Three outstanding abstract artists, now on display in Hudson Valley galleries

A piece by Donald Elder

If you are not an aficionado of abstract art, three solo exhibitions on display this month at galleries in Shady, Hudson and Poughkeepsie may convert you, especially if you take your time and linger before the work.

The three artists have widely divergent styles (one is a sculptor, two painters). Collectively, the work of Donald Elder, Pamela Blum and Stephen Niccolls — all residents of the region — offer a satisfying immersion into a vanguard of imaginative possibilities. These artists are not only deeply committed to their craft, but also consistently tap fresh veins of inspiration. Each work brings a new challenge and a new resolution. Their styles are instantly recognizable without being formulaic.

Elena Zang Gallery, on a terraced garden on Route 212 in Shady, has been representing Donald Elder for 22 years. His current show, which opened October 28, consists of paintings made in the last year and a half. The work is remarkable for its breadth and epic invention.

Advertisement

The layered surfaces of Elder’s lyrical nature-inspired paintings revel in the application of paint — slathered on with the palette knife, wiped off, reapplied, and in some cases overlaid by vigorous pencil scribblings reminiscent of Cy Twombly. Some paintings are conceived as gestural fields, others as discrete shapes or color masses fused or overlaid with graphite against a ground. Still others are sublime Turneresque explorations of atmosphere and light or notational still lifes.

Though they eschew literal representation, Elder’s paintings powerfully evoke the dappled surfaces of ponds, interspersed with flowers; masses of grasses in an autumn mist; pink flowers in a vase, whose snake-like stems, smudges of dark pink and shifting atmospheres conveying an animation that subverts the notion of still life. There are riotous jostlings of saturated hues in a flower garden and the sulfuric glow of stormy skies. The paintings are forces of nature in themselves.

Elder, who had his first gallery show when he was just 21, is constantly observing the effects of light and color in the landscape, filing them away in repositories of visual memory. He depicts “close-ups of the landscape,” he said, and paints what nature actually looks like for him: “Nature is abstract. You don’t see the details.” His two-acre garden on the border between Woodstock and Saugerties is a constant source of inspiration for him, as are the reflective surfaces of his ponds.

He begins by laying a couple of colors down and working on multiple canvases simultaneously, sometimes putting them aside and picking them up again weeks later. His calligraphic marks, sense of flowing space and spare, concise patterning attest to the strong influence of Asian art.

Two works by Pamela Blum

Chance also plays a part: “One mark tells you where to go next,” he said. “You lay in a block of color and it turns into something you didn’t expect. Accidents are the most important thing in a painting. The key is knowing when to keep them.”

The Asiatic influence, along with that of Turner, is particularly evident in a painting on paper (none of his works have titles) in which a black scribbled mass on the left just belong the center is balanced by a brown and black mass on the right. Warm silver tones rise like mist or smoke from the two masses. Swirling graphite lines convey movement and a delicate, vigorous texture, along with subtle strokes of white. Large gray areas fill the canvas in a vaguely butterfly shape, bordered by white on either side and penetrated by white at the top. While its elements are spare, tonally limited, an affair of pencil lines, muted paint, and crisp rivulets of black, the painting conveys a monumental feel of a whitened winter sun shining over a field of grasses and seedpods. Elder guides the eye through the painting, always inviting the viewer in, as though the painting were an actual landscape we could bodily navigate.

The show also contains smaller works, including 48 six-by-four-inch pieces whose diminutive scale in no way reduces the raw expressive power of the paint. Elder, born and raised in Virginia, moved to New York City in 1969, studying at Pratt, the Art Students League, and the New York Academy of Art. He spent a year in Paris and studied printmaking in Florence. He has shown his work in galleries throughout Europe and teaches workshops at the Woodstock School of Art and other places. He was a weekend resident in Saugerties until he gave up his Chelsea loft for good and moving full-time to the country in the late 1990s.

Pamela Blum, Professor Emerita at SUNY-Dutchess, is showing small black-and-white encaustic and paper wall sculptures in her first solo show at John Davis Gallery in Hudson. Entitled “Like and Unlike,” the show opens this Saturday, November 11. The encaustic-painted pieces, which fit comfortably into one’s hand, are constructed from papier-mâché over an aluminum wire form painted with multiple layers of white and black encaustic paint, which is then scraped off to reveal the underlying layers. The grotesque-looking forms, whose black-and-white coloration gives them a graphic look suggesting charred bones, embody a conjunction of opposites: the biomorphic with the manmade and inorganic, textual and symbolic with the visceral.

The associations are multifarious. A series of rounded pieces with short curved tails resemble a sperm, embryo and comma or quotation mark, while three stiffly bent limb-like forms refer to arches that “are truncated and have nothing to hold up,” noted Blum. The works relate to “ruins of things that never got born.” They also contain a cellular element that has run amok — a reference to cancer, “which runs rampant in my family,” said the artist.

The wraith-like paper series are crafted from an underlying wire form covered with handmade paper painted with beeswax. The pieces look wizened and dried out as well as fragile and animated, seeming to float against the wall. The parchment coloration contributes to the sense of a bodiless, specter-like form akin to tiny mummies, dead leaves, insect or seed husks, and bird skeletons. Blum said her aim is to “compress energy into meaning.” For her, energy refers specifically to vision, words and other modes of language.

