Rachael Wren at Wave Hill House (Bronx)
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, NOV. 2016
Rachael Wren’s fine show took place in the main building of Bronx’s Wave Hill, a park filled with public gardens and a stand of woods larger than one might think for such a small locale. Located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, Wave Hill, the former home to author Mark Twain and the conductor Arturo Toscanini, has become a center of exciting contemporary art in New York City, in large part due to the efforts of curator Jennifer McGregor, now at work there for a second decade. Wren was invited to show her work at the Wave Hill House, the gardens’ major building. Wren’s work is a finely nuanced compilation of abstraction and figuration, the result of her undergraduate training both at the University of Pennsylvania and, especially, her graduate degree, taken at the University of Washington in Seattle, where she made a practice of working outdoors. The artist has gone back and forth with nonobjective art and realism, slowly but surely turning toward an inspired combination, and perhaps a bias in favor of abstraction, now that she has returned to the New York area, where she grew up.
There is a bit of the objective scientist in Wren’s approach, which often seems like it is devoted to exploring problems of representation and abstraction, much in the same way a lab researcher might work out a hypothesis. Her works, from a distance, appear to be nearly an Impressionist view of woods that follow a close-to-linear symmetry. So something of the rigor and specificity of math enters into the viewer’s experience of the work. At the same time, of course, Wren is completely committed to painting, its ability to compel a recognizable view as well as demonstrate a considered understanding of abstraction in nature. Every two years, contemporary painting seems to make a comeback from the technology, conceptualism, and anti-craft bias of new art, and Wren serves to illuminate the resistance painting faces in light of the pronounced wish for something experimental. But in fact she is a highly contemporary artist—someone in touch with the kinds of problems we face now in painting. Close up, her pictures dissolve into lozenge-shaped, independent strokes, which beautifully build the larger picture but also stand as an abstract structure in their own right. This combination is highly absorbing and carries with it a sense not of compromise between two approaches but the successful merger of outlooks that may be closer to each other than they first seem.
In Dreamstate (2016), we can see Wren establish a light green forest atmosphere, intensified by the thin, lighter green poles that come diagonally across the composition, with another row of trees peeking in from behind. It is memorable both for its pastoral implications (although the artist no longer paints in plein air), as well as its nonobjective rigor. At the same time, it becomes clear from the title Dreamstate that the work also exists as a pure expression of the imagination, something more imagined than seen. This balance between the mind’s eye and the realist’s gaze is key to Wren’s excellent work. Relations between abstraction and figuration are in fact quite close, but it takes creative awareness to bridge the gap. Wren seems always to have known this, even when she was painting relatively conventional landscapes in Washington. The new work, though, makes real sense as an interpretation of New York School abstraction as well as readings of the outdoors. Turning Point (2016) is particularly strong, but much more thoroughly abstract, with the light poles, held against a darker green ground, constructed from recognizable strokes of tan, brown, and light blue. Thin horizontal lines construct a grid, that familiar modernist organizer of space found often in work from New York.
Who would have thought that a grid would impose itself on a pastoral vision like Wren’s? We remember, though, that she now lives and works in Brooklyn, and that her childhood home was close to New York. These experiences inevitably make themselves felt in the artist’s conception, which merges her experiences and influences. Wren currently works from the imagination, but her life as a painter of nature persists in unusual ways. Turning Point still reminds us of a line of trees, in darkness and given a marvelous symmetry in their placement. The symmetry is likely bound to culture rather than nature, but we also know symmetry exists in nature. So it hard to say which side of the fence the artist is on! In Mirage (2015), it seems as if the thin, abstractly constructed trees are being doubled by a reflection of water, although closer investigation suggests that this is an illusion. The individual paint strokes give the nod to Impressionism, but there is something else, something newer, that is also present. The mysterious atmosphere is not rooted in art history. It is in fact a quiet celebration of painting, an outlook central to Wren’s point of view, which remains inevitably new despite its stylistic quotations from the past. WM
Johnathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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