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A luminosity in gouache on paper: Linhares’ Calypso (2006).

Serious Wit

By Nadine Wasserman

Judith Linhares: New Works; James Siena: Big Fast Ink: Drawings, 1996-2007

University Art Museum, University at Albany, through Sept. 30

It might seem like representational art and abstract art have little in common, but this is not always the case. Abstraction is often derived from real objects and realism is ultimately an abstraction based on one individual’s interpretation. Conceived as two separate one-person shows, the abstract drawings of James Siena and the mostly figurative paintings of Judith Linhares nonetheless draw some interesting parallels. While Siena works in ink and Linhares in gouache and oil, they both share a bold style and a clear stroke when applying medium to ground. In addition, they both play with the line between abstraction and realism. Siena is interested in reality abstracted, and Linhares in the abstraction of reality.

Linhares is, for all intents and purposes, a figurative painter. However, there is an abstraction that underlies her narratives. As the curator of the exhibition, Geoffrey Young, explains: “Linhares answers the question of how to make a painting read with power and immediacy the way the great abstract paintings do, and at the same time not give up the pleasure of making figurative storytelling images.” Her whimsical imagery is composed of extravagant and bold brushstrokes executed in bright candy colors. Her sense of color and easy-going style betray her years spent in California, where she was influenced by beat artists, outsider artists, and painters like Peter Saul and Richard Diebenkorn. Her hallucinatory images are peopled with frolicking nude women, animals, giant bees and flowers. The scenes emerge as if from dreams or fairy tales. In one a nude female figure with flowing hair sits astride a white horse drinking from a stream while nearby a fairy godmother figure in a flowing gown serenades her in front of a trapezoidal log cabin. In another a figure that resembles “Glenda,” the good witch, in a yellow gown and crown offers something from a spoon to the woodland creatures that surround her. In other paintings women bathe, repose, contemplate, go about their chores, or cavort in strange landscapes filled with trees, or mountains, or crooked houses atop hills of logs.

For all the attention she receives for her oils, Linhares is at her best with her gouaches. While she states that these are studies that help her to formulate the imagery of her larger paintings, they seem more formed than her oils. Perhaps it is their size or the richness of the medium that makes them feel more complete and satisfying. Lunch, for instance, is a joyful romp in which two nude women frolic beneath a tree amidst a picnic of pink wedding cake, fried eggs, meats, sandwiches, and wine. They are accompanied by large bees and flowers and their revelry is made all the more carefree by the drips, splotches, and blocks of wild color that surround them. The scene is liberated and syncopated. In another gouache called Waiting for Horsemen, five jaunty female figures that resemble Picasso’s primitive nudes, strike poses on the branches of a tree and on a rock that are at once awkward and graceful. Their angularity mirrors their natural surroundings. They are rendered in blues, oranges, peaches, and pinks, and their bodies become integral to the scenery. In addition to female nudes, on display are a cartoony gouache dog and a fabulously big-eyed rabbit surrounded by a halo of wide pastel colored brushstrokes. Rabbit is one of her oils that stands out, as does Fence and Interpreter’s House. It is in these works that Linhares is able to achieve a luminosity that is not as apparent in the other oils in the exhibition.

Linhares begins her paintings with abstract colors and shapes and builds them into a narrative. Siena, on the other hand, transforms his source material into pure abstraction. Linhares pursues a more chaotic sensibility that is expansive, whereas Siena follows very specific parameters to contain his abstract forms. His drawings are improvisational in a very different way. Using ink on paper, Siena explains that each drawing “comes out of a different procedure for occupying space.” He may follow certain rules such as whether or not the lines can touch and from these he organizes the pictorial space. He is interested in visual algorithms, and in puzzle-like geometries. A number of the works in this exhibition reflect computer language with names such as Global Binary Key and Global Key Variation while others such Floppy Spaceless Comb clearly have a more everyday inspiration. The large format of these works is their strength as they command your attention and focus. They are meditative but not necessarily soothing in their complexity. Like Linhares, Siena is both witty and serious. Both artists show us imagery that seems familiar yet highly individual. We can peak into their heads and understand that we are part of a conversation that is simultaneously enigmatic and concrete.


PERIPHERAL VISION

-no peripheral vision this week-

 



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