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Susanna Bluhm @ Michael Rosenthal

"We Were Made to Cross That Line", 2011, acrylic and oil on canvas, 40 x 40"

It would be easy to lump Susanna Bluhm in among the legions of knowingly naïve young painters who work overtime to hide their sophistication behind curtains of droll irony and clever appropriation. Bluhm, while exhibiting the superficial characteristics of such artists, isn’t really one of them. A painter of resplendent abstract landscapes, she displays a naïf-like disregard of convention without playing the Postmodernist endgame of tossing together incompatible historical styles. Her spontaneous, unpretentious, off-kilter virtuosity – which is impossible to discern in these reproductions – reveals a sure-footed synthesis of many influences.  

But what shines through isn’t any kind of homage; it’s the unique voice of a comic sensualist who revels in the act of manipulating pigment for the sheer thrill of it. 

From snapshots made on a trip to Croatia, Bluhm created this potent group of nine paintings. They make the Adriatic coast look like a hothouse paradise seen through the eyes of a Symbolist with a bawdy sense of humor. Flatly painted and brightly colored, they pit “speedy” gestural strokes against “slower moving” geometric forms, recasting Hoffman’s “push-pull” formula as tug-of-war between competing velocities. The tension they create resolves in compositions that appear slap-dash, but are, in fact, meticulously balanced oppositions of formal structure and all-out whimsy.  Each is peppered with tantalizing enigmas that feel less like obscure references than shared jokes – even if you don’t know what they mean. Such elements include reoccurring text-like markings that read as graffiti tags or pictographs; pink phallic forms that rise, like cypresses, out of cliffs; hot-orange “boulders” that tumble, like magma, into the sea; and clouds that hover like alien spacecraft over mountain peaks.
 
“They Call It Way Too Rowdy, We Call It Finally Free”, 2011, 95 x 72”
The construction of the paintings is no mystery. The grounds appear to begin life as reasonably accurate depictions of the topography; but it’s everything else – the houses, trees, clouds, foliage and bold-colored atmospherics – that spins them into flights of fantasy. Among the many such pleasures to be found in Bluhm’s work is her exuberant brushwork, which at times it leans toward a heavy impasto. The best example can be found in They Call It Way Too Rowdy, We Call It Finally Free, a wall-sized canvas that greets visitors as they enter the gallery. It shows an island in an azure-blue sea, sprouting white blossoms, each as thick and swirly as cake frosting. They hit they eye like wet kisses. It’s also hard not to be wowed by The Bell in My Head that’ll Ring ‘Til I’m Dead, a canvas that occupies the entire back wall of the gallery. Here, a coastal farming village sits at the base of a mountain; its  fields and buildings look like they, too, had been struck by a force of nature, such is the elegant jumble of their disarray 
 
Given the resurgence of the view that art should serve some practical (read: political) purpose, it’s easy to criticize Bluhm’s wanton pleasure taking. Me, I’ve never found this age-old rap against beauty to be convincing; I say we should take pleasure wherever we find it, and in this, Bluhm’s first SF show, there is a lot to be taken. As I was leaving the gallery, a man who identified himself as fellow painter stepped inside for a quick look. He whistled and said, “This artist should be in New York.” Personally, I have no opinion about where Bluhm should or should not be. (For the record she lives in Seattle.)  But, if you’re seriously interested in painting, this is one artist who should be in your crosshairs. 
–DAVID M. ROTH
 
Susanna Bluhm @ Michael Rosenthal through November 14, 2011.
 
About the author
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.
 

One Response to “Susanna Bluhm @ Michael Rosenthal”

  1. c. naughton says:

    Nice review!

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