November 17, 2021 – January 15, 2022
Long Summer, the title of Madeleine Bialke’s intriguing solo show at Huxley-Parlour Gallery in London, is both a promise and a threat. By now we’re all uncomfortably at home with the idea that the climate is changing for the worse, but what we actually experience from moment to moment is weather: climate is an accretion, the long view, while weather is what makes or breaks your day. Each of the 14 medium-sized paintings in the show, saturated landscapes inspired by Bialke’s time in the Adirondacks over a pandemic summer, present an instance of weird weather, creating an atmosphere that’s adroitly balanced between attraction and apprehension. Reaching out across each canvas with slightly cartoonish yet always deliberate limbs, the variably charming and unnerving trees populating these paintings rear up against backgrounds of cold blue dusk or tangerine twilight, and seem to have definite intentions toward both the viewer and the occasional painted human figure. The woman asleep in bed in the bottom foreground of Charmed Life (all works 2021) is separated from the monumental blue-lilac-gold trunk of an enormous tree outside her window by only a little balcony railing, and it’s unclear whether the railing is there for her protection or simply as a sign of misguided human flailing in the face of a benign giant.
The mystique and vague anthropomorphism feel appropriate, since actual trees communicate with the help of fungal networks located mostly underground; the proverbial wind whispering in the trees is our fortuitous misunderstanding of what’s speaking, and how. One aspect of Bialke’s accomplishment in this show is a brilliant use of color to convey the idea of communication over distances; the rich, glowing gold, amber, and ochre of the three trees in Three Seasons harmonize, while the scraped blues and whites of the copse in the left corner of the canvas provide an icy counterpoint. As with all good work, the paintings require a close and prolonged encounter to be seen clearly. In Verdict, a lake scene with three protuberant fallen branches—or roots?—looks good on a screen but loses, as pixels, the appeal of rough, visibly painted contours that are much more apparent in person.
There is a surprising sense of liveliness and motion in the paintings themselves, perhaps aided by Bialke’s smooth, gently abstracted forms (no needles or leaves here, just lozenges and curls). The brown and lilac trees of Overstory, truncated by the frame, seem to be rushing to and fro like actors in a play. In the midst of all the foliage, the houses in Dinner Party and Fallout first appear as a kind of refuge, a human holdout against nature’s ominous power. But here again color is a key, and tells a more ambivalent story: the lemon-yellow open window of Dinner Party is set into a wall that’s only a shade darker than the darkening purple dusk, while the interiors in Fallout, visible through a series of windows set into a cozy log cabin, share their vivid yellows and reds with the sky and the stone slope beneath the cabin. In Sun Watcher, a view of a small dog on the back of a couch seen from outside, through the windows, merges with the reflection of a lake within a single window panel. And the gloomy, blue-gray branches of the forest on the other side of the window in Two Augusts in a Row seem to express something of the state of the mind of the light-blue woman inside the house, resting beneath a blanket and gazing at the outdoors. The distinction between outside and inside becomes another old misunderstanding.
When talking about her palette, Bialke has referenced the simple gradients of early painting and design software, though it’s also possible to see some of these vivid pinks and emerald greens as an inheritance from the grandiose nature scenes of the Hudson River School. Treading the same corner of the country as these early American landscape painters, Bialke makes pointed and intelligent use of a weighty history. The epic scale and the formidable sublime of the 19th-century paintings often functioned as advertisement and imprimatur for a land-devouring expansionism, ultimately contributing to the long summer we are entering into. It’s tempting to see the gently inclined pink growths of Heartbeat not just as a nod to playing around in Photoshop, but as suffused with the same light that shines on the awesome mountain face of Bierstadt’s Sunrise on the Matterhorn. In Bialke’s work, it’s the color and the light that last through the longue durée, leaving behind an atmosphere in which the beckoning, many-hued pleasure of color is also a reminder and a warning. And though Bialke’s vernacular in this show has more in common with cartoons than with realist painting, it’s only in the way that John Ashbery sometimes wrote poems about Popeye. In these often lovely, sometimes spooky paintings, she uses ostensibly uncomplicated and familiar American forms to invent a private language, staging a conversation that remains on just the other side of intelligibility. This is the mark of an artist confident enough to let the subject have a say.