After reading Lake Superior, a remarkable collection of poems and short essays by Lorine Niedecker based on a road trip she had taken through the upper Midwest, artist Catherine Haggarty knew that one day she would work with that text in some way, either as a curator or a painter. Besides its title poem, which reflects Niedecker’s impressions of the landscape she viewed through the window of her Buick in the summer of 1966, this posthumous collection (1903–1970) weaves together diverse genres such as poems, travelogue, journal, and essays to explore what constitutes a sense of place or landscape. In her recent curatorial debut at Proto gallery for the exhibition entitled We Are What the Seas Have Made Us, Haggarty asked the participating artists, many of whom are based in Bushwick, to reflect on Niedecker’s incisive description of beauty and decay in the American landscape.
All the paintings in We Are What the Seas Have Made Us hover between pure abstraction and suggestive landscape. Each artist’s departure point is different. Yet, they all manipulate surface and material to convey a particular light quality, narrative hint, or sense of tactility. “Perhaps while viewing this show, the viewer could imagine a road trip out to the Midwest like Niedecker so famously did. I would be just as pleased if people walked through the gallery and relished in the artists’ ability to use both color and landscape as viable subjects in painting,” says Haggarty.
Artist Alan Prazniak, who was raised on a horse farm in rural Pennsylvania, conveys luminous and familiar yet uncategorized patterns that change forms and meaning under the viewer’s gaze. At first, his paintings may read as vegetation such as corn fields, only to appear next as abstracted animal forms such as a flock of birds or a school of fish. Despite the natural allusions, the intense luminosity in his fuzzy pictorial fields is reminiscent of a light emitted from a screen rather than celestial sources. With humorous titles such as Soda Jerk and more literary ones such as Fish Icarus, Prazniak adds another layer to his poetic and whimsical painterly landscape puzzles.
By contrast, artist the mixed-media panels by Daniel John Gadd seem more process oriented with an emphasis on the painting as object. His pieces manifest bold materiality through richly layered mixed media and, at times, unexpected juxtapositions. In Rosemma IV, for example, Gadd creates a delightful dialogue between the framed transparent yellow Plexiglass rectangle at bottom and the almost frameless pink square on top. In a context of what can be read as pure abstraction, a small horizontal piece of frame conveys an odd narrative of absence or loss, whereas a linear curve and the pink string spilling down in front of a yellow bottom add humorous punctuation.
Providing a more direct reference to Niedecker’s discourse with the sea are the paintings by artist Dana James. The Swimmer, for example, conveys fluid shapes of cerulean rectangles with rhythmic dark stripes that become a prelude to a tempestuous symphony of blues, whites, and a delicate magenta. The juxtaposition between the flat graphic quality at bottom and the romantic narrative on top creates an intriguing tension, evading a simplistic read.
As Untitled, the paintings by artist Yevgeniya Baras exist both literally and metaphorically in this show. They exist as parallel entities to the text of Lake Superior, beginning where the words end. Equipped with an inventive and lyrical painterly language, Baras coalesces opposing shapes, colors, and textures into a fresh and enigmatic pictorial universe. In Untitled (2015), she challenges traditional notions of pictorial Dos and Don’ts such as marking the canvas dead center with cartoonish buttonlike or targetlike black circles. She further scrambles notions of foreground and background, flatness, and perspective by creating a frame within a frame. A horizontal thick dark line that divides the image in two charts the landscape: The top layered white pigment suggests a sky, and the bottom textured rich ochers with pulsating dark vertical lines suggest the earth. The generated middle border is broken at the center by an outlined rectangle, which can read as a car, a house with hints of a human body, or a framed picture. Whatever name is attached to the form, it encapsulates an intimate narrative within a larger story.
Overall, both the curator and the participating artists successfully utilize Lake Superior as an inspiring point of departure to reflect on notions of landscape, creating their own unique worlds. Within the gallery, the placement of the paintings further plays with diversity in scale and palette. Amidst realms of individual characteristics, the viewer is left to explore a fluid experience in the vast yet intimate Proto space.
We Are What the Seas Have Made Us is on view until 23 August 2015 at Proto gallery, located at 66 Willow Avenue, Hoboken, New Jersey; gallery is open to the public Wednesday to Saturday, 10AM–4PM, or by appointment