Seeking the Middle Path
The Hooker-Dunham Theatre & Gallery was an excellent space for an exhibition of oil on paper improvisations by Brattleboro artist Susan McDormand during April. The approximately 32" x 40" compositions were both horizontal and vertical in orientation, and there were also some smaller pieces. McDormand has created a personal style that is process-based and compositionally intuitive. It uses gestural mark making, in combination with personal form finding and suggestive titles, to synthesize a poetic, spiritually charged image lying in the world between abstraction and realism.
The word "abstraction" has been a point of debate since its introduction, as a concept, into art making. Early abstraction was first introduced as an intellectual exercise in reductive or expansive change of stylistic expression based on theories applied to traditionally "realistic" observation and rendering. Its inspiration had to rest on its scholarly base.
For instance, the creation of cubism by Braque or Picasso was soundly based on Cézanne's method of creating space using implied planes and brush-stroke references. It was a geometric simplification of these elements of the Impressionist's style. Vassily Kandinsky, an important early abstractionist, painted free-flowing and expressively improvised spatial fields of dynamic color and rushing movement. His mature style was found step by careful step, beginning with realistically rendered paintings of horses with riders racing through a Russian countryside.
And again, with Piet Mondrian, representational studies of a single tree and of the surface of water led him to an extremely minimal form of abstraction, finally arriving at simple graphic grids with primary colors: red, blue and yellow. Both Kandinsky and Mondrian left extensive philosophical writings explaining the processes of reasoning and logic behind their personal roads to "abstraction." It seems that its "realistic" base of origin has qualified much of twentieth century abstraction. Well!
Now, in the approximate century, there could hardly be a form of abstraction we are not familiar with (or so the post-modernists maintain). The word and the concept have been familiarly applied to almost every aspect of life--as has the word "art," for that matter. We all have an idea of what "abstraction" means. We may have favorite types of abstraction or an opinion as to what abstraction is "legitimate" or "illegitimate." Meanwhile, young schoolchildren are encouraged to work abstractly if they feel like it.
Therefore, the idea that someone should take the opposite approach, and go from a purely abstract form of expression towards realistic images, based on observed developments in their abstraction, should not be surprising. Perhaps, if they are successful at finding this Frost-like middle road, the overly asserted idea that it is the abstract which is interesting in realism and the realistic which is interesting in abstraction might be dispelled and banished from chip-and-dip tables at gallery openings. Alas, it's not that simple.
Susan McDormand's recent Hooker-Dunham show and the work she has shown in previous years would seem to imply that she has done just that. Before placing the honorable Pioneer's Raccoon Cap on the McDormand cabeza, however, it must be said that many artists are also doing this. It's just that Susan has done it so clearly, and so naturally.
There's a danger here because some artists may satisfy themselves with "a little bit of this and a little bit of that" without finding anything integrated or conclusive. This is not Susan. The expressive character of her work has remained very intuitive but stylistically consistent since the first pastels she made in this manner at the River Gallery School--the teaching and exhibition facility where so many claim to have found their freedom (see Gallery Walk map).
Some of McDormand's earlier work was heard to evoke many one- and two-word comments like "intuitive," "amorphous," and "amazing freedom!" In fact, at least one art reviewer found the work challenging to describe without using vague or general terms. It seemed "like a fire," "like a wind," maybe like "a burning bush." It seemed perhaps like "a visual expression of inner psychic energy." And it still does seem like all these things.
Over time, however, the marks and swirls, the smudges and gestural strokes have become a familiar language of expression. There is a precision to her focus. In seeing something over and over, the nuances become more clear, and in doing something over and over, the nuances become more developed. Susan McDormand has taken us down this road, not to be disappointed. The forms, which encompass or define the content of her expressive process, have become more defined, without becoming too defined. She has married her intuitive mark making with intuitively found natural forms that are at times based on natural objects and at times on imagined objects.
On entering the Hooker-Dunham Gallery, the first piece to meet the viewer was entitled "Silver Basket Earring." The shape presented was very basket- or handbag-like and had an over-arcing line of pale peach that had, at its apex, a sort of dangling ornament or tassel, matched by another, similar hanging appendage at the bottom of the iconic shape. This central shape could be described visually as sort of a wide "V" at the bottom and horizontal at the top. The wide V gesture creates a transcendent feeling enhanced by a palette based in waterish blues and flecked across the busy center with small red and white marks that look like broken bits of candy cane. The work inspires an uplifting feeling at first sight. It is light, bright and joyful. Playfully drawn pencil lines can be seen showing through from underneath.
Familiar motifs for McDormand could be recognized in pieces entitled "The Poultney Pear" and "Buddha Appears In A Pear," also in "M5/Tangled," a bursting flower form. In these "pear"-shaped pieces, the individual colors in a palette of light salmons, yellows and warm greens are given different precedence. These pastel shades appear often in her work along with transparent blues, white and grays, and are often blended in a busy, expressive hive of marks and smudges made with brushes, fingers, and palms. In the interior part of the pear shapes, and in other pieces, this ballet of frenetic energy can usually be found.
Central to the exhibition was a set of three vertical works with little platforms attached to the wall underneath. On each of the small shelves were the natural objects that had inspired the forms depicted. Because of the large size of the drawings, however, the small objects were not necessarily noticed first.
"Broken Stone in the Portal" had two large, horizontal but rounded shapes separated by a thin space, like the ribbon of space running between two of Rothko's glowing, rounded rectangles. Before one notices the two small precious stones just beneath as referential, the shapes might be most reminiscent of floating hamburger buns without the burger. These shapes are intriguing and seem to vibrate.
Central in the arrangement of the three was "Stonington Shells." Two large, joined clamshells physically fill the vertical format, like long lobed ears or a set of lungs. Expressive oil strokes describe the slightly concave interior of the joined halves. An inscription along with the handwritten title reads: "The two halves have each other, love to Mike and Alison." This artwork, with its connection to the real world, in the dedication, is not unlike an African fertility sculpture or a clay goddess figure left near a rice field in its shamanic implications. Just below, the small clamshell was displayed.
The third, very animated work was entitled "Love Is The Answer." Below this whimsical dance of two shapes, connected by or independently sporting floating green ribbons, were displayed the two little nutshells and a scrap of shiny ribbon depicted. At first the two silvery and grey shapes seemed like they had the reflective interior of oyster shells and perhaps pearls. The pencil marks were very appropriate with these colors, and again a playful abandon was expressed with graphite.
At the end of the gallery was an image entitled "Maybe the Sky Loves You." The bright blue, butterfly-ish shape had too many wings, so that pure flight came to mind, or maybe just wings and a sense of buzzing, hovering, floating, weightlessness. But what is clear is that the emerging forms in her current work, combined with the visual "energy" within, are the wings of expression for Susan McDormand.
Editor's Note: A retrospective exhibit of other work by Susan McDormand is showing at Amy's Bakery Arts Cafe, 113 Main St., during May.
Copyright 2005, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont