Ilana Manolson | Chance Encounters
May 3, 2019 1:55 pm
By Randy Garber
Ilana Manolson’s landscape paintings slice through time, space and geography to reveal compressed and complicated after-images that only memory and imagination can conjure. Her processes, developed over years of studying botany and exploring the natural world through hiking and kayaking while being an accomplished painter, reflect a generous perspective on how direct experience evolves when taken into the studio. Like so many of her predecessors, Manolson sketches en plein air and returns to her indoor sanctuary to literally reframe her initial sensory observations. And it is what happens at the easel that transforms her landscapes into sites for contemplation, conflict and conjecture about some of the confounding issues in contemporary painting as well as our current climate crisis.
Manolson’s acrylic paintings on Yupo, a synthetic paper that has a milky, semi-translucent surface, suggest both the evanescence we often associate with landscape painting, and also the threat of finitude that we must contend with as our natural world faces immanent threats. With a palette that ranges from acidic yellows to rich browns and reddish blacks, she provokes a psychological and emotional response that both seduces and surprises. Riveted by saturated, over-ripe, often blindingly bright blooms as well as washes that morph into brackish blacks of fermenting soil, we experience nature’s cycle of growth and decay. Her brushwork — loose, yet confident — reveals how she loads her tool with pigment and sculpts her forms, orchestrating moments of condensed intensity with delicate, wispy strokes that barely suggest the presence of color. Luscious and lyrical, her brush marks an edge between representing the natural world and abstracting its essence. She remarks about her process : “I feel like what I do is what nature in itself does… I paint and edit simultaneously; I capture the growing and the dying with the fluidity of paint.”
What is particularly stimulating in ‘Chance Encounters’ is how Manolson reconstructs aspects of her direct observations into crisp, contained shapes on a blank surface. Manolson invokes the legacy of Frank Stella and Elizabeth Murray’s shaped and sculptural surfaces; but, while playing with the illusion of volume, she insistently keeps her shapes flat. Consequently, the so-called “negative” white space of the Yupo can be read not only as evidence of what Manolson has edited out, but also as places of possibility. Her constructed moments of nature’s grandeur — the rot, the repair — invite us to both engage in nature’s struggle, and importantly, to intimately embrace the artist’s editorial decisions. It’s as if Manolson is cajoling us to project into them any context we’d like; we can “finish” the painting, we can “fill” the space, we can continue the story. Like a Mobius Strip, the paintings’ twists and turns, and odd and impossible spaces, suggest infinity, continuity and, in the end, a sense of much needed optimism.
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