UNINHIBITED? UNFETTERED? UNRESTRICTED?
By Michelle Weinberg
Abstracted brings together the work of three artists working in and around and between multiple mediums: Francie Bishop Good, Karen Snouffer and Sara Stites. Comprising paintings on paper and canvas, objects made of clay, plaster, wood and found materials, Abstracted is a true meeting of three artistic minds and processes. The exhibition, at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, shines a light on their individual concerns and then commingles three very dynamic artistic languages and intentions that result in something new.
The word "abstracted," as opposed to "abstract," generally refers to something found in an original state that then undergoes a process or processes in order to become abstracted. It is the stages of this transformative operation that are clearly visible in the works of all three artists.
Eccentric figures, both in the sense of personalities and geometric figures, are layered in strata of vibrant color and gesture. Twisting gyres and clouds of marks charge the atmosphere in the gallery, suggesting forces barely contained, a gleeful mayhem in two- and three-dimensions expressed by each artist. The works collectively speak of freedom and offer the viewer a cathartic experience that releases pent up energy.
The collaborative aspect of this exhibition, in which works by the three artists engage in "conversation" transgresses the traditional domain of the singular artist creator, inviolate, working in protected isolation. The ease and willingness of these artists to encourage their works to engage with and reflect each other, to blend and blur the boundaries, is a signal of supreme confidence. Too often contemporary artists pit themselves against one another as they vie for brand recognition, attention and dubious reward from a vast and often indifferent art marketplace. For these female artists working in mature phases of their careers, it is refreshing to feel the spirit of forces joined, of alliance rather than divisiveness and competition.
The hot color painted wall backdrops, each keyed to one of the artists, exude a Floridian vibe, as if the artists were off-piste "Imagineers," and this also exclaims confidence and assertiveness. The unusual exhibition design and layout is a cue to the visitor, and the artworks handily hold their own against such bold walls.
Snouffer notes that all the artists employ an "expanding visual vocabulary" by which she means that the works are iterative, each phase of work inspiring production of the next. For contemporary female artists born in the 1940s -1960s, the option to digress from established pathways, to bring together disparate obsessions, to explore hybridity in general, were possible only with the gradual easing of artworld strictures, fueled by Post-Modernism and Pluralism movements in the arts and Feminism in the culture more broadly. Snouffer says "Though we grew up under the influence of mostly male abstract expressionist artists as role models, I feel like we're all so independent and open-minded." While Abstract Expressionism involved itself with the business of conquest: of the canvas, of the void, of wresting artistic hegemony from the Europeans (sometimes with State Department assistance), other voices and expressions were marginalized. The isolation many women artists felt in those days did however afford them a bit of freedom, and many game-changing conceptual and technical innovations in modern and contemporary art were launched from proverbial "kitchen tables." Today Snouffer appreciates a "sense of strength and validation," noting that so many women work well into their later years. Recently, blue-chip galleries are catching up and "discovering" and exhibiting groundbreaking work of female artists in their 80s and 90s, or more conveniently, deceased. Good, Snouffer and Stites are all aware of being role models for younger women artists who still face being measured against phallo-centric ideas about art and life.
All three cite painter Elizabeth Murray as an ur-matriarch of free-form abstraction. Her shaped canvases and gravity-defying domestic objects joyfully broke so many rules that had characterized the dour, power-tripping male mantle of abstract expressionism which dominated university and art school pedagogy in the post-War years. The high stakes search for sublimity in abstraction became aligned with a Puritanical essentialism which drained most abstraction of referential pictorial elements. The "push pull" of Hans Hofmann and the honing of an artist's signature gesture was all, and the purity of these things could not be muddied with the personal, or with storytelling of any sort.
Many painters were given permission to incorporate imagery into their canvases by an influential 1978 Whitney Museum exhibition curated by Richard Marshall called "New Image Painting" which included powerful works by Nicholas Africano, Jennifer Bartlett, Denise Green, Michael Hurson, Neil Jenney, Lois Lane, Robert Moskowitz, Susan Rothenberg, David True and Joe Zucker (four female artists out of ten was commendable for the time). The significance of this exhibition wasn't so much that imagery was "new." (See: world art history.) It was that representations of actual things in the world could co-exist with the highly valued painterly abstract gesture and any and all formal elements the artist might elect to value. It was a welcome acknowledgment for a new decade that everything in art is both representation and abstraction. This truth is the animating force behind the works of Francie Bishop Good, Karen Snouffer and Sara Stites.
