In the upper right-hand corner of a canvas seven feet high and a little over five feet wide, rectangles of gold and orange overlap a mottled patch of sky blue. In front, or so it appears, a series of black loops suggest spirals rising, while a similar figure in white sets them in sideways motion. Together, all this seems to lift like smoke in the wind, even if it doesn’t depict anything of the sort. Below, two juxtaposed gray areas, one floating up while the other lies down like a body of water, provide context for doodles and scribbles scored in, or maybe on them. On the left, a field of overlapping blue circles give way to yellow arcs, while on the right a ghostly off-white road ascends — these two areas forming a launching pad for the ascent through the interior space of a dashed column that begins in green, flame-like petals that when found feels like the secret source.
This is “The Little Voice That Tells Me So,” one of ten easel paintings by Madeline Denaro in the front room at Julie Nester’s in Park City. Although they clearly are all the work of a single artist, there is not a figure, a trope, or seemingly even a mark that has been duplicated anywhere in the room. At a moment in history when new ideas seem hard to come by, so that used ones demand high prices, some artists employ formulaic and ultimately repetitive procedures, and blockbuster movies and TV are routinely remade from each other, Madeline Denaro apparently has an endless fount of fresh, engaging, and intriguing ways of imagining things unseen until she invents them in paint. Or even better, the practiced eye can choose to accept these passages as deliberate inventions or, alternately, to see how she found them while searching through paint with her brush.
If Modernism did nothing else for the history of art, it erased the notion that there could be such a thing as purely representational or completely abstract art. Even if aiming at a perfect likeness, a painter still has to compose it so the work functions visually before the pictorial elements are recognized. And no one tried harder than the Abstract Expressionists to put all the content of pictures and stories into purely abstract forms, and yet the eye seeks out the three-dimensional swirling illusion of Pollock’s drips, the vast, open, landscape-like space of Rothko’s fields, or the pillars dancing forward and back in Newman’s zips, not the masculine struggle and apotheosis that those men thought their static compositions would convey, even as their female counterparts — Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner, and Joan Mitchell chief among them — took great pleasure in proving women could match them visual trope for trope. But man or woman, a century of art definitively proved that it took more than just likenesses or rhythms alone to make a modern painting work.
The primary accomplishments of those painters included a palpable tension, but they don’t suggest that tension could be released later, in action. Their “action” was in the past, in their making. Madeline Denaro’s works seem to be in the midst of motion: in fact, of life. What she does is start each painting from zero, facing the dreaded blank canvas like a god seeking to begin a world from nothing. Few painters today work from a preparatory drawing, or if they do, they don’t obligate themselves to hold to it; what might have been a pentimento in the Baroque is likely to be a complete overhaul today. But many compensate by working from a method that produces reliably familiar results. After all, many galleries want dependable supply and collectors want something they’ve come to know. Denaro works spontaneously, and some of her finest moments come when she paints out part of something, making what remains seem to flip or to be about to fall. What takes shape in her hands is nothing less than a new and complete world. Each canvas ends up looking uniquely like itself, just as Earth looks both like itself and unlike Saturn. To produce this effect, both the singularity and the cohesion, takes enormous invention, and indeed, Denaro endlessly invents marks and patterns of marks that assemble into local scenes that both contrast and harmonize with the others juxtaposed around them.
It’s remarkable that she can create these spontaneous ensembles without knowing what comes next, and yet the completed composition holds together with a force akin to the gravity that holds together the solar system. Also like gravity, it’s a force that’s felt rather than understood. Everywhere the eye finds a high level of visual appeal.
The quality of frozen potential, of becoming, is dynamic, lively in a way that many abstract works are not. This sort of free-form painting requires of an artist extensive, even encyclopedic knowledge of paint behavior and handling. Pictorial elements are torn apart, flattened, and then presented to a visual apparatus ready to restore the third dimension. While in some places Denaro applied thinned paint, so the pattern underneath shows through the wash on top; in others, where she applied opaque paint, then thought better, she can approximate an illusion of the buried layer back onto the covering layer. Skillful technique teams with a discerning eye: here as throughout the later history of painting, the pleasure of viewing involves being able to both see an illusion and see through it.
Most artistic attempts to envision a new world go wrong when the futuristic products vanish into their specifics: a new version soon enough becomes last year’s leftover, just as newly minted software or groundbreaking social media become quaint, historical steps on the way to the new now only a few years past the moment of their launching. For Denaro, the gamble is that because her marks are her creations and not copied from nature, they won’t become trapped in time.
Madeline Denaro: New Paintings, Julie Nester Gallery, Park City, through March 22
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.