A painter’s painter and one of the most dazzling artists of the 20thcentury, Joan Mitchell is referred to as a “second generation” abstract expressionist. The term doesn’t do justice to her remarkable achievements.Sui generis, Mitchell created a visual language all her own and infiltrated the male-dominated art world, demonstrating with substance and style that she could paint with the best of them.
Landscape was Mitchell’s primary influence. She embraced abstraction because it allowed her to paint her emotional reaction to what she saw, rendering it with an extraordinary eye for color, and a physicality expressed through impassioned gesture.
Mitchell referred to herself as a “lady painter”. It was both an homage to her mother, a poet of some note who was referred to as a lady poet, and also an ironic little jab she used to embrace the segregated status she endured. Mitchell’s ambition was to dissolve gender lines and work and exhibit alongside the male painters of her generation.
Mitchell had a particular affinity for poetry and referred to her work as image poems. This isn’t surprising given her mother’s avocation. But, it’s worth noting that Mitchell also had profound synesthesia and so was hardwired to perceive sensory phenomena simultaneously. So, when she read something, it would provoke a visual response and vice a versa.
Two shows in Charlottesville, “Lady Painters: Inspired by Joan Mitchell” at nonprofit contemporary art space Second Street Gallery and “Landscape Re-Imagined” at Les Yeux du Monde, feature artists whose work draws inspiration from Mitchell: Isabelle Abbot (Greenwood, VA), Karen Blair (Crozet, VA), Janet Bruce (Brookneal, VA), Molly Herman (Brooklyn, NY), Priscilla Whitlock (Charlottesville) and Mary Page Evans (Wilmington, DE). Evans and Herman are Virginia born and bred and both return frequently to paint the landscape of their birth.
The genesis for the show came from Second Street Gallery Director Kristen Chiacchia. She had developed a keen appreciation for Joan Mitchell while working at New York gallery Edward Tyler Nahem, which dealt in Mitchell’s work. Following her move to Charlottesville in 2016, Chiacchia began frequenting Les Yeux du Monde where she discovered Abbot, Blair, Bruce and Whitlock’s work. “I saw the connection right away to Joan Mitchell. I began thinking about doing a group show with these women, looking at how Mitchell has influenced their careers and how they’ve been thinking about her.”
For Mary Page Evans, working en pleinair is key, enabling her not only to record what she sees, but also her emotional and sensory response to it. She uses color and tone to create the form and structure, producing lush works that veer between abstraction and representation. Evans knew Mitchell, first encountering her in 1986 when Evans was painting at Monet’s Giverny. Mitchell lived just down the road and Evans, an admirer, was determined to meet her. Monet’s cousin,Jean-Marie Toulgouat, warned Evans to “go at your own risk.” Undeterred, she went and ended up forging a friendship with the famously difficult Mitchell that would last until Mitchell’s death. Mitchell provided helpful, if tough critiques, gave Evans a painting and even kept tacked to her bedroom wall a small ink and charcoal Evans had done.
Priscilla Whitlock also paints outside. Her “High Water Mark” is a glorious work of barely contained energy. At the top of the painting, off in the distance, there’s a beautifully rendered, rather sedate landscape. Moving downwards, towards the foreground, the brushwork becomes ever more strident and frenetic. Whitlock retains control of the frenzy with marks that are self-assured and powerful, conveying both the physical act of painting and the buzzing life of the body of water and its surrounding grasses she’s depicting. The intense, highly-keyed palette and allover, immersive quality of the work underscore these effects.
Janet Bruce’s “August 12” embodies Mitchell’s idea of an image poem. An abstract work, the painting uses nearly impenetrable blocks of color to capture the intimidation and violence of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Bruce’s blocks are comprised of many layers of paint, applied with great slashing strokes that enable glimpses of the underlying pigments to show though, while creating depth, volume and animation. Trickling drips of paint add to the sense of careless urgency. The bruise of purple and the red that lacerates and metastasizes onto the blue are malevolent stand-ins for the anger and bloodshed of that day.
With a semi-abstract language, Karen Blair’s paintings verge on the non-objective without ever entirely letting go of the subject matter. She guides our perception by inserting landmarks like the funny little trees in “Garden Plan” and “Visit to the Botanical Gardens”. These schematic physical representations help us interpret the rectangular swatches of paint as cultivated beds, whose color is dictated by the quality of the light hitting them. The dynamic brushwork is both narrative tool, describing plants and shrubs, and expressive visual flourish, and the fresh palette of yellows, greens and pinks pull you back to the sense of the gardens she is representing.
Isabelle Abbot’s “Passing” is a masterful evocation of atmospheric conditions. Scrawled indigo and green brushstrokes at the bottom add texture and contour to the landscape. At the center of the painting, daubs of paint describe a settlement in a distant valley. By a deft application of whites and grays, Abbot recreates the effect of sun glinting off surfaces, capturing perfectly that kind of weak light that filters through mist. That mist envelops the top half of the painting turning the mountains a vague lavender and the sky a creamy white infused with dark pigment that gives shape and form to the clouds.
“Tapis Bleu”, a striking abstract work by Molly Herman, features layers of paint, encaustic and collage that impart depth and zest to the work. Herman’s marks are so interesting and varied. There’s the spidery grid on the upper left, the lozenges of thick white paint that rain down the length of the somber blue-black tapis, undercutting its oppressiveness with flickering light, and the blooms of flirty scarlet, purple and rose that add bright, mood-elevating focal points. Charged with energy, the work is a perfectly calibrated tightrope walk between chaos and control.
Describing the exhibition, Les Yeux du Monde Director Lyn Warren says, “It shows how artists continue to draw on the work of influential leaders in the field, learning from them and reinterpreting their oeuvre to come up with a body of work all their own. Collaborating with Second Street Gallery has enabled us both to provide an expanded experience for the viewer.”
Joan Mitchell’s influence looms large in the work on display at both venues, her gesture, color sense, conceptual approach, are all there, reinterpreted and individualized. There also, is the passion and integrity and it is the greatest lesson she has passed down to this generation of “lady painters”.