Sunday, February 16, 2020

Helen Booth: Life, Death, Memory, and Paint


I first fell in love with Helen Booth's very moody abstract landscapes - dark visions of stark lights, half-shadows, and void-black spaces devoid of landmark or structure.

Helen Booth, Winter Light

Helen Booth, Moonrise

And she's been making compelling, evocative abstract work alongside these for a while (her career spans 30 years). In Essence, I, II and III, below, the glowing lacework of looping lines sometimes allude to branches in a snowy landscape and other times to nothing but themselves, a bit like Cy Twombley's line-as-calligraphic-mark.

Helen Booth, Essence, 2008
Helen Booth, Essence II, 2008

What she's making now has me even more interested in her work, and her process of getting there is a great reminder to "trust thyself." In her paintings of the last two years, for which she has been awarded two prestigious grants, from the Pollock-Krasner and Adolph Gottlieb foundations, she concentrates on "the limitless variations of the single dot, and how the individual marks when placed side by side create a dialogue."

Helen Booth, Stardust, 145 cm x 145 cm, 2019

Helen Booth, Black on Black, 150 x 225cm, 2019

Helen Booth, Falling Water, 100 cm x 80 cm,  2019

This is really essential painting, yet for her (and I find for myself as well) it's full of meaning and suggestion. "The dot itself can be many things," she says, "a puncture wound, a beginning, an end, an existence or a loss. It can be the end of a sentence or a punctuation in a landscape. It can symbolize life and it can represent death - a full stop."

Her approach to the canvas seems at once more direct, more authentic, and more introspective and metaphysical, now that she's entering into the material in a way that the concrete references to the landscape didn't permit.

"Memory is also fundamental to my ideas," she says, "both personal memory and how it changes and morphs over a lifetime, and also the memory of Nature. How the magnitude of space and its incomprehensible meaning can also be found in the most micro of organisms." The "dot" in her work, then, can be a star or it can be a cell.

Helen Booth, Winter 1978, 150CM x 150CM, 2016

A trip to Iceland following a distressing period in hospital for complications from an abdominal procedure reinforced her personal belief that, "Nature is the most powerful force and that trying to capture the essence of nature in its purist form is what is important to me as an artist. The cycle of birth and rebirth, in life and in nature is key."

It took shaking the foundations (of her self and her career) for her to see it. "I felt that my landscape paintings had been exhausted," she told me in an email. "I was producing work that felt disconnected in so many ways. It was difficult, and still is to a certain extent, because my galleries expected me to produce the same work - and I did lose quite a few of my regular exhibition opportunities. When I was studying at Wimbledon School of Art, and when I was obviously 30 years younger, I spent a lot of my time experimenting with different ways to paint - and essentially just made work - without thinking too much about what it was that I was trying to achieve."

"After a particularly scary time health-wise (which thankfully wasn't too serious in the end), I realized that I had to make work that was truthful. I literally just started to work without thinking too much, losing myself in the beauty of paint again. A trip to Iceland earlier this year firmed up so many ideas. My advice would be to just stop, if you can, and just follow your instincts and allow yourself the time and space to make mistakes. If you are like me, you will eventually find that you are making work that feels right."


Helen Booth, Repetition, 40x30cm, 2019

Helen Booth, White, 144cmx144cm, 2019
These works can recall the intricate and hypnotic white-on-white paintings of Agnes Martin:

Agnes Martin, Morning, 1965

Booth finds in Martin's Beauty is the Mystery of Life essay, published in 1989, a sort of clarion call for meaningful, if minimal, abstraction: "It is commonly thought that everything that is, can be put into words. But there is a wide range of emotional response that we make that cannot be put into words. We are so used to making these emotional responses that we are not consciously aware of them till they are represented in art work.” 

