Layer by Layer
Art Review: Galen Cheney, recent abstract works on paper and canvas, Julian Scott Memorial Gallery, Johnson State College. Through June 20.
Courtesy of Jack Rowell
An impressive collection of 15 new paintings on canvas and paper make up Galen Cheney’s solo exhibition, entitled “Mark by Mark,” at Johnson State College’s Julian Scott Memorial Gallery. In her artist statement, Cheney describes taking a very active approach to their creation: “I raise the paintings up and knock them down, build up, scrape off, paint in, blur out.” All her mark making leaves evidence for viewers to uncover, as if they were archaeologists excavating the remains of a dazzling civilization.
Cheney’s paintings on paper are the largest pieces in the show — vertical compositions of 50 by 38 inches. On them she has used a variety of media to build animated surfaces and intense, harmonious hues. In the hot-colored work “Boot Up,” distinctive passages such as ribbons appear atop the shimmering orange and salmon background. A pale blue ribbon is bordered with red, and segments of broad black line contrast with less opaque passages of black buried between layers of color.
Cheney claims she does not begin her paintings with a preconceived idea; she maintains a “dialogue” with each work as it develops and remains open to letting the painting itself give her direction, as it were. “It’s all about setting up a situation and working through it,” she states. “There is a balance to be struck between controlling the painting and giving myself over to the mystery of the unconscious.”
In the acrylic “Green Heart,” Cheney created negative space by painting neutral gray areas on a twisted matrix of fine, almost cellular, lines woven over the background. In astronomy, light from the most distant stars is the oldest; in Cheney’s pieces, the earliest gestures are the ones buried deepest in the picture plane. The top layers of “Green Heart” include broad lines of white and black, a counterpoint to the successive layers beneath.
The flurry of silvery gray lines in Cheney’s “Smelt” recalls sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s famous quote, “When you see a fish, you don’t think of its scales, do you? You think of its speed, its floating, flashing body seen through the water.” Regardless of whether Cheney painted in that spirit, the work is all about movement and density, like a school of the tiny fish. The white, gray and black lines play over a thin underpainting of peach. Of course, “Smelt” may refer to the melding of hot metals, and the painting’s thicket of small marks could depict the process of smelting. The title works either way.
“Conveyer” is relatively less complex, with broad white lines laid on top of other hues. It’s like a twisted cloverleaf, a Gordian knot of exits tangling up an urban interstate.
Color and line become themes as much as forms do in any of Cheney’s works. So, while wholly abstract, her paintings can’t really be called nonobjective. The 40-by-36-inch oil-on-canvas “Spin” is the portrait of a spinning red line in space. Like a small tornado, the red line twists around clouds of blue-green in the center of the composition. The distant white background has been scraped and dug into. Lower layers of paint feature finer lines and smaller patches of hue than those above.
Cheney is a powerful and perceptive painter who lets the colors, lines, density and shapes of abstraction take center stage. Her paintings not only speak volumes, they do so eloquently.