There is a neat taking-off trick here: two of Jennifer Rasmusson’s back-in-time representational paintings are here, separated from her New Abstracts now filling A Gallery’s white-on-white indoor sky-lit courtyard area.
The pre-abstract “Collection of Blues” is eye-level; it’s very large; one bloom is the size of your head. It is many cut flowers, perfectly-in-bloom snipped Asian lilies and daffodils, other ﬂowers, a pretty array of many small containers suitable for holding only a bloom or two each, close together. They’re all in close-up, right now bloom, and all around the vases and the cut blooms are rigid, repeated, perfectly circular patterns, as rigid as Moorish cutouts in a cut-tin lamp or in an airy, giant monocolor design popular now and printed on many rugs and sofa cushions.
The semiabstract “Succulent Garden,” also very large, is a growing succulent, but painted — wonderfully — from directly overhead, as if we fly in an elf-size plane over it. We feel the jubilant desert sprawl of the succulent cactus plant (blooming, in rangy yellow blooms), feel the freedom of the playful inventive abstractions the painter surrounds it with to the edges of that large canvas, fantastic shapes both sharp and rounded, even the shape of onion domes, Rasmusson radiating the fun of painting this plant this way, from above.
Then she takes off. Begin with the largest abstracts, which greet — and even frighten you — as you approach Rasmussen’s collection of work in A Gallery’s sky-lit courtyard. These huge ones are — urgent. On the left, her huge (66” x 54”) “Aberdeen” has black skidding lines urgent to the point of implying race or rescue: these black lines hurl themselves across the canvas, then take a deep joined dip as if it’s now one black ﬁshing line dropped down at the shore into the ocean. Three fast dashes of color go across the dropped line as if to patch it, urgently, prevent the line’s failing, or breaking. The line continues to ocean ﬂoor, unbroken, the repairs or fortiﬁcations apparently successful. What is lurking, silvery-blue, in the back of this enormous painting? An almost-invisible, triple-windowed submarine, glitter in its silver-blue paint, hovering just beyond and back from where the patched line is, ready for rescue?
Now the truly fearful one, “Dustan,” on the right. It seems to contain a rushing heavy-headed beast, brought to rush to the open entrance of this inner courtyard surrounded by hollow shields, or hollow hills, or charging ghost-hollow shapes of other buffalo-musk-oxen-wildebeests. Blue slashes indicate speed, ferocity. A green cloud seems to weep thick cloud-seeded green rain on the beast.
Abstracts may have been stimulated over a hundred years ago by airplane flight — airplanes which changed our way of thinking, remembering, even, certainly dreaming, greatly changing our whole human experience. Jets and planes move across the sky in arcs, like paintbrushes, sometimes leaving vapid jet trails like a disappearing, transitory paint. Just as the world’s first scheduled flights were happening, across a bay in Florida, between Tampa Bay and St. Petersburg in 1914, some of the first abstract paintings were happening, by Europeans Delaunay, Mertzinger, and Klee, brave as wing-walker aerialists in the nineteen teens.
Post-airplane we were more in charge of what we saw, and less in charge. It seemed the sky owned the world, instead of us; the towns below looked like mushroom growths, where we knew no one and they could not see/know us, either. (A little like the town in north Ontario that Neil Young sang about; dreams took him there; but now for over a hundred years planes have taken us there, too, changed our way of remembering and dreaming, planes that can seem like a hungry monster who took from landscape below our most beloved emotional anchors, replacing them with feverish transitions, reductions.)
In dreams, Young’s and others, artists return, as Rasmusson has here, but in her case not north, but south, Ontario: the Dundas Valley School of Art where she studied, on the edge of Lake Ontario, the cities Hamilton, Toronto, and London, Ontario, all nearby. Cities filled with streets with names like “Moorefield,” “Eglinton,” “Sabine,” “Laurier,” “Lauren,” and “Ogilvie” — almost all paintings in this group are named for Canadian streets.
The hallmark of Rasmusson’s abstracts are space and movement: her black soaring and falling lines place you in them as if you are an ice skater who dropped from the sky in most of these paintings to dance and skid across waiting ice. Look at me, says the black, look how fast I go; black here is her color of urgency, and agency, a painter’s return, and summary, on her now-terms, after early years in Canada as an art student. Setting off much of the urgent black are large expanses of creamy white, ameliorated by grayness of smeared charcoal or oil pencil; we are in Canada, after all, where white snow with incredible verve and determination delineates, highlights, muddles landscape, constantly challenging the painter’s eye.
In one corner of the courtyard, Rasmusson’s paintings corner you with dim or insistent buttercup yellows, countered by the always-domineering blacks; the six small collages in the “Notan” series, the mixed-media paintings “Birchmount” and “Sabine,” are sharply golden or yellow, a yellow that says I am here, and unchangeable, indomitable, solid as Canada. The yellow bold expanses are tempered by the also very certain blacks.
Green lurks in the paintings, as green lurks underneath all of Canadian winter, waiting to rule the place in summer: green, wherever it appears, is like a candle, waiting to be lit. It’s a heavy green drum waiting to be pounded in the middle of the triptych called “Belfield 1, 2, 3,” all the rest of the triptych dominated by more look-at-me, I’m here black. It’s but a fragment in the painting “Clemes,” a clothespin-like clamp of green above one pale pink tiny ammonite fossil shape, the green above the ammonite suggesting some urgent or needed magic spell of revival.
Rasmusson’s art school is very near the immense Lake Ontario, so it’s no surprise there is suggestion of marine-ness: “Moorefield,” “Clemes,” and “Laurier” have washes of aqua and blue, even a dripping blue in “Moorefield” and “Laurier,” both of these blues highly varnished. It’s difficult to imagine these blues suggesting anything but water. (Though blue might not be suggesting water at all, as green might not suggest nature of forestry. But it is a fun thought to think that Rasmusson is letting natural forces in Canada argue things out, from a distance.)
In “Abner,” “Eglinton,”and “Sabine,” tiny repeated rust-colored or green shapes appear, either repeated ovoid circlets, very tiny, like suction grippers on octopus tentacles, or the open mouths of young small fish; or, when black, appear like repeated hastily tied small bits of fish line fishermen were tying to individual lures. Many of the small black tielets are untied or not yet tied; others are small complete bows or knots, surviving small prayers of men hoping to catch fish.
There is a wonderful final painting which should be seen last, after you have gone through the maze of the inner courtyard, the art labyrinth guarded by the charging beast in “Dundas.” It’s called “Whisper,” and, palest of all, suggests the artist in repose, either before or after all these abstracts of Canadian memories/places are done. There are dim, large, hovering shapes (suggesting one person who has become many?) and the tiniest and gray-blackest of marks, the dancing repeated tipping of a paintbrush’s stiff edges onto surface, creating floating magic belting a surrounding body halo — both the guard of what these paintings are and the protection from what these images contain and represent. A hovering belt, as magic as how a bicycle stays upright, as the magic of how air currents and engine power keep you aloft in a plane.
Rebecca Pyle is a writer and an artist with work in dozens of art/literary journals, in the United States and also in journals (in the English language) in India and the United Kingdom and in France and Germany. She graduated from the university the Wizard of Oz adored, the University of Kansas, where she studied art and lit. See rebeccapyleartist.com.