Like Martin's, Booth’s paintings apply an elemental, monochromatic aesthetic that offers a contemplative visual experience. If Martin goes zen in the chant-like repetition of tiny grid-lines (to state it crudely), Booth taps into the wabi-sabi of the pared-down mark - the point - t and finds it gorgeous with the organic, weathered beauty of imperfection.


It's fascinating to see her imagination zooming in and out in this series as she fully explores the concept. The work feels primal, simple and ordered yet pregnant with chaotic energy. I can imagine her in her studio excitedly saying to herself, "what if..." and "Oh wait, what if..." That's the place of enthusiasm (from en-theos, literally inhabited by the god/muse), a place I think any artist really needs and wants to live in. I'm inspired by her evolution and her bravery in stepping into authenticity.

Finally, here's a cool, short video on the continuing importance of landscape, and Iceland in particular, to her work.












Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Cat Balco's Exploding Stars in NYC



The sparks fly at Cat Balco's solo show My Exploding Stars at Rick Wester Fine Art in New York through January 25, 2020.


Cat is a fellow writer for Art New England, which is how we met. She makes large, dynamic geometric abstractions that envelop the viewer in color so vibrant and electric you can practically sun bathe in it. 

Foregrounding process and the basic elements of visual art, My Exploding Stars feels like an ode to painting itself. The palette emphasizes primary colors, giving the work a stripped down, modernistic, Pop Art-like vibe.



Yet the paintings lean in strongly toward abstract expressionism, because the material is very much allowed to act like paint. For example, the artist creates a sense of dynamic motion by turning the paintings as they dry to allow drips to reach in contrary directions.




Cat's brushstrokes are bold, declarative, strongly directional, and GIANT - she painted this work with a long-handled broom, which the gallery is displaying alongside the paintings. As a technique, this isn't new, but for the artist it's a reference to working class roots.


The paintings are gorgeous, vibrant, and feel very alive. For anyone who loves painting, My Exploding Stars should be a welcome celebration of color and light.




Monday, October 21, 2019

All Things Bright and Beautiful - Pollock, Bloom & Grosse at the MFA

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts is offering a rare opportunity to see some of the essential aspects of  modern painting laid bare, as if under the intense illumination of an educational anatomical theater.

In two concurrent exhibitions, adjoining rooms link a survey of the late Boston painter Hyman Bloom's work with a gallery containing one of Jackson Pollock's most important paintings along with a contemporary painter's answer to it.

Katharina Grosse, Untitled, 2017, with Jackson Pollock's Mural in the background.

Bloom painted to great acclaim in his day but when the New York abstract expressionist scene he helped to inspire took off, he stubbornly dug his heels into Boston and stuck to representation, and therefore has largely been neglected until now. Pollock painted his breakthrough 1943 Mural for a hallway in Peggy Guggenheim's Manhattan townhouse when he was still relatively unknown and it launched his career.


Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943

At 48 feet wide by 16 feet high, Katharina Grosse's room-sized kaleidoscopic response to Pollock's Mural says a lot about the distance between contemporary practice and the mid-20th-century Pollock that inspired it. A freestanding painting hanging from floor to ceiling in the middle of the gallery, Grosse's Untitled is meant to be walked around and "enjoyed in the round," as the wall text says. The text notes that it fits into her recent body of free-hanging works which "investigate painting's potential to live off the wall, to respond to and confront the world." As this insightful reviewer says in passing while writing about Hyman Bloom's work, it "extends the post-easel scale championed by Clement Greenberg," the critic who really launched Pollock's career (as Greeberg put words around the nascent abstract expressionist movement at the time). 

But it doesn't "confront" the world so much as get a little in the way of it, occupying as it does a very substantial space between painting and sculpture. But that's part of the point, and it is delightful to be immersed in (if not quite "confronted" with) so much luminous color (light shines through the canvas, illuminating it from both sides). She's updated Pollock's colors but is working with basically the same palette of dripped and blurring pinks, whites, yellows and greens.

