura rendered in bold brushstrokes.The scrawl of words and splintered composition impart an edgy street vibe to the work, almost as if the paintings are an urban wall peppered with graffiti and the layered visual fragments of old handbills.

Cartoon characters and child surrogates populate Beane's work, and the written passages have the syntax and style of a child as well as a particular juvenile naïveté. One senses Beane herself feels reduced to a vulnerable child in the face of these horrors and by using innocents both to bear witness and deliver the truth, Beane underscores the savagery being described.

Beane shares a similar raw aesthetic with reclusive outsider artist Henry Darger. In addition to the use of children and childlike perspective, their work features bright colors, wild, opulent flowers and samplings from popular culture. Though obviously more self-aware and engaged in the world than Darger who was powerless before his obsessions, like him, Beane's work is informed by childhood trauma. While hers was not on the same level as Darger who suffered shattering mental and physical abuse. Beane's father was a dentist and she enjoyed a loving family and affluent existence in Richmond. Still, being African-American in the 1960s South was not easy. Beane recalls as a child being told to get down on the floor of the car w1as her mother drove past a group of KKK in a field burning a cross.

"The title of the show is ‘Karma’", says Beane. "A big underlying point is: 'Do unto others.' The concept of karma—it all comes back to you, and at the end of the day we all have to answer for the good and the bad we have done to one another, the planet, animals and life itself. Selfish greed, fear of others being different, privileged mentality and superiority just for simple pigmentation is absurd. I have relatives who can pass for white. Does that make them white? This mentality is twisted, scary and harmful to society as a whole. Racism retards the progress of the United States and the world. The anger and cruelty is despicable beyond my understanding. Police brutality, preying on innocent people of color because they can, AND get away with most of the abuse, has become the new KKK. All of these paintings show the need for accepting individual responsibility for society's distorted view of privileged racism. How can people actually call Black Lives Matter the same as the KKK? Someone said to me the other day, 'Wow, you’re so angry,' after seeing the Lee painting. I told him, 'Really? No, I just hate the way racist, privileged people treat others and how long they have gotten away with it. Just because I stand up against them doesn’t make me angry, I just tell the truth.'"

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Remembering Awe: Millicent Young

Sculptor Millicent Young’s elegant minimalism is both paean to nature and compelling aesthetic statement that pays homage to both the ancient and contemporary. With materials that share an austere, clean, organic sensibility, Young limns a personal oeuvre that demands the viewer to slow down and pay attention.

“Most all my work is simultaneously personal and profoundly connected to the world, to our living history of atrocities and vanishing habitats and species collapse and meltings and so on, and it’s also joined with the inexplicable beauty that binds us.”

A combination of accident and intuition goes into the selection of materials Young gravitates toward and uses. Ordinary, non-precious, they share an intrinsic beauty, mystery, and even paradoxical quality. She is drawn to them both for these attributes and also for their capacity to transcend them to become something much greater.

For instance, horsehair gathers light and moves. And it has this associative aspect; it’s not quite us; it’s not quite the other. We have hair too, but horsehair is not our hair. It’s from a living being, but it’s dead. And it has a memory in its DNA. “It ends up being a material that draws you in, but it’s also elusive. I like that. I like that it is both beautiful, and for some people a little creepy, even if it’s thinking: but where did this hair come from? So it’s beautiful, but not entirely easy.”

Young began using horsehair quite serendipitously when in need of a strand-like substance for a sculpture, she happened to catch sight of a hank of horsehair on a hook in her studio, a commemorative relic of an animal who had died. That day, sunlight was hitting the hair and Young was transfixed by its luminosity. It’s one of those things one doesn’t normally notice, but horsehair possesses a peculiar incandescence that makes the strands almost seem lit from within.

Composed of 1,500 strands of white horsehair Luminous Room is a bewitching rectangle of light. Standing in front of it, one feels hushed and humbled by the simple and yet utterly sacred beauty on display. The shape and substance evoke an enclosed room, but its luminous quality suggests the absence of physicality and the quite opposite meaning of “room” as endless space. This conundrum is a key element of the piece.

Each strand is made by drawing out a long piece of thread and tying slipknots periodically along it into which tiny bundles of horsehair—5 or 8—are placed. The slipknot is pulled tight and a drop of glue is added to secure the strand in place. Then, each template strand of several bundles is hung individually, one by one onto cables. It’s both a very laborious and meditative process to make and install.

