Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Choreographing Canvas: Rebecca Pyle’s Expressionist Symphonies

“The Alta Club Building (Salt Lake City)” Oil on canvas, 35″ x 48″

Is Expressionism dead in the age of conceptual new media? Salt Lake City artist Rebecca Pyle suggests it is not. In her current exhibition in The Gallery at Library Square, Pyle presents her incredibly emotive painting through powerful brushstrokes and luminous colors. Her paintings function like topographical memory maps, texture and color coming together to form an ethereal image of moments half-remembered. For the most part, her images feel familiar. Though the exact locations may not be in the viewer’s own memory map, they are easily recognizable forms and invoke a kinship with her experiences. A laundromat, a fireplace mantel, a group of shadowy figures walking toward a bar, these are familiar images. The ability of her expressionism to invoke memory is a bold tool, connecting to viewers on an emotional level only possible through layered paint.

In her bio, Pyle mentions knowing Anna Bloch, widow of American Modernist Albert Bloch, who was known widely in his time as associating with Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), whose most famous member, Walinsky Kandinsky, is still considered one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Pyle cites her relationship with Anna Bloch as formative in her process, pulling heavily from German Expressionism in her brushstroke and chromatic pigments.

“Red, Yellow, Blue: The Greenhouse in Winter.” Oil on canvas, 30″ x 40″

Her influence from the Blue Rider painters is abundantly clear in the Kandinsky-like flavor of “Red, Yellow, Blue: The Greenhouse in Winter,” featuring curved, organic lines surrounded by blue and red foliage. Her statement as well alludes to musical choreography, a routine of ice skating or dancing similar to Kandinsky’s concepts of improvised, visual music. She uses thick, black outlines to incite movement, flowing in between colors like a bar at the end of a measure or the curtain fall after a dance. Each section is its own composition, but they also flow together, creating a more dynamic and powerful piece.

By and large, Pyle’s subjects are buildings. The rigid outline of the structure allows for more movement in other parts of the composition, creating an interestingly didactic painting with both static and moving areas. This is another common element in her paintings — the juxtaposition of still and swirling elements, leading the eye through the canvas while allowing for rest areas.

“Black Rock, Great Salt Lake, Surrounded by Chartreuse,” Oil on canvas, 20″ x 24″

Creating a balanced visual symphony of color and movement is a skill Pyle displays throughout her exhibition, but no painting alludes to her mastery more than “Black Rock, Great Salt Lake, Surrounded by Chartreuse.” The strongest and most vibrant image, the rock, in expressive and robust blue-green brushstrokes, floats on the canvas, radiating tranquility and peace. The scene feels warm, as if painted on a bright summer’s day with the sun beating down overhead, the salty water a misleading oasis, undrinkable. The flashes of yellow and white imitate the process of memory, flashes of color projected against eyelids, an abstract scene commanded by light.

Among her vibrantly colorful and dynamic paintings, Pyle also includes “Instead of the Pale Blue Jeep, the Brownstones,” which feels out of place with the rest of her paintings. Rather than a thick, colorful display of memory mapping, this painting is mostly outlined in pencil with a thin layer of sky-blue paint in some areas. While the intent behind diversifying an exhibition is commendable, this piece is not as successful as Pyle’s other paintings. The pencil-sketched quality could be meant to convey a sense of jotting down a long-ago place or capture a moment of emotion, but this association seems forced and not nearly as natural as the wandering color of her other paintings. The canvas feels unfinished, but not with a half-remembered quality. In a different exhibition among similar pieces, perhaps “Instead of the Pale Blue Jeep, the Brownstones” might have felt less stark and jarring, but next to the rich, complex paintings surrounding it, this singular, different painting seems only rushed and incomplete. In short, it seems a shame that Pyle, with her mastery of color and brushstroke, would include a piece which showcases neither.

“Instead of the Pale Blue Jeep, the Brownstones (Seventy-First West: New York)” Pencil, oil, on canvas, 35″ x 48″

Pyle’s brushwork is graceful, bold, and intricate, creating beauty from mundane, daily scenes. The emotion behind her works causes the viewer to reflect on the short, barely remembered moments of life and the changes constantly being made to memory. Like a memory, each glance at Pyle’s work seems slightly different, diverse elements coming forward or receding simultaneously.