DETAIL: Katharina Grosse, Untitled, 2017
In style and conception, Grosse's work combines the sensibility of abstract expressionism with the saturated colors of Pop and the materials (spray-paint and stencils) of contemporary street art. The result is a visual symphony of intricate yet exuberant painterly gestures and ravishing passages of eye-popping color. Surely the curators had something like this in mind when in an inspired move they placed one of Hyman Bloom's equally colorful canvases at the juncture between the two exhibitions.

Along with Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Pollock greatly admired Bloom, tagging him as "the first abstract expressionist," a moniker he rejected. There's so much to say about Bloom's incredibly vital paintings. However, I wouldn't have to say anything if they were treated as they should be: hanging in the world's most prestigious museums alongside peers Goya, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, and above all Rembrandt and Chaim Soutine. 

I can't get my arms around the this exhibition far enough to document it here. Just go see it (if you are willing and capable of seeing paintings of corpses and flayed bodies as beautiful). Bloom's unforgettable and unflinching paintings are visceral and visionary, philosophical and spiritual, grotesque and beautiful, as difficult to look at as they are to look away from once their scintillating skeins of color have charmed your eyes.


Hyman Bloom, Rocks and Autumn Leaves, 1949-51

DETAIL: Hyman Bloom, Rocks and Autumn Leaves, 1949-51

Looking back from the Hyma Bloom toward Grosse's Untitled - photographing it for interesting color effects is absolutely the appropriate response to this work.

Hyman Bloom, Autopsy, 1953

DETAIL: Hyman Bloom, Autopsy, 1953




Bloom proves the lie to the notion that scientific dissection destroys beauty. His subjects may be flayed bodies and cadavers undergoing autopsy, but his paintings are really about the redemption and transformation of flesh and gross matter into transcendent spiritual fire. Bloom smashes open the human body to reveal that its veins and organs are glowing wings and feathery flows ablaze and humming with mystical significance.

Hyman Bloom, Self-Portrait, 1948

DETAIL: Hyman Bloom, Self-Portrait, 1948

Hyman Bloom, The Anatomist, 1953

DETAIL: Hyman Bloom, The Anatomist, 1953

Woe to the painter who gets sandwiched between Pollock and Hyman Bloom!







I'm afraid that, between Bloom's life-and-death pyrotechnics and Pollock's writhing archetypal abstractions, Katharina Grosse's otherwise sparkling and enjoyable painting comes up short. The Pollock alone shreds it.



Why? Because when you stand and look at the Pollok you don’t just see colors and shapes. If you study it and listen, allowing it to say what it has to tell you, you will begin to free associate and see into your own subjective experiences, into memories and archetypes, hints of mysteries, beauties, and horrors. You will absolutely see a procession (the dark, rhythmical vertical lines), suggesting a ritual pagan dance and/or a mournful human cortege, and you will realize it's a radical take on one of the most ancient forms of visual art, the frieze (figures arranged in a horizontal strip, as along the sides of the Parthenon). You see parts of animals, you see heads, torsos, bodies, and when you step back you see raw primitive forces liberated from any body, all rendered with constant tension between elegance and excess, the raw and the refined. 




You see movement, force, primal life concentrated, distilled and set in motion - because in the colors and the forms there is clearly pink flesh, splattered blood, tearing matter, bone, and animating spirit. It is a different proposition entirely from Grosse's colorful, even cheerful sprays and drips. There you will see nothing of the sort.

But I suppose one might accuse the Pollock in this reading of being "overdetermined," burdened with an excess of drama, and that's fine. But why does the answer to such have to be frivolity? Why bright shiny things that catch the eye, beauty without any angst - as if angst itself were passe. As if our world were any more stable than it was in 1943.

So is it old fashioned now, as the Grosse implies, to seek meaning in art beyond intellectual games? Is it old fashioned to want art to impinge on the human condition? Shouldn't we all just be content with the jolt of novelty, the play of ideas, the seduction of an exquisite entertainment? I don’t think so. I think if Grosse was a grittier thinker, maybe it could’ve been a more meaningful dialogue.