"Even though I feel like everything I do happens organically, almost by accident, there's always a figure in there," states Good. The biomorphic clay forms she produces reference humanoid footings, torsos, heads, plus plant, shrub and fungal growth forms. Each is a character, unpredictable, birthed and reared according to Good's own fecund, fearless lights and lovingly cradled in a customized base and backing "niche," like a votive object in an altar, a beloved doll in its habitat, a device docked in a charger. The conventional concept of sculptural support (base, pedestal, etc.) is eschewed in favor of an active role. Color fields with sloping edges, loose limbs, bulges, chunky protuberances and floating emissions characterize these works. Seated in their niches, they appear to be posing, waiting for their portrait to be taken, and are evidence of Good's formal inventiveness with clay and paint.
For Stites, admitting more fully figurative content into her latest work, whether "cartoonish" or realistically rendered, has opened up a rich new path. She confesses, "I didn't allow this into my work previously, because it didn't appear serious." Again, the confidence that mature artists bring to their work often manifests as an un-checking of latent impulses, a willingness to take risks. She reached further back into art history for some of the influences on the paintings and objects on view in Abstracted, all the way to Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770) and his cast of characters of gods and mortals manipulated for comic and dramatic effect. Her paintings challenge the viewer to read various levels of representation within a single work. The almost subliminal discovery of a face or a body part, human or animal, interlocking with swirling gestures both transparent and opaque is a rewarding melding of narrative and formal painterly moves. Drawing, for Stites, is a generative source for her painted works, and the paintings both derive from and inspire the production of sculptural objects which she often photographs in tandem with the paintings. These lacy, layered and stacked structures, many incorporating glass elements, are consonant with the same qualities in her paintings.
The sinuous, circular movement in Stites' work echoes the tumultuous interplay of the figurative and geometric forms in Snouffer's drawings and objects. Stites described Snouffer's process as being animated by a "zingy action" which resembles the perpetual motion that characterizes living organisms. Her hard edges and grid structures that playfully pierce or interrupt each other are soft, informal, never rigid. Snouffer has created artworks at various locii on the map between pictorial or "implied" space and actual physical space. Her site-specific installations are composed of pulsing, layered
drawn and painted elements that activate surfaces and additive 3D elements that occupy these environments naturally. These works transform existing architecture, collapse ordinary perceptions of scale and dimension, and redefine it as a space of performance and theater. "I love that place where 2D and 3D become questionable," she shared. She claims that it is nearly impossible for her to curtail her marks on a canvas and not draw and paint onto the surrounding wall. It is the tension between her often meticulous planning and the inevitable, irrepressible hilarity that ensues that gives her work a living breathing energy. The individual sculptural objects are ambassadors from rich habitats, transmitting their life force.
Snouffer introduces the concept of "serious play" in her thoughts on her work and that of Stites and Good as well. She describes her own work as "fantasy structures to play in, on or under" which conjures up children's blanket forts that stake out safe territory amidst the mundanity of the living room so that their imaginations may be free to roam anywhere at all. The artists in Abstracted are all mothers, and it's not farfetched to note a connection between their experiences of child-rearing with a profound awareness of the seriousness embedded within play. As artists, they have internalized the fact that play, a most human faculty, has its own rigor and its own important intellectual and critical purpose. Philip Guston was another seminal artist who cast off the straitjacket of pure abstraction and dove headfirst into the slapstick, playing court jester to the sanctimonies of his era. Without explicitly communicating social and political messages, the works of all three artists express the truth that all art is inherently subversive. The handmade work and the habit of daily making things that can only be known subjectively will always be a supreme act of resistance.
Each artist stressed that the role of the curator Meaghan Kent was indispensable. Kent landed upon the idea to paint the color backdrops to differentiate each artist's work, and to install three-dimensional works in a collective area to activate the uninhibited conversation among the group, which appears as a motley, good-natured town hall-ish community. Good's spontaneous choice of "Yves Klein Blue" is logical, considering the proximity of her studio in Fort Lauderdale to the water. Snouffer has repeatedly worked with her bright yellow, and Stites selected hot lipstick pink. She observed that the three hues just happened to reference CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and K for Black).
Abstracted is both visually striking and thoughtful. The risks taken by each of the artists to invent new technical and expressive ways to work derives from their experiences in their studios and out in the world over several decades characterized by change. Each artist has an accomplished career and has consistently produced exciting work that questions the status quo. Unafraid to find new forms amongst the received boundaries between disciplines (painting, sculpture, installation) they involve themselves in theme and variation, an incessant artistic rhythm that guarantees new ideas, new growth, new work.
Michelle Weinberg is an artist and writer who maintains studios in New York and Miami. She produces and promotes artist initiatives, including her own, via her ad hoc platform Available Space. She also collaborates with organizations to present exhibitions and education programming. For more info, see michelleweinberg.com, @mwpinkblue,