EMILY MASON Recent Paintingsby Phong Bui
DAVID FINDLAY JR.. FINE ART | MARCH 3 – MARCH 31, 2011
Although one can sense that Emily Mason’s paintings owe much to both Color Field painting and Lyrical Abstraction, it is impossible to readily ascribe any elements of her work to either school. There is something undecipherable and illegible about her process and something remarkably self-contained about her spirit.
This is not to say Mason has ignored the struggle among artists of her mother’s (Alice Trumbull Mason’s) generation. That era’s dominant question—how to marry abstract form with meaningful content?—gave rise to its main schism: “objectivity” versus “subjectivity” (the latter of which gave birth to Abstract Expressionism). Mason is as sensitive to this struggle as she is to the quandaries of her own generation (namely artists committed to Clement Greenberg’s formalist doctrine, including Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Ronnie Landfield, just to name a few). I have perused Mason’s work for 25 years, and after all this time I am still struck by the way she manages to carve out an in-between space that cherishes—while resisting—all of the above ideas and ways of thinking about form and content, and other related issues that contributed so indelibly to the painting culture that she was brought up with; how she allows her own internal rhythm to harmonize with the demands of painting’s process.
From the outset of her career, Mason understood the advantages of her interstitial space: she could take refuge from Abstract Expressionism’s subjectivity as well as take advantage of the transcendent possibilities of color offered by Color Field (achieved by pouring thin layers of paint onto canvas). She was interested in neither the former’s existential angst nor the latter’s use of absorbed color pigments on raw canvas (she paints on primed canvases). By allowing painterly gestures to coexist with thin, poured layers in a wide range of colors in all manner of hues and saturations, Mason is able to amplify her colors—which are infused with forms that derive from both memory and free association with concrete surroundings in nature—while embracing their complex tonalities. The surfaces of her paintings are porcelain-like and skin tight, otherwise uniformly smooth, with the occasional robust yet supple brushstrokes skating across or beneath the planes. Such strokes intensify the fluidity of the painting as a whole, as one sees in, for example, “Acquafer” (2010). In “Distance from the Sea” (2009), a small square canvas, one can detect the wonderful light yellow passage over a diffused pink plane seeping through from underneath two quasi-rectangular forms in cerulean blue. The combination of irregular edges, resulting from the poured thin paint, and the wet-on-wet, at least in some parts, of zinc white, applied over as well as coming through from below, approximates a sfumato effect; the painting generates sound or music and physical movement, like waves moving toward seashore, all at once. “Flagship” (2009), although is not displayed in the main gallery space, is one of her best paintings in recent years. The orchestration of the yellow, which pervades most of the painting surface, must have been arduous: Mason has brought it to unusual depth and yet the painting’s compressed surface is utterly frontal. The variety of tones in the painting radiate an overwhelming sense of light and atmosphere, which considerably contributes to the show’s repertoire as a whole. This may well be Mason’s most compelling and beautiful exhibit.