Clockwise from top left: Momentum; Lava Machine; Congruence; Anomaly Model, all oil on canvas by Stephen Niccolls.

The works distill “current ideas about history, human behavior, societies, complexity theory, and energy as a kind of gravity opposing entropy,” she writes in her statement; that broad scope includes historical and biological missteps and conjectures. “I see these works as comical, lyrical, abject and satirical references to human foibles, misused tools, misunderstood words, and looming environmental catastrophe,” she writes.

Though Blum’s process is rooted in a series of intellectual constructs, there’s nothing dry or theoretical about her work. The odd, misshapen forms embody a life force, as though each had a unique identity which infused it with vulnerability. One wants to cradle one of the wrapped, sheath-like paper pieces or mutant limb in one’s arms, even as one is repulsed. That contradiction puts the viewer in an awkward position. Though the works are constructed of archival materials, Blum notes that they are moving toward dissolution. For now, “my work fights entropy.” So do we all, knowing, in our mortality, that we are similarly doomed.

Blum is from Boston. She earned her MFA from the Massachusetts College of Art, studied at MIT, and taught art at the Illinois State University and Rochester Institute of Technology as well as at Dutchess Community College. She has shown her work in New England, New York State, the Midwest, and France. She lives in Kingston’s Rondout with her husband, Richard Frumess, owner of R&F Handmade Paints

Stephen Niccolls, formerly an adjunct professor at Marist College who’s had solo shows at the Woodstock Artists Association, R&F Handmade Paints, and in Beacon, is showing two dozen new paintings at Vassar College’s James W. Palmer Gallery, opening November 9. The title of the show, “Internal Architecture,” reflects Niccolls’ preoccupation with structure and the anomalies that disrupt it. As a child growing up in the Southwest, he was fascinated with the way the grid-like structure of adobe buildings shift and deviates over time. As an adult, he visited and observed ancient stone farmhouses in Italy.

Weather, earthquakes and the passage of time have re-formed those domiciles, a process akin to the disruptions the artist effects in the gridlike structures of his paintings. Colored shapes which resemble river stones and mallet heads in their curved, eroded geometry are arranged roughly in rows, a pattern that’s disrupted by extensions and overlaps, creating a jazzy rhythm.

Besides alterations in scale, the playing of warm against cool and variations in value are carefully balanced to maintain a surface tension of pulsating energy. The vertically aligned, approximately 35 inches by 44, canvases invite the eye to perambulate. One reveals unexpected slivers of brown or black, an accent of yellow in quarter circles of differing size that speak to each other across the intervals of hopscotching shapes. Another features a pair of rhyming pink and orange rectangles, one with round edges along the bottom as if it were a vessel, the other extending into a gray rectangle striated with gray. Niccolls is an exquisite colorist who creates harmonic relationships of bright hues juxtaposed with quieter earth tones. Whale-like floating shapes in cool blues, purples and greens are enlivened by an underlying pattern of siena, black and white.

The artist achieves luminosity by applying the paint in thin layers, which in some cases is scraped off, creating pentimento that vary the texture and suggest the passage of time. There’s a constant interplay between positive and negative shapes, arranged in collage-like disjunctions. In short, Niccolls calibrates the relationship between colors and forms to convey shifts in temperature, space and dimension (paintings-within-paintings suggest a seascape or primitive vessel). The works evoke correspondent moods, from the quietude of dusk to a whimsical, almost cartoony exuberance.

Niccolls earned his MFA at the University of Massachusetts. After being a “cartoony illustrative guy,” he was drawn to abstraction not only because of his admiration of well-known abstract artists and favorite teachers but also because of the challenge. “A lot of art that isn’t that good is interesting to people because it has a figure,” he said. “It’s easy to make recognizable images, but marshaling your skills and having the imagination to create something that’s interesting and not figurative is a challenge …. It takes a long time to really see things, to decide if something is great, just okay or sucks.”

The show also includes some smaller paintings, which Niccolls said were “as hard to make as a big one. There’s something about the concentration, and you don’t have the expanse to get into the textural.” He is also showing several drawings of ink and acrylic. Niccolls and his wife, Carol Struve (who also has an MFA, has taught art, and currently works as a nurse), lived in Minnesota before moving to the Hudson Valley in 2002, purchasing a house in Kingston in 2006.

“New Paintings of Donald Elder,” Elena Zang Gallery, through November 19, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m, daily, 3671 Route 212, Shady. 679-5432, ezang@hvc.rr.com.

“Like and Unlike,” sculpture by Pamela Blum, John Davis Gallery, opening reception November 11, 6 to 8 p.m. through December  3, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday,  362 1/2 Warren Street, Hudson. 518-828-5907,  art@johndavisgallery.com

“Internal Architecture: Paintings by Stephen Niccolls,” James W. Palmer ’90 Gallery at College Center, Vassar College, opening reception November 9, 5 to 7 p.m. through November 27, 124 Raymond Av., Poughkeepsie. 437-5370.

Post Your Thoughts