Fred Horowitz: Review of Elaine Wilson's painting exhibition
Alexa Lee Gallery, Ann Arbor, Michigan
February 9 -- March 11, 1995
Ever since late-nineteenth-century painters introduced the concept of painting as artifice, much of modern painting has had to do with exploring its implications. For representational work, the questions are: what can a painting do that the camera can't? And how does a painting do it? Elaine Wilson's exhibition at the Alexa Lee Gallery provides some impressive answers.
Wilson presents affectionate views of Washtenaw County rural vernacular. In this world, agricultural architecture -- silos, grain elevators, sheds -- coexist amiably with furrowed wheat fields and vapor trails in the sky. The images are derived from on-the-spot drawings, paintings, and photographs that Wilson reassembles in her studio.
Using the panorama format -- Around the Big H is 20 feet long -- Wilson does much more than merely string together pretty scenes. Changes in the horizon signal shifting viewpoints. Wilson knits these changes together seamlessly, like the dissolves in a movie. Suddenly, you're someplace else. Wilson also subtly alters the perspective of buildings to reintegrate them into a larger compositional logic.
Camera vision is likewise trumped in the crisp, distant views that appear unexpectedly, like pictures within pictures. Despite the distance, the focus and the brush handling remain consistent with the foreground objects, so these miniatures lock in formally with what's up close.
Along with these compositional sleights-of-hand, Wilson's brush handling keeps us aware of the fictive aspects of painting. Every edge is carefully considered for its optical effect. In September Noon the border between two silos dissolves, while just below, razor-sharp stripes pull the eye to a sign that looks like a minimalist painting.
Wilson enjoys letting us in on the mysterious transformations of paint into illusion. Up close you can see the images give way to discrete patches of color. Isolate any six inches or so of the surface, and the colors you see will interact like a classic color study. The flat patches of color push one another like a perfect date, asserting their individuality within a winning combination. Surprisingly, the individual colors are restrained. Wilson prefers to underplay her hand, letting the careful combinations of colors do their work.
The quality of light that results from those combinations is spellbinding. However bright or dark, the light is well-tempered, like perfect pitch. It's a miraculous effect, consistant throughout, and one of the glories of Wilson's work.
Like traditional painters, Wilson builds the images gradually, applying colors in layers. But there's an audacity here. Those valiant blue skies have orange under them. Even the grays aren't really gray: they're blue combined with orange, and red combined with green. Wilson lets you savor the way these colors transmute into image and light.
Wilson's brushwork is purposeful: never showy, too thick, or too thin. However serviceable the brushstrokes in the image making, they also function to energize the surfaces. In Around Saline Silos, for example, carefully built paint in the patterns of a sun-drenched silo abruptly and surprisingly gives way to free-wheeling brushstrokes in the shadow. Here and elsewhere, variegated brush handling persuades us that paint has a life of its own.
Wilson pulls off certain passages of painting so adroitly that she makes it look easy. The muddy ruts and puddles in Around the Big H are organized into a design that makes them look as sensible and dignified as a formal garden. The strokes of paint in this area, built up in patches, and occasionally dragged over a surface, are a tour-de-force of brush handling, creating the convincing image of ruts and puddles, while simultaneously remaining active as paint.
Other areas have their own challenges. The huge, convex silos threaten to disrupt the compositions, but they are carefully related, either by color or pattern, to what is beside them. Their surfaces are softened into luminous textures, or become quietly shifting, all-over patterns. At the opposite extreme, a shed roof, with its web of beams, or the thin spokes of a wagon wheel, demonstrate how patience wins out over complexity and a very small amount of room.
This is intelligent and highly conscientious painting; no corners are cut. Wilson is devoted to her subject. She gets behind it, shows you why she loves it, and convinces you to care about it too. At the same time, it's highly imaginative work. By taking risks, Wilson manages to overcome the burden imposed by the beauty of the subject. She ensures that you don't just get a view; you experience the excitement of viewing. her painting stakes out the territory where the camera eye ends and the mind's eye begins.
Paradoxically, you feel as if you're seeing the subject for the first time. With this body of work, Wilson, approaching mid-career, enters the ranks of the best realist painters in the country.
Turning Ordinary Scenes Into Extraordinary Images
By Christopher Millis, Contributing Writer to South End News, Boston MA
June 12, 1997 (Vol 18, No. 20)
Review of Exhibition at Bromfield Gallery, 560 Harrison Ave.
Elaine S. Wilson paints elongated images of a particular sort of perversion: those junctions of contained industrial sprawl that dot the farmland of the American Midwest. Wilson seeks out the machinery and wires and piping that attach to silos and storage tanks as they exist against backdrops of blue skies and verdant fields, and she renders those objects with celebratory exactitude.
Farm equipment, metal tubing and giant bins are depicted in the bright light of day--intricately nuanced, boldly colored, exquisitely composed. And the canvases’ distinctive proportions--none is more than a foot and a half high, and two works in the show are eight feet long—makes her paintings read like images on a the window of a mile-long stretch limo. Their compression suggests our passing by, while their duration suggests our never leaving.
Wilson has found formal ways of rendering perfectly ordinary vistas so that they become mesmerizing, otherworldly. Rather than seeming like blights on the pastoral horizon, her metallic constructions convey a sense of fruition, as if to say that the land at its best yields bulky precursors to urbanity.
Among her unobtrusively powerful techniques) which could only be possible in works of such length) is to subtly change perspective over the range of one work. The left third of “Looking Through and Up" depicts a dark, square tunnel of the sort one imagines keeps combines from rusting the train. Through the overhang, a minuscule image of land and sky is visible in the distance which means that the visual logic is entirely wrong; for the land to appear so far away, the agricultural carport would have to be as long as a football field.
Immediately next to the tunnel we see a section of a guan, round multifaceted silo on which light shimmers as in one of Monet’s cathedrals at Chartres—and our perspective has gently shifted from gazing toward the remote to beholding an object only inches away. Then our eyes are sent heavenward to a lofty water tower crowned by a flag. The seamless integration of the three images, their compositional complementarity, their distinct yet related use of color, all conspire to make three perspectives appear as one.
One senses that if Elaine Wilson painted in an urban area, she would be drawn to the flowering weeds and de bris that overrun empty lots. By positioning her eyes, and by extension ours, on the least representative aspects of the land where she lives, she captures the importance of the unlikely—its power to communicate through indirection. We know we’re in farm country when we look at her extraordinary “Michigan Paintings,” but we’re never quite allowed to see the farm except in its most intense details. With grace and humility and sharply delicate skill, Wilson accomplishes what many aim for and few achieve: a realization of the visual, spiritual vitality in the life we live every day.