Fluid Measure, the recent show by Jill Nathanson at Berry Campbell in Chelsea, is as philosophically interesting as it gets. The paintings are neither abstract nor corporeal, immaterial nor material, spiritual nor physical because they are simultaneously both at once. Suggesting an indiscrete form of substance, they both feel and think. In each of the paintings large and luminous color shapes wash over and into each other to create an energy out of tension and balance. Working in the Color Field tradition, the colors are intimate and delicate. These are hedonistic paintings.
Nathanson is an intensely “religious” painter, by which I don’t mean a painter of religious scenes, as much as one might mean a painter of “spiritual affects” in their transmission of shaped and embodied life. While much of the conceptual energy is drawn from the idea of “genesis,” the paintings in Fluid Measure do a lot more to remind me of the rabbis in tractate Niddah of the Bablonian Talmud, and the power ascribed to them to discern the subtlest grades of color variations that show up on the swatches brought to them by women concerned about vaginal spotting. The blood colors they imagine are richly saturated. Why like Talmud? With a biological touch, perhaps vaguely uterine, they are physical and abstract, natural and contrived. The sensation conveyed lack any “meaning.”
In an interview with Margarita Gomez Carrasco, which you can read here, Nathanson relates to her own background in Color Field painting. (The interview appears first in Spanish and then in English and was kindly sent to me by the gallery). She describes it as mysterious, exhilarating, experimental, but lacking emotional component. Her own paintings pay more attention to “[a]ffective realities…lived through a thinking intensely feeling body.”
Whose body? The body stands out as an artificially created color field. What Nathanson calls “color desire” is the impetus by which the eye is moved to “seek over the whole painted field.” Like affect, the “[c]olor glazes weave through and beyond forms.”
In the interview, Nathanson relates this new work to her Genesis installation, understood as the emergence of the world from chaos through light. The technical question is this. How to make acrylic paint act like a plastic sheet? What Nathanson is getting at with these paintings are color that look “immaterial, fluid, thickly material” “The sense of truth” comes out of the fact that we human beings are made of water. The painting has its own life. As a created form, the colors transmit light-energy that enjoy their own reality.
How do you turn color to achieve that kind of transparency? For the technical aspects, you can read this review by Piri Halasz, who with the artist explains how “Each painting in the show went through at least three stages. First came the modello, made from cut or torn pieces of what are known in theatrical circles as “gels.” Gels are paper-thin transparent colored sheets of polycarbonate or polyester that project color when placed in front of lighting fixtures or windows. They are used, for example, in theaters to create colored spotlights, and are sold through theatrical lighting suppliers. The second stage was to translate this modello into a smaller painting, which then became the basis for the larger, final one. As the original collage was made from transparent gels, its composition could incorporate some or even all shapes that, instead of being placed next to each other, overlapped. This meant that the shapes underneath remained visible and altered the color of some of the superimposed shapes.
All very well, you say, but what’s new about that? Making smaller, preliminary modelli goes right back through the ages, probably to the 14th century in Europe (though the 17th century modelli made by the Italian baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini are particularly prized). The difference here is that Ms. Nathanson’s modelli were made from transparent gels, and until very recently, no paints appear to have been made that would convey the same impression of transparency on a panel or canvas. Enter here those masterly paint manufacturers, Golden Artist Colors of New Berlin NY, who since 1980 have been creating a vast range of paints and other artist supplies which have enabled painters of every variety to achieve new and ever more wonderful effects.”
As a writer whose interests are primarily in religion and aesthetics, in the representation of religion and the mediated sense of “religious experience,” what’s going to strike me as important is the way these spiritual affects, these “wonderful effects,” are going to rely on new kinds of paint and technology.
For a different kind of Affect painting, there are the black paintings by Ad Reinhardt. On the surface they are pitch black and monochrome, but the more you look, you begin to visualize the blues and grids underpainted below the surface as they break the border between the visible and invisible. This is sort of how “affect” works in affect theory, I think. In contrast, though, Nathanson’s paintings are more focused along the surface. They are more transparent and less chilly.