Cold Comfort

Two abstract Minnesota painters explore the spiritual shades of an everlasting winter

The 20th-century French art critic and novelist André Malraux once proclaimed: "All art is a revolt against man's fate." An overstatement, certainly, but he had reason to rant: He was an ill-fated man. In his lifetime he was twice wounded in war (during the Spanish Civil War), twice captured by the German army (during World War II), and lost two sons to an accident. So we can excuse him if his writing veered toward gloom and doom at times.

By the same token, we can excuse the Minnesota artist who shows the effects of an ill-fated battle against the elements--particularly after this year's pitched five-month winter campaign. (Could Stalingrad have been any worse?) A revolt against winter--against its dim light and the attendant feelings of unease and existentialism it brings--shows up in the work of two artists currently with solo shows in Twin Cities galleries: Painting as Journey, a 20-year retrospective of the work of Elizabeth Erickson, on view at the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery; and Reflections, new paintings by Wendell Arneson, showing at the Groveland Gallery.

Yahweh, Jehovah, etc.: Elizabeth Erickson's "101 Names of God (1996)"
Yahweh, Jehovah, etc.: Elizabeth Erickson's "101 Names of God (1996)"

Erickson's paintings are filled with an icy, inert, Northern light. A native Minnesotan who teaches at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Erickson seems simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the colors of a Minnesota winter: the blue-purple of a silent evening winter sky, the seething pale white of hoarfrost, the black-green of retted flax and frozen lake water. "Lake Superior Dawn (2000)," for instance, is a mixed-media diptych of two views of the same abstracted landscape. In both, a pregnant blue color field dominates the weak fire of a distant orange sun. Here, as in all her paintings, Erickson plays with a flat area of color by layering thin washes of paint and adding expressive brush-swipes of dark or complementary color--black-greens, blue-purples, blue-blacks. The effect is to create a sense of silent mental activity--a type of rebellion, perhaps--in the dominating and cold stillness of the colors.

There is much more to a painting than the influence of the atmosphere on its color scheme. Though color is an important aspect to the work, Erickson's creations have much more going on than their range of icy hues. Still, her particular palette does have an important relationship with the rest of the artist's concerns. In the best of Erickson's work, there is a kind of spiritual questioning to be seen, a grappling with the apocalyptic thoughts that winter brings. Consider the acrylic painting on paper titled "101 Names of God (1996)," which features a mass of white swipes on a blue-green ground, circling around a single stripe of red dots. Without placing an overwrought literal reading on the image--it looks remarkably like an underwater view of the flagella of subarctic microorganisms--the subject seems to be a hope for life, color, meaning, in a deathly surrounding. While the artist's winter scheme dominates in this image, as elsewhere, the scant red dots here draw the viewer's attention. They represent the struggle to find hope, warmth, restoration in a harsh world. (The title helps in this reading.)

Still, such a hypothesis may make sense only to Minnesotans in March: Five months of winter, with its darkness and its deathly cold, can lead to deep spiritual questioning and hope for brighter, warmer colors at last.

Other works in this show hint at the artist's further numinous journeys, particularly with regard to the mysteries of India. Erickson took a trip to that country in 1997 and participated in a spiritual pilgrimage. Afterward, the visual mood of her work changed somewhat, and her images, including a very large and beautiful nine-panel work titled "Red Music, Amartithi, (1998-99)" began to make use of a new color scheme: the cardinal red of flower petals, the rust-orange of henna--in other words, the colors of India. Still, while Indian light and color is apparent here, this painting strikes the eye somehow as cold--as if the artist's preferred scheme of winter light has come creeping back in the icy blue-green diagonal brushstrokes laid atop the red, and in the underlying layers of black or whitish-gray color.

 

Another Minnesota native, Wendell Arneson, who lives in Northfield and teaches at St. Olaf College, paints with the primary-color palette of red, blue, and yellow. Arneson's style of painting--with its loose impasto application of pure and primary color, and the unrefined, almost aboriginal, rendering of simple objects--reveals the influences of the American abstract expressionistic painters of the 1940s and 1950s (Pollock in his pre-drip stage, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning), and Native American lore and imagery. Arneson's colors and style are different from Erickson's, yet again his work is dominated by cold, Northern light. Throughout his canvases, blues and icy mint-greens play off some cardinal-red and orange-yellow touches and against black-outlined shapes--masks, canoes, ladders, huts.

Because of the artist's attention to primary colors, and to blue in particular, the sense of light in his paintings is the simple, non-diffused, low-burning February sun of the prairie. In this way, his work somewhat resembles Erickson's. One of the largest paintings, the 60-by-66-inch oil on canvas "Reach (Reaching for the Stars)," is dominated by a large blue expanse--the winter sky at midnight opening up to reveal a cold void. Because of the vastness of the blue space, it seems endless and overwhelming. Still, as in Erickson's work, the cold sky is not completely empty: Black swirls and outreaching hand-shapes make an appearance, as do canoes and floating face masks, dim yellow stars, and a distant crescent moon. The overall effect of the imagery, and of the style of rendering, is that of a vision. Indeed, most of these works have the soft-focus, off-kilter feel of dreams; these are magic spaces, or floating, nonliteral translations of time and place, as revealed through a cold Minnesotan sensibility.

In the end, something about winter in Minnesota, likely having to do with the sense of isolation, of death and cold, must have inspired the deep questioning and the spare aesthetic of these two abstract painters. Malraux, who authored dozens of books despite--or more likely because of--his ill fate, would likely approve.

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