by Tom McGlynn
FREIGHT AND VOLUME | MARCH 16 – APRIL 15, 2018
When asked what exactly was the mythic calling of his generation of painters, Barnett Newman famously responded, “Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making [them] out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”1 Relevant to Jennifer Coates’s recent paintings, it’s important to be reminded of where exactly the architects of such Gothic cathedrals got their own inspiration. The gracefully massed columns of these buildings reaching toward overarching, ribbed vaults were, to a large extent, derived from the theistic syntax of the holy grove: a mix of Northern European ecclesiastical and druid ritual related to the regenerative powers of a “baptism by forest.” In this show, Coates seems vested in the implications of Newman’s analogical statement as a model for a sui generis inhabitation of a painterly calling, while reconstructing her own imaginary spiritual sanctum from the sacred architecture of “the woods.”
Coates’s paintings share a transhistorical affinity with Caspar David Friedrich’s scenes of ruined Gothic architecture set amidst scraggly oaks, yet are much less explicitly allegorical or connected to any specific theology. The work here is graphically abstract, and therefore more flatly diagrammatic than Friedrich’s figurative picturesque, and projects a vibratory, pantheistic tone. In spirit, these paintings are more linked to visionaries of American abstract art such as Arthur Dove and Georgia O’Keeffe who, like their European counterparts, Wassily Kandinsky and František Kupka, were directly or tangentially influenced by theories of Theosophist kinesthesis, or the correspondence2 of nature’s vibrations with the visual and other senses. In her turn here, Coates synthesizes the modernist will to invent symbolic imagery (from an abstract self-consciousness) with the spiritual implications of a human encounter with a somatically resonant, organic environment. Charles Burchfield and Emily Carr also come to mind as progenitors of such imagery, in their buzzing and vibratory visions of the inner (anthropomorphically realized) landscapes of nature.
One of the larger paintings here, Spring Trees (2018) anchors an end of the show with an expansive spring-acid green, punctuated by dots that seem to have been made by placing the mouths of multicolor tubes of paint directly into the negative space of the composition, effectively “kissing” the canvas. Coates uses this technique in many other works and it is just one of a variety of approaches she takes to the physical and chromatic possibilities of acrylic paint. These painterly passages are invented to palpably ground the auras she creates around her woodland subjects/figures. These figures are made up of branching, elongated rectangles that approximate the microcosmic leavings of broken twigs encountered upon a close examination of the forest floor. The way she deploys these have an arms-akimbo brashness and energy that is reminiscent of the way in which John Marin activated his homegrown cubism with capriciously inserted angles. Like Marin, Coates leaves her angles hanging in midair, yet unlike him, she implies an astral connectivity between them, a sinewy power that is made most explicit in Transformer (2018).
One of the strongest paintings in the show is entitled Broken Woods (2018). It’s an appropriate name for this branching abstraction of severed yet paradoxically still-animate limbs which surround a lighter central area inhabited by a branch-personage that seems to be in the process of being initiated into life by a protective, flanking forest. The “Broken” of the title, therefore, can refer to damage, but also to a generative breaking-off: a birthing of a new shoot. The “woods” in many of Coates’s compositions are centripetally directed, often with a diminution of form, towards the center of the canvas, which has the effect of a vortex of maternal origin: a cosmic matrix of regenerative power. Such a symbolically loaded destination might be read as cliché if it were not for the artist’s ability to keep the association subliminal, as she does in Visitation (2018). In this painting, the broken-branch imagery coalesces around a radiant entity recalling a mandorla in a Christian icon of the Virgin Mary. Coates seems to intentionally evoke such vulvar symbolism, yet captivates the viewer primarily in muscular, painterly compositions that flex their energies ecstatically outward toward the audience. Nature, in Coates’s painting, doesn’t just represent “nature,” but is the “I am” of nature so unequivocally demanded by Jackson Pollock of his own work. She also shares with Pollock an allover painter’s will toward compositional strategies that resolve in a “deep and tenebrous unity”—a line quoted from a Baudelaire poem that was the inspiration for titling the exhibition Correspondences.
Such deep yet distributed compositional momentum is very evident in Meadow (2017), in which a pink plasmic glow grounds what looks like an atomized horned deity composed entirely of multicolored dashes of paint. These mix optically over a cracked and milky surface to create a hovering presence in the center of the canvas. This entity is framed by a few elongated rectangles that branch upward, as might groves of sprightly birch. The whole has an effect of a sudden encounter with a forest clearing, or how a weary traveler might come upon an otherwise negative space that has miraculously risen to take a singular shape, relative to their experience of the deep and trackless woods, to form a powerfully positive presence: a concrete opening. It’s the kind of mystical (in terms of its formal transformation) epiphany that Coates anticipates throughout this show.
As in her 2017 show at Freight and Volume, Coates employs a wide array of paint applications. In this instance, such a painterly mixed bag helps to phenomenally ground her shallowly graphic tree/subjects, and creates an equilibrium with the explicit, sometimes illustrative pictorialism of their branching woodland figures. As in her aforementioned dotting technique, Coates actively embellishes different shifts of focus in her paintings with thick scumbling, translucent washes and dry brush of kaleidoscopic chroma, and dabbing and dripping of thinned acrylic paints. The assuredness with which she weaves these disparate approaches together into coherent visionary images is impressive. Accordingly, one gets the chance both to witness her transformative visions and to participate in the rituals of their making. Unlike her last show, which was analogically themed on processed-food imagery, such as donuts and cookies (and their attendant implication of unhealthy, compulsive behavior), her present one deploys a more generalized (and perhaps more sober) template of twining vegetal daemons similar, though much more brut, to those seen in decorative friezes in classical ornament. This interweaving syntax lends these paintings a compositional unity that can easily support the tension between pictorial symbol and painterly substance that seems to be the artist’s métier.
- Barnett Newman, ”The Sublime is Now,” first appeared in Tiger’s Eye vol. 1 no. 6 December 1948, pp. 51-53; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrahams Publishers, New York 1990 p.127
- The show’s title, Correspondences, is inspired by a poem by Baudelaire. His example of the poetic apprehension of sense data translated into symbolic instantiations would inspire the Symbolist poets of the fin-de-siècle and was very close to the teachings of the Theosophic spiritualist movement of the early twentieth Century.
TOM McGLYNN is an artist and frequent contributor to Artseen.