DAVID COHEN, Editor           
       November 2002

 

Marianne Gagnier
Maurice Arlos Fine Art
85 Franklin Street, New York, NY
212 965 5466

October 29 to November 23, 2002

By PATRICIA BAILEY

Marianne Gagnier The Last Fish 2002, oil on linen, 34 x 46
The artist courtesy Maurice Arlos Fine Art

It is surely no coincidence that Marianne Gagnier has taken two seventeenth-century artists as her starting point in this remarkable exhibition of darkly poignant paintings. She has found rich visual inspiration for a contemporary urban theatre of memory and imagination in the landscapes of Claude Lorrain and Nicholas Poussin. From this theatre her personal mythic repertory company gestures mutely to us. But unlike the gods and goddesses of classical mythology which fill Claude's and Poussin's worlds with a longing for another time, Gagnier's characters offer no stories with moral or narrative solutions: despite their sometimes borrowed settings, these are contemporary works. Like dream personages they defy simplistic characterization; they do not readily signify. As in our most powerful dream scenarios, the mysterious and apparently cataclysmic events they enact seem drenched with profound enigmatic significance.

The objects and personages in many of these paintings are portrayed in a broad painterly manner reminiscent of late Rouault, an effect that comes partly from the extended process of reworking the images. In the best of them, Gagnier has worked hard to find the necessary descriptive balance without losing her sense of the poetic whole. It was the search for this ideal that drew her to the paintings of Poussin and Claude, and she has worked repeatedly in almost abstract, tonal underpaintings which borrowed the light and spatial balance of her favorite works.

Gagnier also shows that she can imbue the natural world with dark romantic symbolism and power. In the several versions of "Plenipotentiary", a subject she revisited over as long as a decade, Gagnier honors the totemic memory of a great ancient apple tree on her New Jersey farmstead which split apart and died not long before she left the property. It is by the reflective light of the moon that the great tree is lit, against a dawning sky, and several of her paintings have this simultaneous quality of solar and lunar light within them.

Ultimately, for Gagnier, living in the natural landscape did not provide the personal reconciliation and harmony she was seeking, and the landscape itself, more and more framed by parking lots, lost its relevance. She realized that she was interested in an idea about the classical world that was "different from the American sublime, idyllic landscape." In describing her search to me, Marianne Gagnier says, "It is not that nature is perfect or unknowable, outside of us. Humans must be part of nature. We are in nature."

The dream of classical Arcadia, the possibility of a place and time where we lived in harmony with nature-and ourselves--perhaps endures in the collective unconscious as a deeply human need. It is different from our dream of Eden, the place from which we were, by definition, separated. Knowledge and practice of the ancient philosophical/physical science of alchemy was disappearing during the seventeenth century, at just the time that Poussin and Claude were painting in Italy, and surely, like Gagnier, also dreaming of Arcady. In his researches into alchemy, C.G. Jung found that he had to return to the 17th Century to fully intuit the astonishing parallel he discovered between alchemical symbolism and his study of the psychology of the unconscious.

A further connection between the alchemical idea and Marianne Gagnier is subbested when one learns that during the time she was making these paintings the artist lived through three catastrophic fires. The first was a devastating studio fire, from which many of the paintings in this show were salvaged and repainted; the second, the burning of her parents' home; and the third, the long, slow burning of the World Trade Center just south of her studio. In the presence of Gagnier's paintings, the impression which comes is of an artist's poetic attempt to reconcile inner and outer worlds. When the boat sets sail from the safe harbor toward the light horizon, leaving the "Last Fish" behind on the quay in the empty city, it is ultimately an image of the artist's--and our own--ongoing individual voyage toward the unknown.



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