by David M. Roth
There’s a lot of heavy weather blowing through Cynthia Ona Innis’ paintings. Dark clouds, milky fog banks, frothing geysers and plumes of volcanic smoke populate a cycle of paintings and drawings the Berkeley artist calls Fuse. They consist of horizontal bands of stained, dyed and bleached fabric stretched across wood, canvas or paper. Those surfaces are painted or inked and then sealed in a thin layer of varnish. I imagine the artist lashed to a mast or shivering on a remote beach in the name of research. I’m also reminded when looking at these works of Annie Proulux’s The Shipping News (1993), a novel set in Newfoundland where weather plays a role nearly as large as that of the main character, a beleaguered newspaperman named Quoyle. “His thoughts,” writes Proulux, “churned like the amorphous thing that ancient sailors, drifting into arctic half-light, called the Sea Lung: a heaving sludge of ice under fog where air blurred into water, where liquid was solid, where solids dissolved, where the sky froze and light and dark muddled.”
The connection is more than just literary. Several years ago the artist traveled to Iceland, and the influence of that North Atlantic trip remains palpable in atmospheric works that fuse liquid and solid in irregularly staggered “horizon lines.” Blacks, pale yellows, an array of neutrals and multitude of blues — ranging from robins-egg to midnight — are the predominant colors. Overall, despite the intrusion here and there of a few louder colors, the overall emotional tone of these paintings and drawings is hushed. While California inspired this series, what we see speaks less about place than about natural forces that equate to time. Set in low relief, these
“horizon lines” become “windows” through which the elements can be seen lashing land, sea and sky. In freezing such moments, the fabric lines function as both formal compositional devices and as a visual cues, drawing attention to in-between spaces that read as layers of accumulated sediment: core samples from eons passed.
Like much contemporary painting, Innis’ is a hybrid. It combines 19th century Romantic landscape traditions with the mannerisms of Asian landscape painting and the repeating lines of classic Minimalism. The latter — sleek, hard-edged and semi-transparent — make for a highly refined glitch aesthetic, one quite unlike the jaggy sort that appear on your TV screen (and in so much media art.) They pull us into the events pictured and just as forcefully distance us from them. As such, this beautiful, austere work embodies a singular aspect of our current condition: the blurring of perceived differences between real and simulated experience.
That said, it would be wrong to imply that Innis traffics in simulation. Thrilling, painterly passages animate the best of the 16 pieces on view. A cascade of bubbles whose effervescence recalls Pat Steir’s waterfall paintings from the 1980s appears in the middle of Brink, for example. And in Moon, a work on paper in which metallic fabric mingles with stains and angled marks, space opens out in irregular snippets, forming a navigable path over sea-strewn rubble ending in a distant smoke cloud.
Works like these remind us that there’s an actual world beyond our screens: a rock in space called Earth.
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Cynthia Ona Innis: “Fuse” @ Traywick Contemporary through January 21, 2017.