Emily Mason Paints With an Instinct for Color
"Art must do something more than give pleasure: it should relate to our own life so as to increase our energy of spirit." - Sir Kenneth Clark
Enjoying a sensational backdrop of sound from a concert by Yellow Barn students in the main atrium of the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, I recently sat alone (grateful for BMAC's air conditioning) in contemplation in a smaller room--an intimate gallery devoted solely to the incandescent paintings of Emily Mason. Her work is 360 degrees of instinctive color suspended in time and space--emitting an energy of spirit given freely and generously.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once exclaimed, "Dance the Orange!" and Mason does exactly that as she conjures portraits of the pure energy of color. Her Carborundum prints are one-of-a-kind trajectories between the interstices of color and edge--those places where intimate conversations occur between painter and paint. Hers is a primitive worship of the full range of spectrum, as she gleans the effects of color on the soul: the healing of greens and ultramarine, the erotic explosion of peony red, the sorrows and permutations of gray. Embedded in the texture of her canvasses are the dense color plays of unconsciousness derived from walks in sacred, emerald woods and the sensation of cool, violet nights.
Weeks later, I walk up the steep incline to Mason's home studio in Marlboro, where there is contained more color than I can imagine. The entrance is a wall-sized doorway letting in cool mountain air and the scent of heirloom phlox, wild mint and daylilies. Inside, the studio walls are studded with mini-canvasses glittering like enameled jewelry showcasing the painter's rapid movement between paint and vision. She explains that, for her, painting small is "nice in the sense it allows me to experiment--work left to right weaving the two sides together. If I take and do it bigger, it loses pizzazz. If you make it over again, it's dead. Ninety-nine percent of the fun is letting you take it somewhere--trying to figure it out."
Speaking of her intentions as a painter, Mason speaks primarily of the balancing act, the juggling of movements, paint, form, color: "[I] balance it--adjust its equilibrium equalizing unequal weights or shapes. Small moves, little adjustments. So many little adjustments--do it again." Her decision-making comes from an instinctive understanding of the interaction between the eye and the enjoyment of shapes and color values.
Mason continued the tour of her rustic and homey studio. She even has a woodstove when the space gets chilly. But it's very basic: paint in little tin cans, wall easels made with blocks of wood in which canvasses are hung with the option of whisking a painting off the wall and onto the floor, like playtime in kindergarten: "I do get more geometric when I work on something I'm not sure of. I work on the floor--I like things to run . . . or not," as she demonstrated the ease of taking a canvass and tilting it over the paint-spattered floor. She has her own intuitive method of communing with her work, as she states firmly, "[to] get the mind out of the way. Every painting has its own structure."
One of Mason's paintings was particularly compelling in its intimate nature. Primarily layers of red, pink and magenta with a vertical slit and a bit of teal blue-green, and you have something very sexy. She seemed to read my mind, and mumbled something about "orgasm." It was then understood just how sensual painting can be, how physical the movement of the arm, the stretch of the torso, especially working with larger canvasses. The intensity of colors, the smell of turpentine, the arc of bodily motion adds up to an energetic exchange between painter and painting.
"How do you know when a painting is finished?" I asked Mason. She replied, "You get a little feeling in your stomach. One more move and lock in." One painting in particular nearly filled one wall, and we contemplated the dance of orange and yellow with cracks of blue bleeding through. She commented, "I've been ruminating, ruminating. I finally got the blue in there. The red was a little aggressive." She mused about the art of painting, saying it's "one more move, like chess--a musical conversation--violin, cello. Pick it up, make a move--wait--let time go in between. Then I know what to do."
The view from the back of Mason's studio explains some of her understanding of green and blue. One side of her studio opens onto a ravine of lush foliage. Balanced on the other bank is a nearly hidden jade-green pond still as a mirror. In fact, one painting displayed near the view of the pond reveals an unconscious gathering of the spirit of water and woodland in an abstract notable for its fluidity. Within a half hour of wending my way back through the studio, I noticed that the light had shifted subtly; I noticed that the painting which had quietly evoked the pond seemed to suddenly glow from an orb of light in the upper left corner of the canvas. It had become a more dynamic balancing act of divergent colors. I exclaimed that I had not seen it before in quite that way, and she began to remember back at least 40 years. When her second child was born in Rome, her husband, Wolf Kahn, had been working on a painting. She chided him: "Why did you work on the painting?" He said he had not, and she marveled at how the painting seemed completely altered by the changing angle of light. When I spoke of magic in her work, she agreed: "Magic--that's something I'm trying to achieve."
As a teacher at Hunter College (where she will have a show in November), Mason explains her philosophy of teaching art: "I teach intuition, more risk." She feels this is a more feminine approach: "Male teachers [are] very rigid, structured." She likes to give her students in New York the opportunity to work at Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, where, she says, "you know you're opening a gate--it's a Vermont gate." She then reminisced about a black student from New York City who was very fearful when he first arrived in Vermont, one of the whitest states in the country. A victim of AIDS, the student's last three weeks of life were spent working with Mason at the Studio Center. She ended the story on a note of personal gratitude: "So more than twice touched when you teach."
