The forecast at J Crist Gallery is great weather for the whole month. A stunning system of large squares of pure painted sky have moved into the region and are slated to stay until the 28th of the month. The work is by artist Cate Brigden, whose last show with the gallery was in 2003.
With an approach that has now become distinctive, Brigden captures the grandeur that surrounds us in a way that makes it new to us, and by, "new," I mean not taken for granted. What really makes her works distinctive, apart from their technical merit, is the perspective she has developed for them. It is a view that, at first glance, seems almost accidental, like a snapshot taken while one is running back to a picnic basket and one is trying to keep one's camera from bouncing so much off one's chest. When click goes the shutter, and later you find a picture of nothing but the sky, intruded on by a wedge of tree top and the fringe of a shrub. Oops, a snapshot of nothing, just sky. Then again, that vault of lush atmosphere is kind of suggestive and powerful and glorious. Hey, wait a second, I like looking into that deep volume of life-affirming blue.
The paintings in this show are split between what Brigden calls skyscapes and landscapes. In the past, Brigden's paintings were loosely based on black and white photographs she took close to her home in the North End, and tended to be gently anchored in the treetops. (Interestingly, she worked from black and white photos in order to leave the creation of color up to memory.) With this body of work, she has added some landscapes based loosely on trips to an area near the Owyhee Mountains. Though they are closer to the layout of traditional landscapes, the sky still dominates, with the land being just the thinnest buttress at the bottom edge of the canvas, once more giving one the sense that the frame is waiting for its subject to arrive, followed by the sense of having discovered a kind of quiet grandeur there in its absence, of having suddenly apprehended a presence where there was just an absence
For me, that would be enough. The perspective alone is a pleasant enough surprise. And when I wrote about her last show, "Empirical Evidence," it was. In it, she had face-mounted a collection of those black and white photographs, once used as source material for her paintings, to glossy acrylic panes. The format was large and the presentation was perfectly suited to the medium.
But with these new paintings, the viewer gets an extra level of enjoyment--because the perspective isn't the only thing that surprises. There is a similar experience in the painting itself. What, at first glance, could be seen as large, almost minimalist abstract works suddenly reveal themselves as methodically built paintings that embody luminosity and atmosphere with all the tactile pleasure oil paint provides. Using techniques that have come down through the ages, Brigden is crafting works that have the immediacy of oil paint and pure color with the presence of vast space and time. Painting may have lost its ability to shock us by the sheer novelty of its execution, but it hasn't lost its ability to move us.
Art is often a recipe of reaction and creation--something creates the desire to create, and artists are inspired before they inspire. They react to the world by creating something, which is in turn, meant to evoke responses and reactions. Art flows from response to response. Duh--it's communication, right? If this is true, then one could learn a lot about art by looking to either side of the artwork. What is it reacting to, and how, as the viewer, have you reacted?
Which leads me to another aspect of Brigden's work that seems distinctive. Because on both sides of this artwork, there's something like awe and gratitude. On either side of this work, one senses a reaction to the toxic levels of irony and angst in the contemporary art scene. While it is true that the world is rife with lies and pain, it is also true that the blessings of the earth's atmosphere still fill our lungs and flow in our blood. It is also true that despite global warming, the earth's miraculous atmosphere still buffers us from the cold dark expanses of space. There is reason to rejoice! Are there still vaults of pure blue sky into which Beethoven's Sixth Symphony might flow without irony? Can one still listen to its first movement, "Awakening of joyous feelings upon arrival in the country," without arching one's eyebrow? Brigden's decision to borrow the title suggests the possibility.
In a way, art is like the atmosphere of a society. Art, it might be said, is a culture's weather. And the weather's been kind of nasty for a while. Experiment: Go to the library and spend the day looking through the archives they have of a respected art periodical like Artforum. Now, go to a quiet restaurant and inform the host or hostess that you will be having a light meal and trying to characterize the majority of the art of the last 30 years using the three words that best describe the reactions they intended to evoke. After being seated appropriately, you will undoubtedly write these three words down: Anger, disillusionment and elation. I include elation in the strict sense of being thrilled because you are smart enough to be both happily disillusioned and confidently filled with anger.
Many of you are no doubt balking at this experiment, maybe because it is unfair and inaccurate, but it gives me the opportunity to say that the art of the last 30 years has created a surplus of irony and a shortage of gratitude without sounding too unreasonable. Titling a show "Pastorale" in the current climate is a bold move. I was more taken aback by someone choosing to call a show of paintings "Pastorale" than I would be if the folks at Serta decided to give the name to their new mattress, and that's sad.
Setting out to make paintings that are based simply on being beautiful is a bold move. It could seem shallow, or it might appear to be dangerously close to the work of hobbyists. I mean, paintings of the sky are irrelevant in a way. Paintings of the sky don't shock us or wake us up. They don't change society. Paintings of the sky aren't new. Fortunately, they are beautiful, and original, and communicate not just the pleasure of good weather they communicate the pleasure of painting itself. They showcase a fine balance between the substantial qualities of oil paint and the atmospheric qualities of illusion. They are both present, as in, they are well-made things that give the illusion of being spaces and times of their own. With this small body of work, Brigden has managed to capture something special, something like the grace of good weather right at the moment you become aware of it.
Through October 28 at J Crist Gallery, 223 S. 17th St. (at Fairview), 336-2671, www.jcrist.com.