OCHI PROJECTS: Elisa Johns, Kings Canyon
and Nancy Baker Cahill, Manifestos
By Lorraine Heitzman
Through April 9th
The confluence of these two very different artists now showing at OCHI PROJECTS makes for a surprisingly immersive experience. The thoughtful pairing of Elisa Johns and Nancy Baker Cahill ushers the unsuspecting viewer into a poetic state of mind, though each artist accomplishes this feat from their own perspectives in separate shows.
The ground floor of the gallery features several large ethereal paintings by Elisa Johns. The artist, who lives in Los Angeles, spends her summers backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and these paintings were inspired by her experiences. In Kings Canyon, which is both the name and subject of the show, Johns suggests rugged mountains and ravines with gestural marks against white backgrounds while cool washes of blues and grays indicate shadows and skies. Her calligraphic approach renders the massive landscapes weightless and almost formless with an emphasis on energetic geological forces instead. In some areas the heavily applied paint give the surfaces a textural and decorative interest almost in contradiction to the subject matter, but in Kings Canyon, the viewer is happy to dwell on the atmospheric surfaces as well as on the landscapes themselves.
Standing before her work, it is tempting to read them like Japanese paintings and wonder if the paintings might be read temporally, from left to right or top to bottom, rather than as depictions of three dimensional space. The flatness might diminish the immensity of the forms, but Johns is clearly entranced by a more abstract, poetic aspect of nature and the emotional responses they incur. Her palette and minimalist approach keeps us focused on the spiritual expression of a mountain rather than the tangible, immutable qualities one might normally expect.
The other part of the equation at OCHI PROJECTS is the quiet, ruminative installation of Manifestos, a series of small graphite drawings by Nancy Baker Cahill. At first glance, these wispy, small drawings look like studies, but in fact they are more than self-sufficient. Running along the stairwell and against two plywood walls of the upstairs loft, Manifestos is a collection of beautifully realized, isolated images displayed in a linear sequence. Each drawing is a careful fragment; a frozen movement or an action memorialized in graphite against a plain background. Their intimate size is an invitation to closely examine the work and identify with both bound and unfettered states. Images of curious shapes, like blurry photographs caused by shutter speeds too slow to capture motion, alternate with tightly rendered, twisted forms. The illusion of freefalling through space may feel loose and dreamy but the next drawing invokes a knotted, tortured expression.
According to Baker Cahill, this series is about the human body and when her work is viewed in a figurative context, the sinewy forms take on greater clarity and meaning. It makes sense to learn that the artist is working with Virtual Reality technologies with the ambition to make her drawings even more immersive. Without reference to scale, they already read much larger than their actual size, a testament to their powerful presence and a hint of what may be yet to come.