Variations on a Theme: Drawn to Film

Satyr moths

Emma Newbery

soft-edged, jaundiced eyes

can pierce the night.

up from over the wing’s edge

they lead satyr moths—

lushes, like their namesake—

into the domed and honeyed glow,

pressing the air where those noses might be

and fogging up the glass.

carolina flits, short and erratic:

source of light STOP still unknown STOP

in triplets, she conveys

urgency, ignorance, or both.

at 1 1/4 inches,

she has to STOP

make it in STOP

three.

mitchell’s catches the updraft:

it’s a tricky one STOP

marvel to the eyes STOP

murder on the wings STOP

1 3/4 inches. his wings beat

out storied warnings

in little blips

of five.

Variations on a Theme: Drawn to Film

Prism

Emma Newbery

I am usually afraid

to write what is true,

to make the past

shiny in

that way.

to give it a gloss it doesn’t

deserve, because it

was just the time

we all went

fishing.

But try as I do to ground it,

keep it, I still re—

member it as

though through a

prism,

glittering out on the rocks like

a dream I once had.

We used the new

flies that time,

threaded

jumpers my uncle had sewn. We

waited and watched and

kept by the rocks,

low and crouched,

slipping.

We caught a bass. Well, our uncle

caught a bass, we ate.

Through the bend in

my glass, I

see it.

Exhibition Review: Repeat As Needed

Emma Newbery

Kingston Gallery’s Associate Members Show, Repeat As Needed, is eerily timely. As memories of perceived normalcy drift further out of reach, meditations on repetition gain an almost urgent sense of appeal. Though globally (with the unfortunate exception of the United States,) we seem to have reached somewhat of a sandbar, an unsteady lull in the pandemic, waves still loom in the distance. Perhaps it’s natural to turn to ritual as our source of comfort, even as it operates in the daily constraints of our new routines.

Repeat As Needed, as a group show, offers each artist’s own meditation on what it means to repeat and return within their own work. Where some artists chose to make repetition an overt part of their process, others explore the concept more abstractly.  

On abutting walls are works by Amy Kaczur and Ponnapa Prakkamakul that elucidate the spectrum of responses to the show’s theme. Kaczur’s “Messages From the Marsh – Driftway Conservation Park, Scituate, MA” shows marshland blown over by the natural morse code of the landscape. Its message changes depending on the viewer’s perspective. The eye trained on the sections of matted grass may pick up on the illusion of corroding earth as grass meets water in an oxidized brown muck. Looked at another way, the more upright sections of marshland flair out wildly, a feral plain bristling under rough winds and human hands. The print immediately reminded me of one of my favorite short stories by Karen Russell, undisputed queen of modern wilderness fiction, called “The Bog Girl.” 

“Peat is harvested from bogs,” writes Russell, “watery mires where the earth yawns open. The bottom is a breathless place—cold, acidic, anaerobic—with no oxygen to decompose the willow branches or the small, still faces of the foxes interred there. Sphagnum mosses wrap around fur, wood, skin, casting their spell of chemical protection, preserving them whole. Growth is impossible, and Death cannot complete her lean work.” Where Russell’s peat bog is a frozen world, Kaczur captures the animation of the marshland. Both landscapes, however, have an inescapable pull. Kaczur tells us that there is a message to be found there, Russell that even the most unforgiving peat bends back to reveal a first, fierce love. So we scan the thrashing grasses, again and again.

Amy Kaczur, Messages From the Marsh – Driftway Conservation Park, Scituate, MA (2020), Archival Pigment Print. 20 × 30 inches.

Prakkamakul’s work is a similarly mesmerizing assessment of natural phenomena. Her piece “50 Shades of Blue” recalls both the style and ethos of Agnes Martin, a personal favorite, who explained late in her career: “[my art is] not really about nature. It is not what is seen—it is what is known forever in the mind.”

When I ask Prakkamakul about her process, she says: “every morning since I started working from home, I have been making a pastel drawing of the sky color at 6am looking south which is the direction I see when I wake up.” She has over 100 pieces, only half of which are showcased in the work. Fifty Shades of Blue spans the 6 am sky from March 16th to May 2nd, 2020. 

Ponnapa Prakkamakul, Fifty Shades of Blue (2020), pastel on paper. 60 × 84 inches.

Prakkamakul’s process is more starkly repetitive than Kaczur’s, and she touches on the importance the ritual of painting has to her: “this process allowed me to concentrate on representing the color of the sky that changes quite quickly and made me forget about everything around me for a while,” she explains. “I plan to continue until I do not need it anymore.”

Steven Cabral, whose acrylic painting hangs at the very start of the exhibition, had similar thoughts throughout his process. 

I smile and nod when he says: “I think about Agnes Martin a lot.”

