Opening, Thursday, 2/23 6-8pm
Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects presents a group exhibition entitled Dark Matters, with five painters: Andrea Belag, Ryan Cobourn, Arthur Dove, Bill Jensen, and Ellen Phelan. The show explores the meeting-point of abstraction and landscape, the materiality of paint, the process of mark-making, and the creation of light through darkness.
The paintings have in common an examination of the space and power that can be accessed within a close tonal range. This subtle range has been explored by New York School painters such as Reinhardt, Rothko and Still. Dark Matters presents a multi-generational group of painters who have utilized the darker chromatic spectrum to explore various expressive interests. These dark paintings represent just one aspect of the artists’ work at large, and, in many cases, have not previously been exhibited.
The exhibition includes two important early works by Arthur Dove (1880-1946) the seminal American abstract painter associated with the Stieglitz Group. One is from c.1913, the other from 1917-20. Both are pitched in a nocturnal key related to charcoal drawings that Dove made in the 1910s and indicate his connection to machine-age abstraction as well as what Dove termed “nature symbolized.”
The conception for the show evolved out of conversations with the artists during the particularly harsh New York City winter of 2010/11. In both Belag and Cobourn’s processes, there is a peripheral / tangential relationship to the windows of their studios. Belag notes, “During the winter months my palette tends to go dark. Unfortunately, I can’t see color spatially in artificial light; therefore I only paint in natural light.” Belag’s painting is all about exquisite liquid color applied with a broad, transparent stroke, while Cobourn paints more thickly, with more body. An ongoing theme in Belag’s work is the experience of being covered, transparencies and light seen through darkness, and what she calls the “Dark Side,” referring to all things mysterious and foreign, based on childhood visions. Cobourn does not work from life, but recognizes that the weather infiltrates the studio. He stated, “I was working on a series of landscapes over the winter, but at times I had to paint these monochromatic, gray and white paintings to get the winter out before I could explore color,” also saying, “I can’t paint the day without painting the night.”
The painters in this exhibition also share an intense focus on the materials and tools of painting: Belag uses big brushes, some of which are custom-made in Germany for oil paint, and large watercolor brushes from Japan and China. Cobourn uses handmade, small-batch oil colors, and also makes his whites, mediums, and grounds from scratch. Jensen has, for years, devoted himself to the exploration of pigments: the subject of his work often seems to be the paint itself. Jensen states, “I think that one of my responsibilities is to uncover the energies that material possesses… That part of knowledge is also part of feeling… If you hand-grind your paint, you know that every pigment, every color, is a different texture.”
The paintings by Jensen exhibited here come from his Ape Herd series (the title derives from a contemporary Chinese poem by Mang Ke), in which Jensen used Caput Mortum (Spanish Earth) and Dioxin Violet. They were begun in a period that Jensen has characterized as one of “Terrible loss, and then you had 9/11, and wars. Then you had close friends dying, then you had cancer and surgeries and things. A lot of things were going on. I didn’t start out to make black paintings. I would be working on a painting with lots of color and all of a sudden it would start to close down on itself into this deep violet.”
The scale of the works exhibited is another point of connection amongst the artists: each of the artists explores how to create emotional resonance and power without necessarily using a large format. Jensen has pointed to Dove (as well as Albert Pinkham Ryder and Myron Stout) as predecessors in this. “Seeing the presence this work that didn’t rely on large physical scale reinforced the belief in what I was doing, that in our mind’s eye, when something is deeply felt, it takes up the whole world, and that is scale.”
Ellen Phelan employs sfumato – smoky atmospheric space – in her paintings. A recent painting, Autumn Bay, plays with this technique, allowing her to suggest not just a hazy day, but also the meeting-point of photography, landscape, and abstraction. As Ken Johnson has noted, “Phelan blurs, smears, scumbles and otherwise abstracts, creating silky, smooth surfaces enlivened by a quiet, deft gesturalism. We seem to see through a nostalgic haze, as if these images were Proustian memories rather than immediate realities.” Phelan has long explored darkness and close tonal range in her work. The show will also include a work from the 1970s – an oil-on-aluminum diptych, where we sense that alchemical investigation of materiality, and the emotive range that can be achieved within the darker spectrum.
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Simultaneously, in our rear gallery, we are exhibiting two paintings by Bob Witz. Witz is the founder/editor of the literary magazine APPEARANCES. His paintings navigate a no-man’s land between abstraction and representation. Faces of significant cultural figures float in an abstract sea, a head of Madonna or Mondrian bumps up against circular motifs reminiscent of Richard Pousette-Dart. Witz’s work is simultaneously conceptual, painterly, figurative, reductive, literary, erudite and naive, creating a new model of painterly organization. Witz’s paintings will be surveyed in an exhibition curated by Phong Bui at the New York Studio School opening in late March 2012.
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