Whereas Bloom was interested in what's beneath the surface, Grosse's work is appropriately titled Untitled, because ultimately (compared to the Pollocks and Blooms) it's a painting of nothing. That is, its surface is its content, in that it's largely about painting-as-colors-sprayed-onto-the-air. To paraphrase, Grosse herself sees the work as very like her "murals" (think artistically spray-painted buildings) lifted off their structures and inserted into space. It's not that Grosse isn't a brilliant colorist, a maddeningly fine painter and a daring conceptualist to boot. It's that putting her next to giants like Pollock and Hyman Bloom and lauding her, as the wall text does, as "one of her generation's most important artists" (she was born in 1961, btw) really just underlines the lack of gutsy, substantive painting on the contemporary scene today.


And that is why Bloom was a visionary and Jackson Pollck's "Mural" will last as long as civilization manages to carry on while Katherina Grosse's beautiful Untitled will be forgotten.


Thursday, October 3, 2019

Beauty, Death, and The Otherworldly in Art - Bill Jensen, Painter

Bill Jensen makes resonant, living paintings of great emotional density that resist the application of definitions, ideologies, and “pictorial strategies.” 


Bill Jensen, Louhan (Dark Angel), 2010-11, 28x23 in.

This painting, for example, doesn't represent anything in a traditional manner, and yet, at least in my experience, if you stand in front of Louhan (in eastern mythology, an angel of death) in a receptive state, you will find yourself reacting to it with an inexplicable, contradictory combination of fear, fascination, repulsion, and attraction. This feeling will move in you like something alien and alive for which you have no words. All of this and more hit me while I gazed at it, even before I knew the title (or at least what the word louhan meant). Nor am I the only one to react to it this way (the gallerist knew just what he was doing when he told me to “just stand in front of it for a minute”). I felt this painting emote a deep-seated, almost palpable presence.

Obviously, all that you have to judge by here is a tiny flat jpeg, so you'll have to take my word for it. But I want to use this painting and my experience for a meditation on the ability of a certain kind of art to make us feel something powerful without words, images, or definite ideas. 


Indeterminacy is not the same as meaningless. The former opens a field of possibilities, the latter closes them down. The art in painting isn't in the scene pictured or even in the skill with which the scene is rendered. It's in the work itself, inherent in all of its material (and immaterial, i.e. conceptual, emotional, psychological) aspects. It's in the alchemy of paint and the composition of an independent construct - what Cezanne called a "parallel harmony with nature.” As Motherwell said, "You don’t have to paint a figure in order to express human feelings. The game is not what things look like; the game is organizing states of feeling, and states of feeling become questions of light, color, weight, solidity, airiness, lyricism, whatever." (1)

Seeking recourse in philosophy, Louhan is a near-perfect illustration of German metaphysician Karlfried Graf Durckheim's definition of "the numinous," or otherworldly, related to (but a broader concept than) the sacred. "It takes in the ambivalence, the darker side of the Absolute," he writes. "There is always something in it that both terrifies and fascinates us... Using C.G. Jung's word, it "overpowers" us, and lifts us, with a force that both exhilarates and frightens us, out of the world-ego's everyday sphere and into another dimension, destroying and liberating us at the same time. When it does this, it always carries us in some sense beyond ourselves.... The numinous, which incorporates the sacred, is the quality in which the Absolute touches us in a very general sense."(2)

This is the realm of Rilke's Angel, his concept of beauty, which is anything but "pretty," harmonious, or comforting. "Every Angel is terrifying," he writes in the first Duino Elegy:


"and even if one of the pressed me suddenly against his heart
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because of how it serenely disdains to annihilate us."

