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Femininity and the abstract truth: Paintings by North Carolina women on view in extended show at GreenHill
GreenHill’s ‘North Carolina Women Abstract Painters’

Femininity and the abstract truth: Paintings by North Carolina women on view in extended show at GreenHill

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The recent easing of pandemic-related business restrictions has allowed the reopening of museums and visual art centers across the state. The shift seems reasonable in this case, since most such venues are rarely crowded except during receptions and other special events.

Among those that have reopened with reasonable masking and social-distancing guidelines in place is GreenHill, which I recently visited for the first time since before the shutdown.

The center’s exhibition “North Carolina Women Abstract Painters” opened in February and was about midway through its originally scheduled run when it was forced to shut down. I hadn’t seen it, so I was glad to learn it had been extended into early November.

The show brings together recent paintings and other works by five artists whose work includes no overt figural content and steers clear of the contentious political issues engaged by much current art. In the latter respect, it offers a respite from the pressing concerns that have dominated most of our lives in recent months. Viewers are likely to find it calming, if occasionally bland.

Literal-minded viewers often find themselves frustrated by abstract art’s lack of visual “certainty.” Barbara Ellis emphasizes this aspect of the genre in her painting of that title, at 33-by-64 inches, her largest work in the show. It features the word “certainly” turned sideways, in loose, black cursive, appearing to float freely in the lower left quadrant.

Otherwise the painting’s only identifiable, “certain” features are its sponged-on colors (blue, green, red, iridescent gold and shades of gray) and loose, linear markings that resemble shaded areas as in quick sketches.

In a formally related vein are Ellis’ smaller paintings on paper or unstretched canvas. She employs written language in only one of them, “Purple,” which resembles a child’s finger-painting in dark grey and deep blue. Close inspection reveals the phrase “Purple ever showed” scrawled in the lower left, prompting a question as to exactly what colors we’re seeing here.

Felicia van Bork is represented by two distinct approaches to abstraction. Each of her six, uniformly sized “Radical Tenderness Paintings” consists of horizontally elongated lozenge shapes, loosely brushed in shades ranging from white to mauve, dark brown and dark blue. These shapes, also uniformly sized, are stacked one atop the other against stark white backgrounds.

The effects are underwhelming — the visual equivalent of Muzak, or perhaps simply too radically tender for my eye.

Far more engaging are the 13 works in van Bork’s smaller “How to” series — each 14 inches square — and two much larger, formally related works in GreenHill’s entry alcove. Each one conjures a sense of illusionistic, three-dimensional space. They’re essentially abstracted landscapes composed in part from painted, cut-out bits of canvas or other fabric. With their predominance of bold hues, they’re the most chromatically wide-ranging pieces in the show.

Katy Mixon’s two largest works are grid-format quilts whose individually stitched, squares have cut-out fabric triangles sewn onto them. The latter components appear to have been cut from larger pieces of muslin oil, painted in a brushy, abstract-expressionist vein. Her palette ranges from ivory to darker shades, with fiery flashes of yellow and orange.

The amorphously shaped areas of contrasting color forming the grounds of Mixon’s smaller panel paintings have been painstakingly carved or gouged out to create fields of tiny shapes suggesting proliferations of spilled seeds, staples or hooks. All of her contributions to the show look extremely labor-intensive.

The show’s most chromatically subdued works are those of Eleanor Annand, whose primary medium is milk paint. Two of her four paintings are subdivided into linear, geometric-abstract shapes, while the shapes in the other two are darker and more amorphously geometric.

Annand’s fifth piece, “Rest III,” is the show’s lone sculpture, consisting of multiple, tubular, cast-paper forms sequentially sewn together in a manner reminiscent of strung sausages. Milk-painted in white and shades of gray, these strings of painted cylinders are loosely draped over a semi-circular, wall-mounted armature to create a cluster of upside-down u shapes.

Highlighting the exhibition are Celia Johnson’s encaustic paintings and collages, whose hard-edged, chromatically contrasting components interlock like puzzle pieces. Johnson makes striking use of bold colors set off against areas of white, black and other darker hues. The highly polished surfaces of her encaustic paintings render them particularly effective.

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