The Feminine Sublime
through June 3
Pasadena Museum of California Art, Pasadena
By Lorraine Heitzman
Constance Mallinson has assembled a first rate group of women painters to address the concept of the sublime in art from a feminist standpoint. Each of the five artists in “The Feminine Sublime” at The Pasadena Museum of California Art explores their relationship to the landscape in a shift from the traditional male perspective towards a new paradigm. The concept may be oblique to the casual viewer but the paintings are inspired by any measure.
Merion Estes, Yvette Gellis, Virginia Katz, Constance Mallinson and Marie Thibeault each work in large formats in the tradition of artists like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, men who tried to convey the grandeur of the American landscape. Landscapes were once glorified in part for their potential to encourage exploitation or to justify man’s dominance over nature, but the paintings in The Feminine Sublime offer a radically different viewpoint. Among other things they are morality tales warning us that our once pristine landscapes have become garbage-strewn vistas and the awe-inspiring nature of such places has diminished in our hands. These artists grapple with the reality of our environment under siege and few do it as pointedly as Mallinson and Estes.
Mallinson’s Still Life in Landscape, seen as you first enter the gallery, documents our consumption and brings to mind, not a transcendental landscape, but rather the final scene in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Like that famous tracking shot that surveys Kane’s obsessive accumulation, Mallinson paints a twenty-first century cornucopia of detritus that is an indictment of our excesses. As in Citizen Kane, it is a scene that evokes pathos and judgment because the implied conclusion is that our appetites do not bring happiness but in fact are a substitute for it.
Where Mallinson sees our relationship to possessions, Estes focuses her attention on the environment. She passionately confronts the havoc of climate change and her paintings chronicle the destruction of our natural world. In The Great Defrost she depicts icebergs set against an acid orange sky melting into pools of blue waters. The colors are abrasive and her anger palpable in the angular and energetic marks. Burchfield’s Plea references the ecstatic reverence that Charles Burchfield brought to his landscapes, but in Estes’ version, the forest is caught in an inferno, doomed. Both paintings suggest our culpability and responsibility towards eco-systems under duress, a significant departure from the ways in which landscapes were historically depicted.
Gellis, Thibeault and Katz approach similar themes more abstractly. With her large expressionistic canvas, Yvette Gellis brings Oil Earth Fire Wind Water to life with bold, sweeping brushstrokes and thick deposits of paint. The elements are discordant, emphasizing perhaps the opposing qualities of these basic forces and substances. This foreboding sense of disaster hints at violent encounters that are far removed from the majestic landscapes we associate with this genre.
Marie Thibeault’s abstract paintings are the most geometric in the show. Instead of conjuring up familiar pastoral scenes, the artist creates intricate, interlocking webs of angular forms that reference man made environments. In Shield and Exposure, Thibeault captures the dizzying architecture of infrastructures and cities to put us in a psychological state of disorientation. But it is her masterful and painterly use of color and form that allows us to appreciate them equally for their abstract qualities. Eclipse is somewhat different as Thibeault works to balance the organic and geometric elements. The painting is dominated by a large hourglass shape intersected by black crows caught in a vortex that has turned the world topsy-turvy, a perfect metaphor for this new idea of the sublime.
Lastly, Virginia Katz impresses with her painting as well as with her sculpture. Land-Into the Abyss is a subtle and serene work on three panels that confounds us with allusions to geography, space, and biological systems. It is equally macro and micro with sparks of illumination that speaks to sunrises, spiritual revelations and the internal workings of our bodies. That Katz can so deftly incorporate these disparate associations is a testament to her abilities as a painter. In her tabletop sculpture, Recomposition, with Topaz, Amethyst, Ametrine and Quartz Crystals, she plays again with scale and materials to conjure multiple meanings in a crude, mysterious, refined and inspiring world.
Mallinson has put together a concept driven show that works on many levels. It is a thought-provoking exhibit that asserts a new, feminine relationship to the sublime in art as well as a strong exhibit of alternative landscape paintings that defies categorization. These women artists succeed in defying the norms of what is considered sublime in ways that are both aesthetically pleasing and academically challenging but however the viewer approaches “The Feminine Sublime” they will be richly rewarded.
Curator: Constance Mallinson
Artists: Merion Estes, Yvette Gellis, Virginia Katz, Constance Mallinson and Marie Thibeault
Pasadena Museum of California Art
490 E Union St, Pasadena, CA