Russell Janis | May 14 – June 14 2015
“If you ponder a rose for too long you won’t budge in a storm.” The work of octogenarian artist Emily Mason shares roots with those words by poet Mahmoud Darwish, on the importance of adhering to one’s intuition. For Mason, who has been making abstract work for over five decades, intuition has always been the catalyst. Though primarily known as a painter, she has also been making prints since the late 1980s, and in a small but lush show of these lesser-known works, currently on view at Russell Janis in Williamsburg, her instinctual acuity is on full display.
Mason was vexed by those earliest attempts at printmaking, for she felt the conventional methods, which by nature must be carefully controlled in order to achieve the desired results, were at odds with her own creative process. She has said that the most important component of her practice is to “get the mind out of the way,” and that a work is complete when “you get a little feeling in your stomach.” After doing some research, she became aware of the printing technique developed by Joan Miró in the 1960s, whereby the artist applied a mixture of carborundum and glue directly to a plate, allowing for much more flexibility of expression. With this as a starting point, Mason evolved her own method, eventually painting the mixture onto plexiglas plates—which had the benefit of allowing light to shine through—and experimenting with the eventual composition of each individual print by stacking the different plates atop each other. Mason frequently layered another plexiglas plate onto an older individual print weeks, months, or occasionally even years later, changing its composition as the day’s mood suited her. Close consideration of a print reveals the fruits of this layering, and a careful viewer can occasionally see the reuse of plates in disparate works, done in varying colors or situated in a different orientation. Physically manifested, time itself is a component of each print, along with the paper, carborundum, and ink.
The results of these efforts are singular prints (each work at Russell Janis is a monotype—because of her working process, Mason does not edition them) that have all the mystery and emotion of any painting. Mason uses color as if she is exploding kaleidoscopes or Rorschach tests on the page. Her mastery is so deft that limiting the discussion to visual terms does the work an injustice. In “Untitled” (1998) rich swathes of marine blues are edged by phosphorescent green, and one has the sensation of the body meeting the ocean’s bracing, plankton-laced water. In another print, “Untitled” (2001), a film of periwinkle is layered beneath a shocking, electric yellow that can be felt in your teeth, like a sugary lemon meringue. These works, hung across from each other on opposite walls of the gallery resonate, as traces of the same plexiglas plate used several years apart in each instance, are visible in the compositions of both prints.
“Iced Over” (2010), is a tempestuous standout. Over swirls of tangerine and black that are reminiscent of a tiger’s stripes, a whorl of gunmetal gray seems to rise from the bottom of the paper. The foggy opacity seems intent on blotting out the vibrant color beneath, which in turn struggles to pierce its shroud. Dense gray and lucid orange are locked in a churning and restive pas de deux that thumps in the gut. Meanwhile, you can feel—without touching—the fuzziness of “Untitled” (1999), its deep maroon and magenta both blended with and slashed by a swath of purple-gray. Anxious to join the eyes in this game of looking, the other senses are pricked. Time with Emily Mason’s work could make synesthetes of us all.
JESSICA HOLMES is a New York-based writer and critic who is the ArTonic Section Editor, and contributes regularly to the Brooklyn Rail, Artcritical, Hyperallergic, and other publications.