Two artists offer studies in light
BRATTLEBORO — Hans Hofmann, the renowned mid-century abstract expressionist painter, said, "In nature, light creates the color. In the picture, color creates the light."
Two artists with recent paintings on exhibit through Sept. 28 at the Dianich Gallery both explore light, each in her own way.
Both women are graduates of Smith College, a generation apart, and have taught art there, as well as at numerous other colleges and universities.
Martha Armstrong, whose graduate degree is from Rhode Island School of Design, grew up in Ohio. She knew by the time she was 5 years old that she wanted to be a painter. In kindergarten, she was so absorbed in her painting that she missed the juice-and-cookies break. The subsequent seven decades (and counting) hold an impressive record of artistic achievement.
She cites her experience as a ballet student of a very demanding teacher as one of the influences on her work.
"Ballet is discipline, training, and rhythm," Armstrong said. "Dance has movement and stillness. Look at the footwork, the hand expression. The teacher painted all her own scenery for performances. I'm just lucky that a teacher of that caliber came to Cincinnati."
One can see the influence of dance in Armstrong's canvases with their bold brush strokes that create an immediate sense of upward movement. Her vibrant color palette contributes to the effect. The trees seem to have a life of their own.
"I paint trees in a woodlot in Vermont where my husband and I have taken our family since 1969," Armstrong says in her painting statement. "A landscape so familiar takes on resonance of something felt or experienced, stand-ins for something or someone. I get my best work here, outside alone, without interruption."
Her paintings also have a geometric complexity that contributes to the dynamic quality.
"You have to think about why you're making the structure the way you are," she said. "With the light constantly changing, you have to find a quick way to get it down. I want to stay true to what I'm looking at. Go after the geometry. Find the important points, the reference lines."
For Armstrong, color is an expression of light.
"I am interested in the light and how it affects color, how it feels, how it affects constellations of trees, sky, and ground," she said in a pamphlet about her work. "I want the painting to stay a landscape, to be in a tradition of landscape painting. I want it to be formal — to be settled and separate from the emotional jumble that might inspire it. But I want it to carry the power of color and light in its composition."
Lots of small studies on canvas or board, she said, help her understand bigger paintings, adding, "It's a combination of enough abstraction and enough reference to the outside world to have my own voice."
Armstrong said that early in her career, her work was considered abstract. Now, she said, it's considered representational.
"The 20th century added so much vocabulary to painting," she said. "Expressionism, abstract expressionism, cubism, all these new languages. I'm fascinated by abstraction, invention, and intuition. Matisse and Picasso are still giants in my mind."
Traditionally, women have found it challenging to be taken seriously as artists. Armstrong has some early experience with that. When she was in high school taking classes on Saturdays at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, the instructor would take a cursory look at her work.
"Thirty people would be drawing a figure," she said. "He would stop at my drawing and say, 'That's fine.' Then he would have a long conversation (about their work) with the three guys next to me. I didn't like that."
However, Armstrong said she also experienced great teaching at the same academy.
"Julien Stanczak didn't paint landscapes himself," she said, "yet he directed me to look at John Marin's landscapes and to read Marin's letters to Alfred Stieglitz."
In college, Armstrong couldn't concentrate on her painting because of all the talking in the studio. (In her own teaching, she bans ear buds and conversation in the studio.)
"I would do all my painting on my own — out in the woods or in my room — and turn it in," she said. "From the get-go, I had to find my own answers."
As revealed in this exhibit, Armstrong has found compelling answers that exhilarate the viewer. After looking at Armstrong's paintings, I subsequently found they influenced the way I saw trees. She captures the drama of the landscape. Even the one monochrome in the show, "Apple Tree Jazz," vibrates with movement.
Elizabeth Meyersohn, who has taught painting and drawing at Smith College since 2003, received her Master of Fine Arts degree in painting from the Yale School of Art. She, also, has exhibited and taught extensively. All of her paintings in this show have been completed in the past two years.
Meyersohn's paintings are subtle, the rich colors translucent, as though seen through a veil. In some paintings, strong verticals or horizontals define space against the diaphanous background, such as in "Bluest" or "Caught." A recurring motif is a circular entity, the moon.
"This series is about the sky and the moon, and about the change of light," Meyersohn said. "The moon is a way for me to locate a light/dark idea behind a screen or behind the clouds, through a window. The moon is both poetic and a way to focus on a particular landscape. The light is there, and the landscape has faded away."
Born in New York City, Meyersohn moved to New England in 1982. In a statement on her website, she says, "For over twenty years, my work has been based on the landscape. During most of that time, I have painted the view from my studio in western Massachusetts. I am particularly interested in raking light and dramatic clouds. Not unrelated to the landscapes are my paintings of areas of light on the walls of my studio, an inversion of the dark shadows on the hillsides."
One of the paintings in the current exhibit is entitled, "My Past View." Bright horizontal lines of yellow alternate with lines of shadow in the foreground, drawing the eye into the mysterious shadowy center of the painting.
"I recently moved," she said. "I didn't know when I painted that one that it would turn out to be literally the last in that series, my last time looking out the window of that studio."
Meyersohn has participated in several international exhibitions, including Biennale exhibitions in South Korea (2012), in China (2013), and in Italy (2017), and in the 2018 Salon Des Beaux Arts, Carrousel du Louvre in Paris.
"I spent 10 days in South Korea and 10 days in China," she said. "Artists are invited to make work, but whatever I made, I had to leave. All kinds of artists were doing all kinds of work. I was encouraged not to be a representational painter."
These experiences have had some influence on her work.
"My work now is more open and seems freer," she said. "In the past, I worked on a painting for a whole year, and I was more rigid about the preparation of the canvas surface. I painted only on linen, and I prepped the surface with rabbit skin glue and oil primer. Now there doesn't have to be a perfect surface. I've explored painting on cardboard and burlap."
Other influences Meyersohn cites are teaching, which "helps me locate what I'm thinking about," and cooking.
"In cooking you go from raw materials to finished product," she said. "It's the same with painting. It's magical. "No matter what I'm painting," Meyersohn added, "I can't paint without the view. I have to have the color and the light. I have to have nature out there. The combination of the night sky/moon is a constant source of inspiration."
This exhibit offers the viewer the unparalleled opportunity to see two distinct visions of light on the landscape. One can experience not only how the paintings stand on their own, but also how they inform each other. It is a show not to be missed.
Dan Sherry curated the exhibit. The Dianich Gallery is located in the Hooker-Dunham Building at 139 Main St., Rm. 501, down the alley, through the glass doors. Open by appointment. 802-380-1607, www.catherinedianichgallery.com.
Nancy A. Olson, a frequent contributor to the Reformer, can be reached at email@example.com.
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