In Mason's current show at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, "Instinctive Color," her layering of color upon printed color culminates in a magical jumble of impressions that want to be understood on a deep level, beyond rational thought and known experience. Her paintings are abstracts of enormous power--the power to startle, to exclaim, and to ignite the open mind in an embrace between form and hue. Each painting is so unfailingly unique that the viewer must wrestle with a fresh vision in each frame and struggle to understand uncharted dimensions of the parade of colors drenching our world. Her palette is filled to the brim with a reverent rainbow. The flaming torrents of red from an erupting volcano in one, the hidden architecture of indigo nightfall in another, the blast of green leaves in the crowning glory of early summer, the elusive indigo of delphiniums and monkshood in a late summer garden, the layered colors of a child's pink tongue stained with strawberries. These are the incantations of instinctive color recalled in the delight of eyes wide open.
For instance, Mason's painting "Shades of Twilight" (1996) is more volcanic than any twilight I have ever seen. It recalls for me the eruption of a volcano I viewed in Hawaii in the 1970s--the heat from Kilauea crater hot on my face from a mile away in the dark of night. Like the furnace of the earth's core, or the entrance to a woman's body, this painting vibrates on the edge of primordial stirrings of secret passions. "Temperature Drop" (2002) is a visual relief--going from hot to cool. It is an ode to Grecian architecture, a blue dream merging into indigo and black, marble columns somehow obscured but hinted at beneath layers of rich color. The artist has created a structured color event evoking some place in ancient times, perhaps where priestesses gathered to worship the moon.
"Visions" (1997) is more musical. Mason has captured a movement of form pulsing behind brass. There is a structure barely hidden behind gilded swales of strong-handed color layering, and containing a density of contrasts. "Chanterelle" (2004) is a forested accumulation of colors and lines buried beneath a very textured sensibility. Evoking mushrooms after a spring rain, the complexity of this painting draws the viewer into the clash of varying energies, which bursts into a deeply breathing color collage.
Mason showcases her lighter touch in the painting "That Lifts Us" (2004). It is sparse, giving us a flare of Asian perception of color and Zen form. The chartreuse calligraphy gracing the painting creates a magical I-Ching message from some higher place--literally and figuratively--perhaps from the clotted world of clouds over the Himalayas.
"Lingers" (2004) has a neon, linear movement intersecting with blocks of layered color, confirming the place where life is confusing. Where to start to enter so many edges and intrusions of line and hue? "Allure" (2004) is a Zen calligraphy calling from the frame of a monolith of wedged-in color, behind which there is a floating vein of silver and turquoise, with lavender forming into a peaceful contemplation.
"Whispering" (2004) is a portrait of ghostly pink with lines marching into an etched arrangement of its own Buddha nature. Melon and green pear, colors not often wedded in life, speak from opposite perspectives of the color wheel. It is a balancing act that Mason teeters on as she juggles a little compose green, a little Chinese red. There is a sanctified drama accumulating energy by means of the imposition of form on color. The painting has its own language and speaks in whispers from the intuitive, feminine psyche of a woman painter, strong and bold in all its pink-hood.
"Approaching" (2004) is stunning in its banners of colors unleashed in powerful strata. Key lime-green is sandwiched between bricks of cerise, while Black pounds relentlessly on the door from three sides. All of the blocks of color seem to be holding back the encroachment of more flamboyant Orange on the left. It is a traffic jam of vermilion against the wedge of interlocking momentums. A surprising combustion of fuchsia flirts triumphantly from the frame--the colors form a lively jamboree stimulating the eye and energizing the body unexpectedly.
"Moss Woods" (2002) is like an aerial view of a slice of Vermont in springtime. It is as soft and moody as olive-green moss on a forest floor, while the chartreuse of sharp-eyed spring opens the eye as happens after a long winter of white and iron gray. The various healings of green are longing for the greater life found in full-blown summer.
"Whose Yellow" (1997) is a window into the radiant world of Yellow hidden under Orange's grander sunshine. There is a silver filigree of emergent rain evoking the environs of Jupiter, cooler and cloudier than Earth. There is suspended sorrow in the pewter shadowing the champion sirens of fire-gold and bronze. The cool blue-silver seems to be no match for the boisterous statement of banana and tangerine--the container of color gone awry and dancing in its own slices of tropical fruit.
An abstractionist colorist, Mason always knew she would be an artist. She is a second-generation woman artist, her mother being Alice Trumbull Mason, recognized in 1935 as a pioneer of American abstraction. Mason has taught painting at Hunter College since 1979. Since 1960, her work has been shown in a variety of public and private collections. In 1979 she received the Ranger Fund Purchase Prize by the National Academy of Art. She also received an honorary degree of Doctorate of Fine Arts from Wheaton College in 2000. A book on Mason's art is forthcoming in Spring 2006.
Emily Mason's show "Instinctive Color" is at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center (10 Vernon Street) through October 30, 2005. The museum is open daily except Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission $4 adults, $3 seniors, $2 students, free to members and children 6 and under, and always free admission during Gallery Walk. Visit online at www.brattleboromuseum.org. For more information: (802) 257-0124.
Copyright 2005, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont