Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Judith Barbour Osborne: "Synchronized with ... head and heart"

“A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once. It’s an immediate image ... one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute.”
                                                                                                            Helen Frankenthaler

“Really good” pictures tend not to happen “at once,” though, as Frankenthaler knew better than anyone.  Her “Madame Butterfly” woodcut, below, is composed of 102 colors, from 46 woodblocks, and measures 2 meters (6 ½ feet) wide (www.nga.gov.au/exhibition/Frankenthaler). The print is far wider than one wrist motion, and took a bit longer to put together than one minute. And yet, when we look:

 ... this woodcut doesn’t make us feel anything that isn’t in this moment, right now. All we see is that Frankenthaler had a way of making paint and inks float away from their supports, whether she poured or printed.   And somehow you don’t want to solve the mystery of those floating images. You fall in with them, as you would any compelling natural landscape. 

Her work is sometimes critiqued as “just too pretty,” a damning phrase designed to undercut the work and its maker, yet artist Amy Sillman says there’s no “just” about it:

Frankenthaler’s taste and grace are tough, like ballerina grace: those women aren’t sugarplum fairies but muscular athletes, with machinelike, disciplined bodies. Frankenthaler is in an incredible athletic decision-making process while working... It’s an experiment with the alchemic and extreme reliance on color as material and as optics...
                                    “House of Frankenthaler,” printed in The heroine Paint,  p. 267

Sometimes, it takes another artist to see the underpinnings of a work, along with the artist’s consciousness and experience that remain (almost) invisible.  When I see work this strong, I want to know that some artist, somewhere, has seen the work and is willing to try and take on its challenges.                                                                                                                                                                                               
Judith Barbour Osborne is a likely suspect.  She has several shows on at the moment in Connecticut galleries.  I have just come from her Exit Gallery show at the Essex Art Association (an opportunity given as an award, the highest the gallery offers), and then I visited more work in a show at the Guilford Art Center. 

Osborne has worked with poets and musicians...  She works with words as well as paints, choosing to bring meaning into the light, to make “aspects of non-visual reality visible, as if staining the wind” (JBO artist statement).  Judith  Barbour Osborne’s compact show in Essex, “Staining the Wind,” is a master class in making an intimate space feel immense. She works in smaller spaces than Frankenthaler, yet she manages to create huge effects with her close studies. I think she has found the very next level after Frankenthaler, and pushed it to its very limits. Here is her “Revelation # 4”:

 It has a calming presence, for me, although Osborne says that she generally hears people talk about the energy in her work.  It may be that calm and energy come from the same core place, in us, the place that relaxes by the sea or in the mountain air. In the artwork before us we find words, too, embedded in the paint and inks, just barely there, like a whisper or the strain of a song being sung far away. Osborne says this is an integral part of her work: “My artwork is text-based and utilizes elements of chance and intention. I abstractly write text with tools ranging from small hand-made brushes to mops and brooms, from syringes to batiking tools”  (see the site where she has worked together with a poet on an artist’s book: www.vampandtramp.com/finepress/o/judith-b-osborne.html).

Here is
“Revelation # 3,” also at the Essex Art Association:

 and a detail:

All the marks Osborne makes seem interconnected, indivisible from one another. As we stand before them, we see that there is no looking at one mark, or one place in the painting. The eye moves over the whole surface, the whole “landscape.”  She has made a whole world, here.

Osborne is not only connected back to painters like Frankenthaler, though. She is thinking forward, so she is also the director of a group of ten artists, Gallery One (http://www.galleryonect.com) and they are exhibiting work at the Mill Gallery of the Guilford Art Center (through May 15, 2016). They support and encourage one another, a gallery without walls. The works as a whole make a very strong showing. Here is one of the pieces,  Osborne’s “Revelations # 1”:

and a detail:

This is a painting created with transparent inks, brushstrokes, and splattered marks, and it is luminous.  It was a rainy and gray day outside, so we lingered indoors as long as we could, staying with the art. The courage it takes to leave all that “blank” space in an artwork... fierce.  The words and the strokes from the artist’s hand somehow turn us inward, crawl inside some empty space we must have been leaving there, a space exactly as big as art.

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