Two exhibitions of Jill Nathanson’s work, Sacred Presence/Painterly Process at the Derfner Judaica Museum in Riverdale and No Blue Without Yellow at the Messineo Art Projects/Wyman Contemporary in Chelsea, give view to more than five years of her development. In the earlier works, Nathanson has tackled some difficult and what could be considered unusual subjects for our time, engaging a struggle that has led to a distillation of form. The results can be felt in the light and joyful meditation of her recent poured polymer resin paintings.
At the Judaica Museum, Nathanson’s “Seeing Sinai: Meditations on Exodus 33–4” (2005), done in dialogue with scholar Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, is being shown alongside the project “New Translations: Genesis” (2007 – 2010), which responds to contemporary translations and interpretations of the biblical text by Robert Alter and Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, among others.
Taking Genesis as a point of departure, Nathanson starts by using the debris from her studio floor, allowing her work to emerge from an essential chaos to create a series of freeform, sprawling mixed-media pieces. Nathanson uses gels, decorative paper, and adhesives in combination with poured acrylic paint to create the support structure of her pieces—a formal play that points to the creation of the earth in the text. By embracing the production of chaos in art, Nathanson poses a most challenging task for herself: How does one create a context to envelope chaos, thereby bringing enough order to the individual work to make it visible as subject? The intent to realize a condition of formless chaos, out of which the world of forms was created “in the beginning,” imbues these works with a tension that is not wholly resolved, and that is, perhaps, not wholly resolvable.
“Called the Light Day” (2007–2010) seems to propose that the world starts with a black plastic garbage bag. The humor and detachment with which Nathanson works expands the notion of beginnings to imagine the world as being created for the first time at every moment. Blue and orange gels are overlaid to create rich grays in the movement from left to right; traversing the field, moments of darkness and opacity encounter highlights from the plastic surfaces as a pure light filters through and reflects off the gels. Some of these pieces run horizontally and move in a progression; each in its own abstract way engenders forms that address conditions in the texts corresponding to the different days in Genesis 1, and allows intention to coalesce within an open field.
In “Across the Vault” (2007-2010), the opening outwards of upper and lower diagonal forms mimics a wing in motion. The irregular but rounded edge on the right side creates the bow of the vault, while the inner division of colored shapes speaks to individuation. These interstitial spaces punctuate an aerial view that opens up in the center, with light conditioning a movement under the vault of heaven. The nuance of these movements from light to dark and through the various gels and overlaid papers fills in details about bodies and flight without ever resorting to an image to communicate the creation of the winged creatures on the fifth day. The outer boundaries of the work’s various papers and plastics form an irregular whole that tugs at the center and lays bare the process of its own making as additive and circumstantial. As Nathanson wrestles with her subject, what appears at first glance to be a whimsical and playful formal exercise takes on a weight and duration over time. The works calm even as they grip.
There is every evidence of an artistic struggle here and of the difficulties of confronting both the inchoate nature and the profundity of a creation myth. Nathanson’s search for unencumbered movement and color reflects the transformations that are its substance, while the materials ground her investigations in the vicissitudes of daily living. The subtext reveals a desire to integrate the sacred and the secular.
The Genesis works end with the gels attached to a small square panel: “Ceased From All His Tasks that He Had Created to Do” (2007 – 2010). The frame, signifying the end of the beginning, stands in contrast to the freewheeling boundaries of the unframed forms.
What is refreshing about Nathanson’s approach is her ability to address the narrative, seeking its essential truths without becoming illustrative or didactic. Nathanson’s involvement with Jewish mysticism and her study of the Kabbalah emerged through her desire to realize its conception of color in abstract painting. Upon finding extended descriptions of color in the Sefer ha-Zohar, the Book of Radiance, and other works of Kabbalah, she was inspired to study the ancient texts, seeking a dialogue with contemporary Jewish scholars to deepen her investigations.