Young groups thicker bundles towards the center of Luminous Room, which creates the effect of a shaft of light from which emanates a glowing halo made up of the surrounding hair. These central clusters of hair are also longer, pooling on the floor beneath the piece.

Made from brown horsehair, which is less incandescent than white, Murmuration III draws attention to the other physical traits of horsehair: its coarseness, its waviness, its ombré tonalities. The distinctly wing-like shape of the sculpture adds an exhilarating flourish and also references the starlings of the whirling, aerodynamic display from which the piece takes its title.

Working with plaster and teabags filled with wood ash and pigment Young produces what is perhaps her most enigmatic and emotionally charged work. “Plaster has a real materiality to it, it has a wet and dry cycle and a real sense of flow. I love the intimacy of the surface and how it records every nuance of the cast tea bags in an indelible way. That was important to me because violence is that way—how it marks us, marks the earth, marked me.”

Young submerges the teabags at various levels in wet plaster. She then excavates them once the plaster has dried. She became obsessed with this process, painstakingly removing the contents and peeling out the paper casing. “The whole thing was like excavating a body. The associations are just intense, peeling the tea bag is like peeling away the skin.” On some, she backfills the excavated part with plaster and then squirts it down so the pigments run. At the very end, she adds delicate line drawings of wings above the wound-like depressions. These wisps of graphite have an immateriality that stands in such contrast to the solid presence of the plaster, they catch you unaware. "The wings arrived at the very last, very suddenly and without being re-worked, and I knew that I wanted them in the faintest pencil and just one line." Even to her their meaning is cryptic, but they seem to imply a redemption of sorts.

With Ghost IV, Young turns the plaster panel around to expose the convex impressions of the teabags. Just as the concave shapes suggest a variety of associations, these evoke graves, gestational bulges, pods. Suspense and anticipation hover over this work. What is beneath the surface and is it about to burst forth?

Mounted on handsome oxidized steel slabs that conjure a watery backdrop, there is refinement and restraint in how the plaster pieces are presented. This rarefied and considered approach to fabrication and presentation is characteristic of Young’s approach.

Young says of the plaster pieces: "This is the most intimately cathartic work I have ever done; I realized what I was working with was my own experience of violence that was done to me and was still inhabiting me. But at the same time, the work is connected with all that's going on in the world."

Young brings a sculptor’s sense of materiality to her two-dimensional work. She uses washi paper, which has a particular translucence and is known for its ready absorption. The ink doesn’t sit on the surface but stains the paper. In Slow Violence Young’s extravagant blooms of ink resemble blossoms or vapor. They appear both benign and also rather nefarious with hints of red pigment suggesting vestiges of the violence of the title. The title provides another conundrum that gives us pause. It seems almost oxymoronic—doesn’t violence happen in quick, explosive bursts? Here, “slow” adds an insidious note, implying a history of violence, happening over a period of time.

An Unfinished Story, another washi paper and ink work, takes the form of a traditional Japanese scroll with drips and daubs of ink forming a graceful line of contained energy. Young’s aesthetic is so aligned with the Japanese, it’s not surprising she would incorporate the scroll form, but she also uses it expressively, arranging the rolled up sections of the paper to screen, and thus draw attention to, passages tinged with red—Young’s surrogate for violence.

"These works became a conversation about movement. The density of the ink the expansion and contraction of the paper, etc. And you only get one chance. For every one like this, there are 20 others that didn't work."

Moving through all of Young's work is the concept of the kōan, a Buddhist teaching tool that takes the form of a nonsensical question intended to help focus the mind by leading it to a place where patterned constructs fall apart. The kōan is there to stop you, causing you to observe and consider natural, everyday phenomena that we tend to overlook. The beauty, the magic and sacredness, it’s all right there, if you only harken and look.

“My hope for my work is that it brings us to a place where we remember awe. I would never want to say that my work inspires awe; that’s not who I am. Awe is out there, but we forget about it. One of the things awe does is it silences us. It shares this with the kōan; after the kōan, it’s silent. In the Buddhist tradition, silence is necessary to become awake.” It is then, in this heightened state of awareness that awe returns and we can truly see and appreciate the sublime.

Check out my conversation with Millicent Young in Keenan Parry's film. Dancer: Anna Zekan: