Consilience: Paintings by Elise Richman
August 21 – December 13, 2014
Roger W. Rogers Gallery
The saturated, azure washes of Elise Richman’s paintings call to mind aerial photographs of the dramatic convergence of land and water that characterizes the landscape of Puget Sound. It is not surprising that the regional landscape and a sense of place would play a central role in Richman’s work, given that she was born in Seattle, and her mother’s family has lived in the San Juan Islands for many generations.
While Richman’s paintings certainly chart a watery landscape of islands, inlets and peninsulas, they are much more than just maps or perceptual representations. Her works, filled as they are with swirls and pools of color, are the antidote to the distanciation and passivity of traditional landscape painting because she represents the landscape without slavishly depicting its physical appearance or treating it as a backdrop for myth, history, or other human-centered subjects. Her strategy of representation is a synthesis of science, aesthetics, and a sense of place, and represents a true consilience or convergence of themes and sources to reach a unified, but complex conclusion. She combines perceptual and conceptual concerns with the sensibilities of the artist, chemist, cartographer, ecologist and sociologist.
Richman fittingly builds her painting by means of the same processes that shaped the landscapes they refer to: the dynamics of hydraulic deposition and erosion. Richman works like a chemist. She combines inks, acrylics and liquefied, powdered pigment mixed with gum Arabic in rich, liquid washes. In doing so she takes advantage of the differences in viscosity between these media. The colors swirl and eddy as they rise to the surface or sink to the bottom of the washes she applies. Anyone who has ever seen oil glisten and ebb as it floats on water would also recognize this dynamic of dueling viscosities. The result is a turbulent, expressive and meaningful kind of chromatography, an aesthetic examination of the laws of physics that govern liquid matter. Besides being an experimental investigation of materiality, her paintings are also a potent reminder that materials, method and meaning can serve the same purpose.
Richman embraces the tension between chance and intentionality in her process. She explains that each painting represents a balance between collaboration with and control of materials. “I allow the application of the inks and paints mixed with a range of different acrylic mediums to enact and solidify processes as pigments meld, intermingle, and resist one another. I then respond to the pools, rivulets, and inlets that emerge from the material’s collaboration with gravity, evaporation, and relative viscosity by deepening color, adjusting the quality of particular edges and heightening or obscuring contours.”
The result of Richman’s process is a kind of meaningful, contemporary, and conceptual abstract expressionism, where painting, no longer narcissistically self-absorbed, has turned its gaze back onto the world around it. Richman’s work certainly engages in a dialogue with the history of painting: her treatment of the optics and mechanics of water calls to mind the approach and technique of artists as different as J.M.W. Turner and Helen Frankenthaler. The most obvious difference between their work and hers is her focus on the conceptual. The most obvious conceptual content her paintings convey is ecological. The fact that her work reminds the viewer of oil or chemicals suspended in water is no accident. As anyone who has spent time in the Puget Sound region knows, densely populated and heavily industrialized developed areas are closely mixed in with wetlands, rivers and large bodies of seawater that connect to the open ocean. In an ecosystem characterized by the dynamic and cyclical movement of water, pollution and contaminants are a persistent threat to the diverse natural biomes and human populations of the area. This brings us to the social aspect of Richman’s work. She describes her intent as follows,” The conceptual motives behind my process are socially as well as environmentally driven. Imbalanced power-differentials lead to the aestheticization and exploitation of the natural world and groups of people.” While this meaning is subtly expressed, it nonetheless forms an important part of the content her work conveys.
Elise Richman received an MFA in painting from American University in Washington DC. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art & Art History at The University of Puget Sound. One of the courses she teaches there is a seminar titled Space, Place and Values. More of her work can be seen on her website: www.eliserichman.com.
-Andries Fourie, Curator, Roger W. Rogers Gallery