Beauty, Death, the Sublime

 Sometime around the 20th century's two world wars, "beauty" in art got a bad rap. Although centuries earlier influential philosopher Edmund Burke denigrated it below what he called the sublime, others after him incorporated the sublime into the beautiful. In Burke, the realms of the beautiful and the sublime are both realms of feeling, but finally the beautiful is associated with things which belong to the understanding, and the sublime with what can only be felt. Beauty which incorporates naivety (or irony) and sentimental doting is kitsch. Beauty which incorporates death is sublime.

In almost the same terms that Rilke, Durckheim, and Jung use, Burke defined the sublime as “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, whatever is … terrible…There is something so over-ruling in whatever inspires us with awe, in all things which belong ever so remotely to terror, that nothing else can stand in their presence.”(3)

For Durckheim the numinous is a real quality in the world, in so far as our experience is always an amalgam of the objective and the subjective. Individuals can access and develop the "sensitive consciousness" of the Absolute via cultivation of a special kind of receptive "listening and being open from within." It's one of the things I sensed Jensen's Louhan had to teach me.

Here is what the curators at Cheim & Reed had to say about Jensen's painting (these links work, by the way, and they go to nice large images): "With its dense compositions, Jensen's work is primal and instinctive; the viewer's visceral reaction is a very important part of their impact. Jensen's work ranges widely in tone, showing different aspects of the psyche.  Louhan is an impressive piece, that immediately grabs hold of the viewer. With the deep black center and washed out colors, the gaping black might appear to swallow its surroundings.  But instead there is a luminosity to the work.  The dark angel of the title becomes quite present as energy appears to radiate from the black. The thin colors, then, appear like tendrils of flame, set alight by this presence. However, the specter of the dark angel is not necessarily wholly negative. The background does glow gold and purple, and theres is a sense of wonder at work here. This mixes with the ominous presence to create an intense experience, perhaps akin to the sublime." 

With little to no knowledge of Jensen, his work, or how people describe it, I absolutely found this to be true. I was told to put myself in an open, receptive state in front of it, and as soon as I did, I spontaneously experienced the "ominous presence" in the painting without even knowing the subject (only later learning Louhan = dark angel). Just like Burke suggests with the sublime, I  registered its content on the gut level, by visceral feeling alone, rather than the feeling-thinking-back-and-forth that happens to me in front of a lot of other paintings. It was like something, some sort of aura or presence, was physically emanating and coming out of the painting. Evidently I'm not the only one who feels this way about his work.




Here is another Jensen that must be incredible in person. I imagine it's like peering into a cave or a dark room before your eyes adjust and sensing movement somewhere within. By his own and others' accounts, Jensen achieves such uncanny effects by working entirely at the physical level of the paint, outside the boundaries of representation, manifesting an emotional “presence” neither wholly conceptual nor concrete. It's like he inhabits the medium and invests it with independent volition. His paintings have been likened to “self-contained beings” that can “affect the world around them.” His works aren't paintings of things so much as things in their own right, like organisms or beasts one would encounter alone in nature, under a microscope, or in a dream. 

That sounds hard to believe of course, because none of it comes through in the tiny digital images you can see online. I've experienced his work in person though, as I say, and it's one of the strangest, unforgettable experiences I've ever had. It's an extreme example of what Russian Formalist Viktor Schlovksy called "defamiliarization," or making strange," which has been linked by others to Freud's sense of the uncanny, in which a work of art or literature's mixture of the eerie and the familiar create an unsettling feeling rife with the suppressed content and impulses of the unconscious.

You have to engage with this work in a wholly different way than you would look at paintings rendered in the European tradition, where art is expected to represent something visually recognizable. You have to free associate from them. Note however, that's different from making up meanings for the work, which suggests the work is meaningless in itself and "can mean whatever you want it to mean." Nope. Not at all.


Work like Jensen's raises profound, even spiritual questions about painting. How can something completely lacking in recognizable (much less representational) subject matter (not mention even definite "meaning") so strongly affect viewers psychological and emotionally? That it does so would seem to fly in the face of Western art history and criticism, wiping away vast libraries full of volumes on whether line or color are more important, on abstraction vs. realism, on the nature of representation, and on and on. It's all irrelevant in the presence of one of these paintings. 