With scholar Arnold Eisen, Nathanson poses the question: Is there anything about the sense of sight in the Torah? And then they embarked on a year-long study of the Exodus passages 33 – 34; each confronts the limits of the other’s discipline, expanding in the end both the scholar’s interpretation and the painter’s vision. At the core of the passage is the question as to whether Moses could see G-d or survive the sight of G-d. An originary exposition of the gaze, Nathanson locates the source of its power in the sacred text.
The resulting body of work, “Seeing Sinai: Meditations on Exodus 33–4” is a series of four 54-inch square canvases. “And I Will Write Upon These Tablets” (2005) incorporates the text by using Hebrew letters formed by painting around their shapes with a decided painterliness. Elsewhere, freeform strokes coalesce to create the outlines of colors. The harmonies in her colors are complex and take time to activate. In emerging slowly, the void carved out by the painting retains its amorphousness with a warm light coming through from the distance, giving the painting a kind of landscape or cloudscape space. The letters, which are often given numerical values in sacred texts, stand up front as figures against the multicolored grounds, moving in and out of them to create a mysterious metaphysical field.
“Seeing Sinai,” the first of the projects now on view, shows Nathanson working to define the terms of engagement, moving alongside an evolving exegesis of the profound subjects found in the texts with a desire to come closer to a precise rendering. Trying to forge a relationship between her abstract paintings and the sacred texts of the Torah and Kabbalah might have seemed an unlikely pursuit, yet the clarity with which Nathanson together with Eisen pursued an understanding of the visible in the Torah emerges in the solid grounding of her painterly vocabulary.
The Judaica Museum serves an audience that isn’t primarily an art-going public, yet it facilitates sustained viewing and an interest in her subject, which brings the rewards of Nathanson’s project more easily into the light. In contrast, the exhibition of Nathanson’s recent works at Messineo Art Projects/Wyman Contemporary privileges the formal aspects of her work while challenging her audience to exceed the few seconds of attention that gallery viewing most often elicits.
Nathanson’s new poured polymer pieces look like veils, with light-filled colors, bleeding harmonies, and various strokes of paint. The movement, carved out by “Air into Air” (2010), slides forward and back, oscillating between straight-on and aerial viewpoints. The effect is to create a sensation of lightness, a soaring that elevates upon engaging with the painting and taking on its nuance. This takes time, so for the impatient, Nathanson’s work will be all but invisible, her subtle and ethereal color vibrations off the radar.
“Meet it Halfway” (2010) gives an immediate sense of an overview from which the awareness of a split or opening comes in from below to register the notion of hubris. Nathanson reminds that the dangers of spiritual heights can also be found in the depths it is possible to fall. “Prodigal of Blue” (2010), with its Emily Dickinson title and areas of brown, salmon orange, and turquoise, plunges into a deep space in the foreground. When the horizon running along the top line of the piece registers as a counterpoint to the depth in front, it torques the point of view and leaves the viewer standing on water.
There is a free-floating sense of scale in Nathanson’s relatively small pieces that suggests the immensity of tectonic plates as one considers the overlaying of her polymer pours and the complexity of their shifting relationships. The movement Nathanson instills in her relatively nondescript shapes cannot be accounted for by their appearance. They often simply echo the sides of her support, or form triangles, though occasionally a curve comes in. There is no internal tension within these shapes; it is her color that sets up and maintains the tension that allows the pieces to unfold, slowly. The ease with which this happens belies the fact that Nathanson’s sensibility has been honed over a longer time, conceiving of color through the lens of Kabbalah, where color is described as analogous to the profound dynamic realm of the sefirot. After a period of looking, these works take on a presence that holds the viewing space in suspension.
The apparent casualness of Nathanson’s paintings stands in contrast to their penetrating content. The freedom gained in having confronted the existential questions evidenced in the Judaica Museum exhibition permeates the lightness of the new works in Chelsea. One thing is certain, they do not attempt closure or definitiveness, but rather present a number of elements in flux. This uncertainty is basic to the human condition; through her works, Nathanson proposes that our not knowing is a pleasurable, light-filled void. An awareness that is subtle, yet enigmatically compelling.
JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.