Synergy is one of the most overworked words in the American vocabulary. Yet when it actually strikes, as it does here with Stephen Westfall and Marie Thibeault– two painters who couldn’t be more unalike – the effect is galvanizing. Their individual achievements and the “conversation” they spark by their appearance in the same space make this a singular event. Each artist wrestles with similar issues and arrives at different conclusions. What they share is a belief in art that is rooted in bodily experience.
Westfall, the renowned New York painter and critic, creates gouache-on-paper abstractions that appear to be operating in the space defined decades ago by Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland and other so-called “stripe” painters. While his vocabulary of chevron-shaped forms feels all-too familiar, the range of optical and emotional effects telegraphed by these highly focused interrogations of color and geometry seems wide-open. As with most painting of this sort, “form” and “ground” become interchangeable elements, which when adjudicated by colliding colors, yield highly specific evocations that demonstrate how even the smallest modulations can affect perception. How else to explain the myriad associations conjured by vertically bifurcated pictures that, for the most part, rely solely on downward facing stripes?
Westfall does drop some clues. Unlike geometric abstractionists who mask off lines with tape, Westfall applies pigment by hand, producing quavering lines that are only slightly opaque. He also tends to avoid conjoining sharp edges; his sometimes meet, but mostly they’re askew. But more than anything, Westfall’s off-kilter color sense is his most potent signifier: The combinations he employs suggest many things without ever quite describing them. Thus, when you read titles like “Wrecking Ball”, “Fever”, “Lighthouse” and “Anthem”, feelings you couldn’t put a name to come into sharp focus, proving yet again just how literal “pure” abstraction can really be. (Small surprise that Westfall is this year's recipient of the Prix de Rome award.)
Marie Thibeault — who hails from LA and creates complex, multi-layered, gestural abstract oil paintings based on photographs of natural disasters — takes the opposite approach: Where Westfall moves from the general to the specific, her works begin with tangible, physical events and build out into metaphysical puzzles that are cheerfully apocalyptic.
She begins by projecting news photographs onto canvas and then sketching the “architecture” that results from the superimposition of one picture atop another. She adds color swatches that, while frequently bright and multi-hued, read as monochromatic – a rather strange transformation whose origins probably lie in Hans Hofmann’s “push-pull” theory, which holds that colors, when correctly juxtaposed, can represent space just as effectively as conventional illusionist techniques – and wreak havoc with color perception, as they do here. Thibeault, who teaches painting at CSU Long Beach, has these tricks down. But she takes Hofmann’s teachings further. She uses sweeping (and sometimes very subtle) gestural marks to outline specific objects (cars, houses, buildings, swimming pools) and to create splintered geometric forms that define labyrinthine spatial relationships that mirror the shattered reality of places like New Orleans, the model for this series. In Thibeault’s rendering, as in real life, the surviving structures stand as shells; everything else is either kindling wood or under water.
At a superficial level, Thibeault brings to mind similarly inclined deep-space travelers like Julie Mehretu and David Hamill. But where those artists use the views enabled by computer-assisted architectural drawing (CAD) as jumping-off points to construct fantastical universes, Thibeault’s improvisations are based in fact. They take the all-too-real abstractions created by natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and explode them. Each of her pictures, while pictorially “whole” at a distance looks, up-close, like a series of inchoate marks. You can enter wherever you please and traverse their interiors, but there are few guideposts: The pictures unfold kaleidoscopically, with no obvious entry or exit points, just layers of continuously unfolding space.
Thibeault approaches the world phenomenologically, as something knowable through the senses, but the complexity of her work suggests there’s more out there than meets the eye. This show positions her among painting’s most adventurous explorers of that realm.
–David M. Roth
“Stephen Westfall: Recent Gouaches” and “Marie Thibeault: When Worlds Collide: Recent Paintings” runs through June 27, 2009 at Room for Painting, Room for Paper, SF. Catalogs for both exhibits are available through the gallery.
William Vaughan says