In an art scene that makes a virtue of anarchy, careening from the shrill to the fatalistic without a dominant direction or commanding style, a shot of unadulterated beauty like Elise Freda’s abstractions at Ch’i Contemporary Fine Art can feel both clarifying and unsettling. Clarifying because they reaffirm the modernist impulse toward economy of means and formal rigor, unsettling because they plague the critical sensibility with doubts and qualifiers. Are they really as good as they look? Or are they just skin-deep, fleeting, out of sight, out of mind? And what, if anything, do they bring to the table? Is sheer beauty enough?
Elise Freda’s paintings are seductive—exquisitely so—but they’re also tough-minded and dicey. They risk prettiness but don’t succumb to it. In fact, some of the newest work turns its back on elegance altogether with curdling, acidic colors smeared roughshod across the painting’s breadth.
Freda has developed a virtuosic facility with encaustic, an ancient and devilishly difficult medium that even in the hands of Jasper Johns can end up muddied and clotted. She builds her paintings with translucent layers of pigmented beeswax, often over a highly saturated oil undercoat. As the work progresses, she may scrape away an entire passage or veil it with a scrim of whitened wax. Encaustic’s tactile, unforgiving surface reveals every formal decision and change of heart, so that the accruing pentimenti consolidate into a narrative of the work’s evolution that’s embedded, quite literally, just beneath the surface.
A major motif in most of the works is a black calligraphic stroke, often in a variation of a loop or curl, that echoes both Pollock’s drip-sticks and Marden’s late-1980s experiments in mark making. Freda’s use of this Eastern-inflected gesture, according to Ch’i gallery director Tracy Causey-Jeffery, is based on the movement of trees outside the artist’s upstate New York studio. Spilling across the surface from unexpected angles, these strongly brushed figurations unleash a free, sometimes furious, dervishlike energy that Freda binds into white rectangular fields or counterweights with intensely hued, opaque planes of oil paint—opposing forces locked in an uneasy but spellbinding dance.
The twenty-two pieces in the show date from December 2003 through January of this year, and although a sparer presentation might have shown off the strongest work to better effect, the larger number imparts a fairly solid impression of where the artist is coming from and where she’s going. The earliest pieces are more expressly geometric, recalling Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series. But soon the calligraphic motif emerges, runs through a gamut of ideas, and then disappears, surrendering to an ethereal openness that relies, against all odds, on a few splattered drops to hold a painting together.
The point of reference for these works is nature, as indicated by the above-mentioned allusion to trees as well as titles like “Light Rain,” “Cumulus,” and “Forsythia.” Despite the specificity of these terms, Freda’s abstractions don’t act as painterly simulacra but instead embody qualities of nature—its color, fluidity, light, atmosphere, and motion—in the handling, texture, and pigmentation of the paint itself.
Freda’s project, if that’s the proper label for what feels like an internal, intuitive discourse, can be seen as an engagement with elemental forces by increasingly elemental means—a metaphysical approach that incrementally negates the self in favor of the random and the accidental. But in fever-pitch times like these, which tend to encumber art making with a level of urgency that precludes contemplation for outrage and raw power (think Goya, think Golub) the question returns: Is sheer beauty enough?
These paintings remind us that action needs repose, and that our hunger for beauty continues even as the more immediate expressions of our time deny or violate it. Sometimes we simply have to stop and look.