Artist and Curator
Robert Ryman saved my life.
Really. I mean it.
I was completely befuddled, bewildered, and about to flunk out of grad school--or at least it felt that way--when I found Robert Ryman on Art 21. He put this painting thing into perspective and made me realize that I was not alone in the feeling that while painting is certainly serious business and one toward which the painter should apply rigorous effort, it is also so much more than that, not the least of which may include a means through which one may experience passion and joy, both in the making and the looking. In fact, I heard him tell me and anyone else who might have been watching or listening, in no uncertain terms, and at least fifty times—and I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I have repeatedly played the segment no fewer instances than fifty—that "that's the real purpose of painting: to give pleasure." And, oh, was this what I needed to hear.
I had worked so hard to try to put the cart before the horse and figure out what, why, and how I was doing what I was doing before even starting the work. And for me that was a prescription for disaster, because it only served to paralyze me and fill me with a fear of making mistakes. So this guy Ryman, who told me he doesn’t always know exactly what he is going to do even though he knows what he is doing as far as painting goes, and who said he doesn't like to make the same thing over and over, but prefers to learn new things through his practice, and isn't afraid to wait even for a couple of months until he realizes whatever it is that he needs to do next, instantly became my hero, and I made it through school.
That is what this exhibition is all about. It's a celebration of the search. It's an exaltation of the organic, improvisational, badass willingness to bare one's soul and lay it all on the line in order to discover that which has never been before. It is the punk rock, blues, acid jazz, rock 'n roll, indie fusion of history and the present that contemporary abstraction can, at its best, be.
The three artists in this exhibition are all explorers on a personal journey toward finding the magic in each painting. They navigate the hard trek on a regular basis through the hills and valleys of making a painting, by, as the song goes, putting one foot in front of the other, pushing forward, even when it can feel like there is no way out of what may seem like a messy and failed attempt.
It takes a lot to make a painting. And it can be especially difficult, regardless of whether or not some people think their five year old can do it, to make an abstract or nonobjective painting. Technically, painting is already challenging. But deciding to take a road literally less travelled, to set aside self-doubt and perhaps even the judgment of others, because it doesn't necessarily make sense to everyone, takes guts. And these three artists have 'em.
Jennifer Turnage makes what may appear to be simplified, minimal compositions. But therein lie the beauty and the brains of who she is as a painter. It takes a confident person not to second-guess oneself and to know how much is enough and then not go one step further. Some of her work is very direct and looks almost quickly done. Ah, but every minute of her painting life has added up to the experience it takes to get it right. Working smart is better than toiling in vain. At other times Turnage ambles through, as if to decelerate the process and savor her steps. Then she deftly edits it all down to an elegant place where only what needs to poke through does and the rest is draped in one sweet and sexy robe of glossy color, like luscious Popsicle pink or maybe a seaside wave of turquoise, licking the edges of some slip of rainbow ribbon.
Seren Moran finds her treasure on top rather than digging to the bottom of a sandy dune. It is an excavation in reverse. She builds her paintings in slow, call-and-response, layer cakes of color and pattern, one after another after another. Without predetermining the final outcome, she bakes like they did in the olden-days, with recipes not measured in precise tablespoons and cups, but in a pinch of this and a dash of that. She finds her way through, tasting as she goes, responding to what has come before, which is also an answer to what came before that. And, as though she were slathering layers of sweet and simple powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla icing, the kind that gently cracks and gives way at the very introduction of one’s teeth and tastes just right, between each slab, she works with ease, letting the paint do what paint does: it follows gravity, like soft rain. Moran doesn't lose patience and try to stop too soon. Rather, she keeps pace with the painting and lets it tell her what it needs. Often her last layer or two will include pattern or some rhythmic finish that wraps up the process not too neatly but just enough to give the viewer not so much a place to stop but, instead, a point at which to begin.
Ruth Freeman is the architect of the three. She works with angles and edges and scale to gradually develop rich, jewel-like spaces that cannot so much be entered into, but which can cause the viewer to open a place in his or her imagination within which to dwell. By slowly crafting and overlaying interlocking puzzle pieces of mostly sheer and rarely muddied color, and sometimes-irregular pattern, her paintings become something like multifaceted stained glass. There is no one light source, but there is almost always an indication of a filtered glow coming through. And there is usually some sense of shelter. Instead of feeling blocked out, or locked out, by the external layers of these boxlike mysteries, one can tend to feel as though safely cradled within, protected and held inside a delicate and precious crucible through which to better watch and yet fully engage with the world around them. In other words, somehow they can become sort of surreal, transformative spaces to exist both within and alongside.
While these artists each approach their practices in their own unique way, they also have some rather obvious commonalities. All three are definitely making these paintings in the here and now, despite whatever references to enchantment and old-timey, outdoorsy reconnoitering, cooking, or designing may have been conjured here in my romantic descriptions of their work. And they are clearly making paintings that are more urban than rural or suburban. Also one might take note of their use of similar color palettes and even a related language.
It is both their likenesses and their differences that attract me. I find their work charming and smart and funny and easy and complex and gritty and comforting all at the same time. I am drawn to these artists' audacity and fearlessness in deciding to venture into the unknown on a daily basis and to come back full of vim and vigor and ready for more. I like that they aren't complacent and will surely keep making different and new stuff, because they can't help it. They have to follow the work. They are regularly and at once in complete control and on the verge of falling prey to accidents. They embrace the attitude of a beginner.
It is for these reasons that I celebrate Jennifer Turnage, Seren Moran, and Ruth Freeman, and their work. These artists keep looking for more, no matter what. So let's throw a party, in honor of their search!