This month 15th Street Gallery has brought together three local artists, who, though individually working through their own aesthetic sensibilities, all create works that succeed through their exploration of space. Shown together, the works of Blake Luther, Anne Wolfer, and Jill Barton create a formal unity and harmony that is rhythmic, soothing and revealing.
Luther’s landscapes might be called stark, bold, and, in his use of vertical structures, even figural. There is a sense in his works of human presences that might even be called “existential,” as his use of the linear, in these contexts, is so strong. Even in “Park Matrix,” where there are a number of trees, there is less of a tendency to grove the trees than there is to stand them alone in their place, together, yet isolated, in the existential manner of Giacometti.
In Wolfer’s landscapes there is more of a Diebenkorn-esque tendency to play with the patterns of the land. “All Terrain,” makes the most of turquoise, blue and yellow, and like Diebenkorn’s work, creates divisions in the expanse with color, with the same element of Modernist flatness, up until the horizon, where there is an implied recession and then a great white of sky.
Whether the artist uses a figural monumentality or a stylistic structuralism, space is the controlling factor that allows each of these singular characteristics to be. Spatiality admits for the monumentality and the stark, bold approach, dividing up the land, and spatiality allows for the being of the expanse and recession into space and then sky. As these paintings are hung next to each other there is a marvelous synergy.
With Luther, we see an extremism of the allowance of space to articulate the dimensionality of his landscape in a work like “Francis Silo.” It might be a lonely and barren scene, but the contrasts made between the large rounded tree, the tall silo, and the shallow cluster of farming structures creates a scene of powerful minimalist structural interest. Again, the silo stands alone, a figural allusion to an existential phenomenon represented in these reductive and barren elements, which becomes intriguing in their isolation.
In Wolfer’s “Harpswell Dock” we find the opposite, a canvas consumed by structure. The subject, which fills the picture plane, is a weathered and weary dock in a bay, with only three basic picture planes, a band of ivory sky, the lifeless dock, and the glistening and refreshing water, the redemptive element to the painting contrasting lifeless elements with animation. Again, in whatever ways these paintings may differ, in each, spatial structure creates their being, and lends compositional elements that unites them.
Space also activates Wolfer’s series of still lifes. These are empty bottles cursorily painted against a nondescript ground. “Dark Bottles 2” is the composite of a short glass medicine or cosmetics jar refracting the green from the ground beneath it. Next to it is a taller, black jar, an olive oil container perhaps, refracting the menthe and cooler tones in front of the blackness. These bottles are defined by their space. Their being and structure is made recognizable by the space they inhabit. This is no different than Luther’s “Sentinel” where a lone evergreen stands erect in the middle of a field, isolated against the field and hazy hills behind, and an even hazier sky. It is its spatiality that makes possible its being and acknowledges its existential presence in the field as it resides alone and silent.
We have asked what is the figure with or without spatiality to give it presence and reality. But what is space without the figure, the lone, silent tree? What is space without the bottles, or the dock, or the silo, or the planes, or the grouping of trees to give it presence and reality? Barton’s paintings, in their abstract purity, present a representational counterpoint to this dynamic. Her “Big Ocean” is a painting totally abstracted, with the most reductive elements of color: steel and cold gray, blue, and ice white, with slate gray, painted in an ethereal application of horizontal stratus-like streaking, with no subject other than the purity of the color, mood, tone, expression, emotion, intensity and subtlety. Her “Little Bird I” and “Little Bird II” form a diptych, each requiring the other. As teal blue melds into pearly white and chalky gray, it creates space itself, charged with meaning. Apparently, space is not autonomous, but like the figure, space, too, is a reality that must be defined by “the other,” in order for it to be present and real.
Space is frequently seen as the negative, as the surrounding, as the thing that isn’t around the thing that is, but as this grouping of three intriguing artists at 15th Street Gallery reveals, space is an activating dynamic, a reality as important as form to create compelling works of art.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. He is now a professional writer living in Salt Lake City.