Making New Sense of Abstraction: Lisa Abbott-Canfield and Bettina Blohm
Lisa Abbott-Canfield and Bettina Blohm at the Amelia A. Wallace Gallery, SUNY College at Old Westbury
February 1 to March 15, 2012
Campus Center, Main Level
Route 107. Old Westbury, New York, (516) 876 3056
Hyewon Yi (Gallery Director at SUNY College, Old Westbury, and curator of this exhibition) has put together a thoroughly engaging show by two New York abstract artists. Lisa Abbott-Canfield and Bettina Blohm both work with large, organic forms that sometimes feel like pure abstraction and at other times seem to incorporate references to the actual world. Abbott-Canfield’s art is of muted hues—grays and blacks—while Blohm’s art looks to bright colors that affiliate in some ways with the landscape. Both artists are practiced in their process, and Yi’s exhibit shows how the two painters make sense of organic abstraction in New York, whose history runs to three generations at this point in time. Painting is far from being moribund in New York, despite the elegies of critics and academic writers; its place as the dominant medium in the field can be challenged, but not its ongoing practice. Abbott-Canfield and Blohm look to the tradition in the hopes of furthering its presentation; their work, whether melancholy or upbeat, posits a continuing tradition. So, while their work contrasts rather markedly given the specifics of color and form, their overall outlook is not so far apart. They speak to both a newer generation of painters and a more current audience in time.
Abbott-Canfield’s persuasive paintings rely on a quiet presentation of organic shapes, which are often but not always placed on top of each other. Her work might be described as moody or melancholic, yet her technical abilities are such that the emotion of muted sadness leads to other feelings. Clearly the artist shows a considerable amount of feeling, which is evident in her quiet application of materials, as occurs in the small (4 x 11 ½ inches), highly evocative work In Completing What Loving Is Needing (2011). Done with pencil, ink, and gesso on printmaking paper, the drawing consists of a gray background on the top two-thirds of the paper and a black background on the lower third. On top there is a two-pronged, light-gray shape that seems to fall from the top into a bowl form, also done in the same gray. Clearly, the drawing’s affiliation is with abstraction of a lyrical nature; Abbott-Canfield shows us just how poetic her theme can be, as indicated by the title of the work. Living Fossil (2011), a larger vertical banner of a painting, is a gesso-and-oil composition. Consisting of a dark-gray background, the work’s interest lies in the two rows of diagonally angled, rounded shapes, painted a darker gray to contrast with its backdrop. Abbott-Canfield successfully compounds an abstract design with a seemingly external reference—poet and critic John Yau’s title for this painting gets at the opposition, between figure and ground and representation and abstraction, inherent to the imagery’s implications.
German-born painter Blohm also presents her own idiomatic abstractions, which offer representational readings to a slightly greater degree than her colleague’s works. One group of three paintings, all from 2011 and all the same size (68 x 84 inches) refer to small towns in the Catskills. Brightly colored with backgrounds of yellow and red and multihued squares, these works derive from the artist’s experience in the country. At the same time, they are engaging and accessible abstract-art experiences. The next group has patterns consisting of two many-pointed though roughly square forms—red and gray, blue and gray, and slate blue and yellow—that sit atop a single-colored background. These works from 2010 have something of a theoretical bent, in the sense that they explore different color combinations using a similar image base, much like the color theories of Joseph Albers. The final trio of paintings—each group was placed on a different wall—comes from a slightly earlier period 2008-09. These do not mesh in the similarity of their imagery: one consists of four clouds containing rounded red forms; another is very clearly a cross-like branch against a red background; and the last presents a group of randomly painted, curving black lines against a background of yellow, gold, and red squares and rectangles. In all cases, a lightness of touch prevails.
In each of Blohm’s paintings, the works suggest but do not explicitly state a relation to nature, while the bare tree in the shape of the form has the cultural underpinning of Christian iconography behind it. This is interesting because Blohm does not practice any religion, yet she seems interested in seeing what an image might imply in a contemporary secular society. Abbot-Canfield’s poetic explorations belong more exclusively to painting; they participate in the ongoing history of expressive abstraction. But she, too, looks at the interface between realism and abstraction, finding solace in a language that compels without the critic’s clarifications. Together, the show is a genuine success—it pushes painting forward at a time when doing so is sorely needed.