“She loved to be out in nature,” he continues. “That feeling you get, you can’t really describe it. I don’t think the English language has a word like that.” Instead, Cabral draws inspiration from the Japanese concept of 浮世 (ukiyo), which means “the floating world.” Ukiyo-e, “paintings of the floating world” was a style favored in Japan from the 17th through the 19th century, popularizing woodblock printing to depict lush gardens, beautiful women, folk tales, and more. The notion of a world of pleasures, hidden, floating just above the mortal one, is something Cabral explores in his own work. 

Cabral’s paintings begin as paper sculptures. “My hand is just an extension of my thinking,” he explains. “Once I get an image I want, I start to rip things, start moving things around. So the activity is really different from painting, it’s more physical.” Once he brings his brush to the canvas, the paper shapes he has manipulated begin to build their own language. 

Steven Cabral, Untitled (2020), acrylic, crayon, and colored pencil on canvas, 50 x 50 inches.

“Each element has their own personal definition. So the pink triangle with the transparency layer,” he explains, referencing the top left corner of Untitled, above, “that could be a lexicon for a window I can’t reach. The opaque, gray, textual surface could be, like, a layer of raw emotion, or anything. It protects this hidden world that nobody has access to.”

Cabral views his multimedia process as “a way to narrate another story.” As for the repetitive aspect of his work, he thinks for a moment. “I think [patternmaking] has always been there, but it’s a little more evident now,” he says. “I’ve always thought of myself as a pure geometric painter, but over the past year I’ve become what I call an organic geometric painter.”

There are layers to this lexicon. Cabral emphasizes the importance of the viewer having their own interpretation of his work, while his understanding remains obscured—he retains a deeply personal attachment to the work, evident in the painstaking process of creating it, while also offering it up for the viewer to see what they wish, or to notice what is obscured.

One of the most interesting elements of the show is what is perhaps an initially intuitive association of repetition with routine. In an effort to vary my word choice in this review, I first used the two interchangeably, without thinking.  But the truth is, repetition does not necessitate sameness.                                                                     

Take Rachel Thern’s works of pen on paper. “I usually start from a small quick sketch or an image in my mind, something organic taking place within a space, and then keep building on it with the sorts of lines my arm and hand feel like making,” she explains.

Rachel Thern, both Untitled (2019), pen on paper. 16 x 13 inches.

“The piece with the arcs crowded in the upper right-hand corner,” she continues, referencing the drawing on the right, “was the most intuitive in terms of process, it basically appeared as I worked on it.” Her work establishes itself in the space between repetition and consistency, even anticipation. Thern’s drawings are reminiscent of surrealist automatism, the style of drawing favored by some surrealists, which allows the subconscious to take control. Thern’s swirls and loops, at turns measured and sprawling, are evocative of drawings by Hilma af Klint and her spiritualist group, “The Five.”

Automatic drawing by The Five, courtesy of The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm.

While Thern, like Klint and her spiritualist contemporaries, draws the same shapes over and over, they pulse and thrum with energy, allowing repetition to break free from the bounds of convention. 

“I wanted [them] to have more of an effect of 3D space,” she says, “as if they were natural processes taking place somewhere.”

Repetition does not imply monotony, far from it. Our bodies are powered by repetition—footsteps, blinks, the continuous undertaking of cellular respiration. In fact, almost imperceptible processes of repetition are often the driving mechanisms of change. We have all stopped to watch, breathless, as our own repetitive processes play out in the form of contagion across the globe.  Repeat As Needed makes its home in this space between change and stasis, pushing and stretching the smallest loops of our experiences to see just how wide their sphere of influence can become.

Variations on a Theme: Repeat As Needed

Tusk Fish

Emma Newbery

Tusk fish remember, return

to the rounds and ridges of loved coral

where they dash what is meant

to break open.

sifting through silt, they swim to the edge

alone, under dappled sea light.

in the passage from reef to ring they reach

a speed of thrumming stillness.

I can hope to pass under the same beams

to cut through the water dark,

and return through some fin-felt remembrance

each day

to what’s most important.

Repeat As Needed Promo

Inside Look: Rose Olson’s Rain and Sunshine

Emma Newbery

The maxim that Rose repeats throughout our interview is: “the person you don’t want to bore is yourself.”

I spoke to Rose ahead of her upcoming show Rain and Sunshine, set to open on June 24th in Kingston’s main gallery. We discussed newer elements of her work, especially in the context of her long tenure as a painter.

“I’ve always painted all my life,” she explains. “I can’t change. No matter what my job was, how many hours of teaching I did or whatever I did, I would have to come home and do some work sometime during the evening before I went to bed.”

