Carolanna Parlato: A Delicate Balance
Elizabeth Harris Gallery | January 7 – February 13, 2016
As a style of painting, lyrical abstraction can too easily get short shrift as a histrionic sigh to the deeper draughts of abstract painting’s historical breadth. In general, the form tends to move away from the symmetry of compositional plotting toward a more rambling mapping of the picture plane. In doing so it can actually risk quite a bit in terms of painting’s clarifying limits for a wager on the optical choreography of the brushstroke. Ideally, by being less pictorially fixed, lyrical abstraction can become a powerfully expressive vehicle of non-representational poetics. Carolanna Parlato’s show of recent paintings continues her long preoccupation with how lyrical abstraction might evoke ephemeral beauty combined with a certain rigor of process that actively arrests the form’s potential drift into maudlin, painterly dramatics.
The installation includes small to larger-sized paintings that establish the scale of the room as intimate yet charged with the kind of palpable tension that might permeate either a Jane Austen passage or even a Turner chasm. The romance of the lyrically abstract has a strong polar magnetism that Parlato practically employs to navigate her way light-footedly through this show, yet to the artist’s credit she never capriciously relies upon any prescriptive directions regarding her chosen form.
One might be tempted to comment that works such as Moments (2015) flirt hue-wise with a kind of parlor-room decorum, with the feigned distraction of less saturated hues fetched subtly from assimilative obscurity by gestural ribbons of black and green, yet this would not be the entire story. Parlato decidedly pulls her compositions back from this type of shallow display by having her forms sit uncomfortably on the edge of their “seating” within the pictorial scene. Her conceptual intelligence never intrudes, but rather confidently announces itself as transparently beautiful. In the largest piece in the show, A Delicate Balance (2015), Parlato establishes a strong grid formatting for her bunches of brushstrokes, which has the effect of an implied painterly codex of expressionist “types”: an index of the lyrical that prove the artist isn’t simply playing salon games. Her compartmentalization of expressive figures is a language she intentionally re-arranges in order to explore the possibilities of syntactical harmonies, counterpoised in both hue and gesture. Here, she tends to favor lighter, less-saturated hues applied with modeling paste, lending an impression of low relief that invites the subtle drama of raking light across these passages.
One can see the strong influence of contemporaries ranging from Melissa Meyer to Charles Clough to perhaps even Jonathan Lasker in Parlato’s structural approach to gestural lyricism, a type where marks can retain their separate identities in ensemble with a party of similarly free agents. While Parlato’s spatial presentation is perhaps more spiritually aligned with older precedents like Helen Frankenthaler (whom she has cited as an important influence) and Sam Francis, she actuates a decidedly post-modern, dematerialized relation of gestural form in her work. In the past she has explored a range of techniques such as staining and pouring typically associated with earlier generations of lyrical abstraction, yet for her it all seems to have been an experiment in how phenomenal gesture might translate the beautiful through an awareness of its inherent empirical properties. This allies her work more closely to Lynda Benglis’s pour pieces from the 1970s than to Morris Louis’s “veils” of the early 1960s.
In focusing on the phenomenal by paying attention to her medium’s inherent fluidity, and on the reasoned faith that the lyrical gesture will inevitably seek its own level of appropriate form, Parlato effectively inverts the potentially cliché formula of the lyrically abstract toward a graceful pictorial physics that derives its imaginative tension from actual haptic forces. Beckon (2015), for instance, shows the artist weighing each of her matte colors before applying them in an array of smooth impasto stacks that evoke puddles of clouds or whipcords of brambles. Although probably too undermining and allusive to say that Parlato’s paintings reference landscape, she does share the genre’s proclivity toward carefully arranged chaos, as if a picturesque scene was spontaneously discovered in its undifferentiated nature: what is real is what is found but also imaginatively, gracefully projected onto the found. Perhaps the best one can hope for in a lyrically abstract format is this naturalizing effect on the tendency towards premeditated pictorial order. Parlato has ventured into this particular ramble with a determined stride, and yet has also shown her ability for letting her painterly imagination wander at will.