To bring it back to the mundane, I suspect it has to do with the colors and the qualities of the marks, the traces of physical gesture in the paint. Or perhaps Jensen taps into a visual language of the unconscious, embodying subliminal suggestions in the forms themselves, like symbols, archetypes of evocation. There could be a cognitive science of paint, I'm sure, like Noam Chomsky's Linguistics tracing the deep structures of the human language, but who the hell would want to read it? Naming something doesn't necessarily help us experience or understand it.





To put it more broadly, the only explanation I have is that, like Jackson Pollock, Jensen doesn't use paint to represent anything specific in nature, he uses it to embody nature itself in extremis. Maybe how he differs from Pollock is in his use of symbolism (emphatically absent in Pollock) - an idiosyncratic yet powerful symbolic shorthand - that is, maybe he could be said to be making symbolic representations of life forces, from the minute particulate cellular level to the enormous. Or maybe not.

He somehow incites the raw, visceral materiality of paint (color, quality of mark, god knows what else) in order to, as one of his curators says, "leave the viewer with clearer eyes and a deeper appreciation for the strange, beautiful tensions of the human condition."





In Jensen's oeuvre, painting is a paradox, a meeting place between substance and aura, existence and essence (in terms of the categories of Satrean existentialism). It's a totally different aesthetic than that of mainstream abstract art. His art is uncanny.




Jensen has been hailed as heir to Albert Pinkham Ryder, whom he acknowledges as a major inspiration and goes out of his way to celebrate and defend: Ryder, who said, "Art does not render the visible, but makes visible." Ryder's sensibility is key here to. And the gist of the following description of Ryder's work in 1920 could be paraphrased today and apply equally to Jensen's: "In the very depths of even the most unfathomable of (his paintings) there are impalpable suggestions of secret beauty. (Ryder's marines) are big in a way more important than that of mere size. The boat that appears in them is a sensible symbol of Life presented in such a manner as to illustrate forcibly the uncertainty that encompasses it."(4)

It isn't conceptual art. There's nothing about this work that requires dense, Continental theory to prop it up or explain it. In fact, its existence constitutes something of a refutation thereof. That alone should be enough to recommend it.





Here's a gallery of Bill Jensen's work. I neglected to get the dimensions of these, but suffice it to say they're modestly sized (only as big as they need to be for a viewer to stand in front and encounter it intimately, one-on-one).


Don't know but this looks like the abduction of Europa.

I also forgot to note the titles, but actually that may be for the best, as you can see how vivid and powerful they are even without them. Just don't make the mistake of breezing through the images and assuming they mean nothing. Give them the benefit of the doubt - stop, look, and free associate.


ecstatic - like an Eastern van Gogh!


like a hulking figure.... okay I'll stop and leave it to you
























Looks like scribbles but give it a chance - it's also hair, tentacles, snakes, parasitic worms, and the way it's dripping: veins, viscera .... uncanny and chthonic!


I so need this painting...





A phoenix of rising from death ... I think of van Gogh's cornfield with crows

for me, this looks eerily like a bleeding virgin Mary (crown of thorns suggested) and a crow at the same time

















early - a homage to Ryder (title: "Ryder's Eye")

another early one

Figures in a landscape anyone....?



early again
















triptych. too cool.




















as sheer design they're great too

fantastic! no?? Flowers, bones, masks, ribbons, veins and internal organs....


Like a purely symbolic Gaugin, a la "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?"





1. Motherwell, Robert, documentary film, Robert Motherwell & the New York School: Storming the Citadel, 1991.
2. Durckheim, Karlfried Graf, Absolute Living, Viking Penguin, 1992, p. 124.
3. Burke, Edmund, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1757. 
4. Sherman, Frederic Fairchild, Albert Pinkham Ryder, New York, privately printed, 1920.


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