Over the course of her career, Rose has honed a distinct aesthetic. Using acrylic wash to play with light, movement, and opacity, Rose brings depth to the surface of her seemingly simple works. “When I was younger, I worked on everything: paper, it might be charcoal drawings. It might be anything because I had to work. Now, I work strictly with paint and wood and nothing else because that’s what interests me right now.”

Her upcoming show at Kingston signals a new dimension of this familiar medium. Perhaps reflecting the mercurial social environment, Olson’s show includes works like Red Intrusion, below. The notion of intrusion is something Rose explores deeply in her more recent work. The push and pull that results from the integrity of Rose’s natural canvas meeting the piercing strip of red that truncates its base is a relationship she relishes.

Rose Olson, Red Intrusion, acrylic on wood, 20”x 30”x 2”, 2019.

“I love what I’m doing right now,” adds Rose. “A lot of it is new because of blocks of colors. And the color is quite heavy. But it doesn’t eliminate the grain of the wood, which is very important to me when I’m painting.” 

Rose goes on to explain the importance of maintaining the integrity of the surface on which she paints. It’s as much a part of the painting as the materials that cover it: “The grain of the wood is something that I respect. So I try to make it clear. I try to make it available for the viewer to see no matter what color is over it.”

“A grain is unique,” she says. “They’re like our fingerprints, so no two are alike.”

Rose Olson, Violet Calm, acrylic on wood, 2020.

Within this medium, Rose’s work retains its fluidity. “Sometimes I’ll look at a painting that I had done and it bores me, so I will go back and work on it. So I guess they never end,” she muses. Five minutes before our interview, she made a final adjustment to a recent work titled Violet Calm, left. “I just finished a painting now that I had started earlier and it needed something desperately and I wasn’t sure what it needed. And I just discovered that it needed a golden band. So I put it in. It’s just a slim band and it enhances the grain as it goes up.”

Once she has finished a piece, Rose strives to keep the viewer’s experience of her work dynamic. “The colors keep changing continually, which is important to me. Also, when the work is on the wall, there’s the light going from one end of the room to the other that continually changes the colors, because there are so many layers of color and the light will pick up one layer after another.”

Rose did not cultivate this dynamic approach alone. She credits a shared workspace and creative process with her interest in the ongoing nature of her work. “My husband was a writer. He wrote poetry. We would very often stop our work and I would show him my work.”

Creating side-by-side elevated both of their processes. “When he would start reading his poetry, I would say, you know, it’s not quite there yet,” Rose recalls. “Then, all of the sudden, he would do it. It would be right there and I would get the goosebumps and I would say, stop. This is it. You’ve made it. You know, you don’t want it any different than this.”

While her husband passed recently, she continues to find motivation through these memories of collaboration: “My husband died suddenly three years ago, and that is a blow to me. It’s overwhelming,” says Rose.

“But,” she maintains, “it doesn’t stop me from painting.”

Rose Olson, Swirl, acrylic on wood, 12”x 12”x 1”, 2019.

Swirl is shot through with two, thick lines of red, lending the work a different feel than Red Intrusion possesses. The color pushes against the grain of the wood, and the whorls through which it slices seem to bend in protest, or perhaps in welcoming. The paler, nearly iridescent wide stroke of violet below lends a tactile element to the piece. Beneath the lines, straight and firm, it almost serves as the memory of a hand has followed their course, leaving behind an imprint. The work, like its maker, is pushing at the boundaries, suggesting a sense of continuance, and of potential chaos.

In addition to her career as a painter, Rose also taught for many years, spurring on her students in the same way she pushed her husband and continues to push herself.

“I don’t think there was anything that I didn’t like, and I don’t think there was a student that I didn’t like,” she recalls. “I pushed them very hard. I wanted them to create something uniquely theirs, and I think they understood that because we would both get excited.”

Rose encouraged her students to trust their unique perspective on shared, human experiences rather than attempting to break away from artists who inspired them. “Sometimes you can try to copy something, just so you understand what, what colors that person is using,” she explains, “but they’ll never come out the way that person uses them. They’ll come out the way you use them. You find yourself doing it in such a unique way.”

“That is, it becomes exciting to you because we are all different from each other,” she adds. “That quality within each person is very important to me.”

Rose Olson, triptych. From left to right: Canals of Mars, Martian Sky, Martian Water, all acrylic on wood, 20”x 20” X 1.5”, 2020.

Ultimately, Rose views painting as a deeply personal, emotional experience that turns one’s internal experience outwards to face the world. “Whatever you are, whatever your passion is at the moment, whatever you see out there comes through in the work.”

“Whether you’re a painter or you put it into poetry and words, the way my husband used to, when it hits just right, that’s it. You get the goosebumps and that’s when you know.”

In any creative pursuit, Rose concludes: “When something is real, it’s it. It just affects you completely.”