Cobourn remarks: "It’s more about memory and being evocative, as opposed to painting details and specificity. I'm not really interested in specificity. I'm not really interested in how many petals are on a flower or what time of day it is. I’m not really interested in that. The paintings are more about the paint reflecting a notion or an idea. So, if like Matisse said, 'exactitude is not the truth', then something else has to be the truth, which is what painting really aspires to do."
Dark Matters, Paintings by Andrea Belag, Ryan Cobourn, Arthur Dove, Bill Jensen, and Ellen Phelan, curated by Jennifer Samet, at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, February 23- March 18, 2012.
In his Theory of Colors, Goethe observes that "the greatest brightness short of dazzling acts near the greatest darkness. In this state we at once perceive all the intermediate gradations of chiaro-scuro, and all the varieties of hues." In Dark Matters, currently on view at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, the theme of darkness unites dazzlingly nuanced explorations of color and painterly approach in works by Ryan Cobourn, Arthur Dove, Andrea Belag, Bill Jensen, and Ellen Phelan. The superb selection of paintings spans nearly a century, adding a temporal dialogue to the mix.
Ryan Cobourn, Neighborhood, 2012 Oil on canvas, 46 x 52 inches (courtesy Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects)
Painting darkness is a new and highly successful direction in the work of Ryan Cobourn, who has turned his searching, energetic brushwork from evocations of flowers and light on water to a sensate exploration of the indistinct. Painting the winter city at night, Cobourn embraces the challenge of observation in the absence of light. Masses of dark, uncertain forms are punctuated by far away lights - blinding touches that momentarily disrupt the ability to perceive the dark passages. Forced to actively focus and re-focus, neither painter nor viewer can locate forms with certainty, and Cobourn's paintings remain an active visual experience. They present the difficulty of seeing; darkness compels their forms and focus to remain constantly in flux.
Across the gallery hangs Arthur Dove's Music from 1913. For Dove, the difficulty of rendering forms in darkness proved a useful step in the early-modern march toward abstraction. Instead of painting sights, here Dove painted sounds - the Cagian cacophony of the night city. Dove’s sound-forms fan out rhythmically as their spiraling dark mass echoes, fills, and obscures a distant skyline.
Arthur Dove, Dark Abstraction (Woods), 1920 Oil on canvas, 21 x 18 inches (courtesy Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects)
In Dark Abstraction (Woods), 1920, Dove paints a forest landscape hovering between darkness and light. He connects two worlds, representation and abstraction, through a shared palette of muted, rich color. On the opposite wall, Ellen Phelan's Autumn Bay, 2003, investigates a similar duality, but her painting, shrouded in a nocturnal mist, seems more like a reminiscence whose shadows derive from the vagueness of memory. Juxtaposing these works from different centuries underscores the concerns specific to each. In Phelan's 21st century painting the tension between representation and abstraction, so palpable in Dove’s time, has been demystified and become a thing of the past.
Other paintings in the show by Phelan, Bill Jensen, and Andrea Belag mine another lineage of dark painting, that of Goya and El Greco. In this tradition of dark painting, psychological tensions replace formal ones.
Edited by artist Brett Baker, Painters' Table highlights writing from the painting blogosphere as it is published and serves as a platform for exploring blogs that focus primarily on the subject of painting.