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Monday, May 26th, 2014

Sylvan Meditations: Joan Mitchell’s “Trees” and Tabla Rasa’s “Intimate Forest”


Joan Mitchell: Trees at Cheim & Read, and Intimate Forest (a group exhibition) at Tabla Rasa Gallery

Mitchell: May 15 to August 29, 2014
547 West 25th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212-242-7724

Intimate Forest: April 23 to June 7, 2014
224 48th Street, between 2nd and 3rd avenues
Sunset Park, Brooklyn, 718-833-9100

 

Anders Knutsson, Caucasian Wingnut, 2010. Acrylic on linen, 39 x 53 inches. Courtesy of Tabla Rasa Gallery.

Anders Knutsson, Caucasian Wingnut, 2010. Acrylic on linen, 39 x 53 inches. Courtesy of Tabla Rasa Gallery.

Celebrating the end of a singularly unlovely winter, two galleries have burst into summer verdure.  Chelsea has an exhibition of eleven semi-abstract paintings of trees by Joan Mitchell, dated from 1964 to 1991; in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, fifteen contemporary artists also explore the theme of trees in varied styles and media.

Who would have believed that such a commonplace object could inspire such a range of responses? But there’s magic in trees. Not only are they beautiful to contemplate, and useful for building and fire fuel, but, according to Anders Knutsson, co-curator of the Brooklyn show, trees “have figured in every known religion and belief system on earth,” from the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis and the sacred fig tree of Buddhism, to the “battle cries of the Environmentalists” (aka “tree-huggers”).

Mitchell’s paintings were inspired by French landscape. Having established an enviable reputation as a second-generation abstract expressionist in the early 1950s in New York, she went on to spend increasing amounts of time in France, moving there permanently in 1959. From the later 1960s until her death in 1992, she lived on a 2-acre estate in picturesque Vétheuil, a Paris suburb painted many times by Monet.

Joan Mitchell, Tilleul (Linden Tree), 1978. Oil on canvas, 110¼ x 70-7/8 inches © Estate of Joan Mitchell. Courtesy Joan Mitchell Foundation and Cheim & Read, New York

Joan Mitchell, Tilleul (Linden Tree), 1978. Oil on canvas, 110¼ x 70-7/8 inches © Estate of Joan Mitchell. Courtesy Joan Mitchell Foundation and Cheim & Read, New York

These paintings represent – or at least reflect – her garden-like surroundings there.  In my opinion, the paintings that come off best in this selection are those that tip toward the representational as opposed to the reflective.

The statuesque 9-foot tall Tilleul (Linden Tree) (1977) faces the entryway to the gallery and leaves no doubt about what it is. The color contrasts are striking.  A taut, strong upward rush of blackish-blue lines captures the branches of the tree. They’re embellished with daubs of aqua suggesting leaves, while a crepuscular yellow surrounds the trunk at the bottom.

To the left of this painting hangs a much smaller oil of the same title. Although its surface is merely a spatter of bluish-green pats of paint, the oval shape of the canvas combines with the image on it to strongly suggest the branches and leaves of a tree.  A third standout is Green Tree (1976), a large picture whose centrally-located heavy clouds of bluish-green daubs again suggest a thicket of foliage.

Tabla Rasa Gallery was founded by Audrey and Joseph Anastasi who both have imaginative works in Intimate Forest.  His (an archival print on canvas) occupies a corner and combines trees with an angel, while hers has birch trunks incorporating a human hand. The name of the gallery is also imaginative. Most people are more familiar with the Latin phrase, “tabula rasa” (“clean slate”).  The Anastasis chose the unusual spelling because of its musical sound, perhaps with its associations with the drum used in Indian classical music. “Rasa” also means “taste” in Sanskrit.

The work in Intimate Forest ranges from very abstract painting (by Rodney Dickson) to the verism of photography (Julia Forrest using it surrealistically, while Peter White captures an idyllic group of trees in a field). Other media include sculpture (carved oak and sycamore by Eric Pesso), drawings, cut Tyvek, and graphics (Spring Gold Forest I and II, by Kathleen Hayek, are stand out in this category).

Four painters appealed to me in particular. The small oil entitled Glade, by Thomas Hagen, combines a realistically rendered background in olive greens reminiscent of Corot with dazzlingly abstract foreground brushwork.  Blizzard, a somewhat larger oil by Tom Keough, depicts in delicate whites, golds and tans a tall, graceful tree in a winter storm amid urban surroundings.

Scott Bennett has three good-sized acrylics, each lovingly portraying the trunk of a single tree in a landscape setting.  Paint application is luscious. Forms are large and gracious. Colors are rich and vigorous.  Pansdance has the most humanoid tree trunk, its bluish grays offering a dignified contrast with the riotous green of the field beyond.

Co-curator Knutsson put five of his own pictures in the show, each depicting a single tree or tree stump (no landscape background).  They have twisted, struggling shapes.  Done in black and white, or brown and white, with only touches of green, these pictures look like outsized drawings, but four of the five are acrylics based on drawings.

The artist superimposed clear Mylar with a grid over the drawings, and then, in the traditional manner, transferred the structure of the tree by plotting the outlines on a larger piece of linen. Caucasian Wingnut, a tree in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, must be a favorite of the artist’s as Knutsson has been drawing it since 1992.

Scott Bennett, Pansdance, 2013.  Acrylic on canvas, 56½  x 45¼  inches.  Courtesy of Tabla Rasa Gallery.

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Installation shot showing Joan Mitchell, Trees, 1990-91. Oil on canvas, diptych  94-1/2 x 157-1/2 inches. © Estate of Joan Mitchell. Courtesy Joan Mitchell Foundation and Cheim & Read, New York

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