The first impression of Amy Trachtenberg’s latest series, From India to Planet Mars, is that she’s color sampled the subcontinent and apportioned the supersaturated harvest into vertical stripes. But if stripes (and their minimalist connotations) are all you see in her paintings, stand closer. Between the lines teems a universe of plastic activity called forth by process painting techniques the artist uses to evoke a tour of southern India, undertaken to view performances of ceremonial music.
“We had many long nights of watching this Mahabharata-type pageantry unfold, and it was like walking into Indian miniatures,” she recalls of her initial visit in 1999. “You’re washed over with the whole experience, the level of devotion. And the activity of color just flabbergasted me.” So did the mixture of spices, clothing, food, jewelry, exhaust fumes, excrement, car horns, religious ritual, statuary and extreme human suffering displayed next to great wealth. “All of these high-pitched contrasts just happen constantly in front of you.”
A San Francisco artist who divides her time between painting, sculpture, collage, set design and public art, Trachtenberg, 57, views stripes as an organizing device, not as a philosophical position. “They’re a way to order the disorderly” and “to take unruly things that are organic and chaotic and give them shape.”
Feelings are Facts IV, the large canvas that greets visitors at the entry to the gallery, is one of several fine examples. Between vertical stripes that cycle through strong colors lay overlapping textures, made of stains, scrapes, smears, imprints and multi-directional drips. These the artist achieves by pouring paint onto the canvas and removing it with cloth, tire scraps and tools of her own invention. The elements combine to cast an almost synesthetic spell.
Trachtenberg applies a similar sensibility to a pair of wall-mounted wood sculptures (Panorama/Containment I & III) made of flat and wave-shaped redwood strips. Tightly packed in vertical strips, they recall in their curved portions the sideboards of a grand piano, but are actually leftovers from an architectural public art project Trachtenberg installed at Hillview Library in San Jose. In the undulating outward-facing edges, the artist modulates color, texture and rhythm as precisely as she does in her canvases – blurring the line between painting and sculpture. She cites as a precedent, David Ireland’s house whose yellowed patina surreptitiously shifts content from architecture to color. These objects do the same.
Where the artist breaks new ground is in Stripes/Sutra, a collage of pigment prints on Kozo paper, based on a New York Times Iraqi war photo of a funeral for a Moktada al-Sadr aide who was killed in 2008. Trachtenberg manipulated the image with a copy machine, enlarging it and dialing in various color-shifts, the most prominent being an overlay of deep yellow and a darkening of the figures that recalls, respectively, the late ‘80s photos of Doug and Mike Starn and the anguished, contorted paintings of Goya. The Times logo, which runs down the center, is warped into an Arabic-looking script – suggesting an editorial slant closer to Al-Jazeera’s than to America’s paper of record. The version of the piece on view measures 50 x 43 inches; the original is 11 x 9 feet.
Trachtenberg couldn’t have predicted the outcome of the experiment; but as the piece grew and started to resemble “a prayer rug” she knew she’d made a discovery. “I’ve always done collage, but this way of generating it through Xeroxing — making something that large from one photo — feels like a good way to digest the daily news and use it in my work.
I’m really kind of a news junkie and an activist and it’s hard to figure out how to be an abstract painter and combine all those things and say something without being didactically political.”
One final note: The show’s title comes from a Jungian study of a French psychic who engaged in automatic writing and spoke in tongues, and who later became a muse to the surrealists. “The book," published in 1899, "didn’t influence this work,” Trachtenberg says. And that may be. But there is a more general connection. I submit that the distance between artist-guided process “accidents” like Trachtenberg’s and the receipt of information through paranormal channels might not be all that great. Put another way: If manipulating the controls of a copy machine can reveal political sentiments and the act of pouring and removing paint from a canvas can summon sights and smells, then feelings, as the artist's titles assert, really can be transmuted into facts.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Amy Trachtenberg: “From India to Planet Mars” @ Brian Gross Fine Art through March 2, 2013.