Rebecca Pyle: Paintings, Other Artwork, Gallery at Library Square, Salt Lake City Main Library, until Feb. 23, rebeccapyleartist.com.



Hannah Sandorf Davis is pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in visual arts at Brigham Young University. She is also a journalist for the BYU College of Humanities.

3 replies »

  1. Very, very nice and well-written review of a show I enjoyed very much. Thought there was a lot of Van Gogh influence in much of the work (someone disagreed with me there, but I stand firm!), but learned much from the reviewer’s Blue Rider comments. Speaking of Blue, I loved that blueprint of the Brownstones that gets such at-length disdain from the critic. Thought it a rich addition to the show. Glad to understand why I shouldn’t have.

    • “Rather than a thick, colorful display of memory mapping, this painting is mostly outlined in pencil with a thin layer of sky-blue paint in some areas.” Thus the reviewer skillfully distinguishes one work in the show from the others. These are facts, and we should be able to agree with them. But when the review goes on to regret the inclusion of the piece thus set apart, it enters the realm of opinion, where we have the right to disagree. I’m with you , Ann: ‘Instead of the Blue Jeep, the Brownstones’ is a drawing, which under ordinary circumstances would have been subsumed under the layers of paint preferred by Hannah Davis. But not every painting an artist begins goes the same way, and I’m pleased to see one that felt done to her at this otherwise early stage. It looks done to me, too, and it helps me to better appreciate how the rest of Pyle’s art came to look the way it does.

      Incidentally, one impact of the way art history is presented, using a few familiar examples of each artist’s work, is that we may come away thinking everything an artist does looks the same. It rarely does.

  2. Coming from the artist herself—!!!—may I?—I think a pretty splendid review.

    Great pleasure to read. Has a lot of improvisation and contrasts and ferocity, itself. I am not surprised to read the reviewer is an artist, also.

    My favorite line may be “the sun beating down overhead, the salty water a misleading oasis, undrinkable”—as that was exactly as I felt, painting the “Black Rock Surrounded by Chartreuse. ” It was a hot, hot day, standing on the very rough gravel road, midday, mid-summer, sand midges leaping again and again into the paint to die, I the painter overwhelmed by the almost desert-ness of the surrounding. As the seagulls landed to sit together on Black Rock, to look out at the water, I irritably wondered about the danger of being human out in the water, going out on a boat—the danger of extreme saltiness, bigness of the water—all the harsh underlying reality of it, the unfriendliness of it. Feeling, painting that black rock now and then topped by many seagulls—almost a castaway’s fears. (Where would a long-ago wanderer find water to drink? What would it feel like to be out in that water at night? What if you had to?)

    Of course I am delighted Sandorf Davis links me with Kandinsky and expressionism. Expressionists! They fearlessly admit their fears and obsessions, in paintings: as if children richly confessing, still, their fear of the dark. (Just as I, in “Instead of the Pale Blue Jeep, the Brownstones”–admit the fears I still have about the island of Manhattan. Though I lived there once half a decade, its intricate hugeness, its multiple high hard gleam of windows, its anonymities—reduce my pencil and my paint—trying to evince or evoke the duplex “bluestone”—which surely anyone would love to live in, and which I sketched in small notebook from from my seventh-floor hotel window only last summer—to wobbles, surrounded by wobbles.)

    But Ann Moore, who has commented above, would be pleased to know a few others have spoken to me of seeing a van Gogh drift: one even saying “Dentist’s Office on the Lower Floor: The Window Filled with Great Boulders” is almost as if van Gogh finally painted—a dentist’s office. (Quite a compliment also. Though I imagine his would have been very, very dark, an almost charcoal shadowiness, any light entering the room feeble, like light—entering a coal mine?)

    But back to water, and to boats, and water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink: I’ve always thought van Gogh’s paintings seem to be almost flooded waterways, van Gogh seeming to be looking for a way out on a river or sea of oil paint, charting a map of the way water would move if it traveling through a scene: a way to ride out on swells of rescuing paint.

    Canvas, of course, the sails of boats…

    All this stream-of-consciousness…

    Such a fine review. Thank you!

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