Abstract art gets a modern, feminist touch in Walnut Creek
By Lou Fancher
Tilt the floorboards of a room just so; and items placed in an uplifted corner rise pyramid-style to an apex.
The attention-grabbing maneuver is metaphorically enacted at the Bedford Gallery, which has the art of 16 Bay Area women artists on prominent display in “About Abstraction: Bay Area Women Painters.” Featuring emerging and established women artists whose work captures abstract art’s elusive, expressive gestures and precise elements of form, shape, color, line and composition, the exhibit continues through Dec. 17.
“It’s been years since the Bedford Gallery has devoted an entire exhibition to abstract painting with a focus on Bay Area artists — and profiling women painters in particular is a first,” says Carrie Lederer, Bedford curator of exhibitions and programs.
Lederer says recent political conversations have brought attention to the influence of women on “every corner” of business, government, culture and the arts.”
While the exhibit aligns itself with Bay Area 1940s Abstract Expressionist movement, a quick perusal reveals the broader characteristics of nonrepresentational art and underscores women artists’ importance in the history and future of the genre.
Take for examples of variety El Cerrito artist Eva Bovenzi’s paintings that simultaneously float and ground bold, asymmetric, structural shapes in works that bring to mind iconic folk art; or Oakland-based Michele Théberge’s “Infinite Spiral” and “Radiate,” two paintings in which the monochrome circularity is meditative, timeless, and oddly energizing. Canan Tolon’s series of “Untitled” paintings are strikingly urban: The dense textures perhaps reflect the Emeryville artist’s sense of home or contemporary life but more likely multiple places, histories, East/West perspectives, rapid movement.
Lederer suggests that abstract art’s allure springs from this multiplicity: Inspiration may come from memories, physical or spiritual experiences, concepts about society, nature, the human form or simply the properties of tools and materials applied to formal practices of art involving line, color, contrast and gesture.
Arguably, no work in the exhibit is more convincing of the visceral voice women contribute to abstract art and its always-forward-leaning momentum than that of Cornelia Schulz. The Fairfax artist thrusts oil paint straight from the tube into dramatic physical landscapes that sometimes take years to dry.
“I work on them flat, put them up on a wall to look at them, then lay them on the floor for months to get a tough skin,” she says. “If you cut into one, like the five at the Bedford that I made in 2015; three years later, you’d find wet paint at the base.”
Schulz fashions the work on slightly off-of-rectangular canvases using trowels and pallet knives. “I have some degree of control and knowing what it will do, but there are radical actions to the layers of colors. Especially when I come in from the sides and try to flip and turn the paint.”
Remarkable things happen that can cause her to say, “Whoa! That’s extraordinary.” But if the phenomenal aspect of the material is simply seduction through fancy visual effects, Shulz is not satisfied: a painting must do more than provide thrill. “The underpinnings I strongly adhere to are the basic elements of form. All the parts have to relate to the whole. That holds it together and creates a dynamic relationship between all these events,” she says.
Similarly, Emanuela Harris-Sintamarian, Oakland, anchors her work in formal patterns and mathematics. “I like tension between slack and ornate, extravagance within details,” she says about her pieces inspired by Viennese architecture. “You can find structures within structures. You pin the systems so they become redundant or build upon each other. With one small shift, you stop the results and change expectations.”
Sintamarian’s kinetic, graphic images permit a viewer — due to those disruptive shifts — to imagine stories within stories. “Rather than think, ‘Oh, that’s what it is about,’ I like (viewers) to think for themselves either about the formalist, conceptual part, or to just have intellectual or emotional moments,” she says.
Asked about the exhibit’s conscious push to shine the light on women painters, Schulz says, “The job is never entirely done, there’s kind of a backsliding that happens. If it was heavy handed, I’d say enough already. But with the Bedford show, it doesn’t have the gorilla girl push. Every now and then someone checking in to see what women are doing is OK.”
Sintamarian dislikes labels but accepts that categories exist. “In that context, sometimes you have to emphasize. Women artists still don’t have the regard as serious artists the way men do. It changes the paradigm by having a show. Anyone stepping in to view the show will increase acceptance. We live in a society that’s quite divided. Sometimes voices can get lost in the cacophony so you need those voices to stand out.”