Sunday, November 9th, 2008

Louisa Matthiasdottir: Selected Paintings at Tibor de Nagy Gallery

October 11 to November 15
724 Fifth Avenue, between 56th and 57th streets
New York City, 212-262-5050

Louisa Matthiasdottir Maine Landscape with Figure (1976).  Oil on canvas. All images courtesy of Tibor de Nagy Gallery
Louisa Matthiasdottir, Maine Landscape with Figure (1976). Oil on canvas. All images courtesy of Tibor de Nagy Gallery

Art, arguably, is the perpetual rediscovering of one’s environment. It periodically circles back to earlier concerns and subjects, continually extending previous discoveries, and adding new viewpoints and layers of context.

Or does it? These days, some of the hottest artists in the resurgent genre of figurative painting – artists such as Elizabeth Peyton and Luc Tuymans – bring to it a multi-disciplinary approach that combines aspects of “high” art and illustration. These artists tend to address the semantics of representation – the parsings of the implications of style and narrative – more than with the purely formal language of painting. For viewers attuned to traditions ranging from Mantegna to Matisse, the loss may well outweigh the gain.

Such traditionalists will be amply rewarded (and reassured) by the paintings by Louisa Matthiasdottir (1917-2000) currently at Tibor de Nagy. Matthiasdottir, a native Icelander who studied with Marcel Gromaire in Paris and Hans Hofmann in New York City (her home since the early 40s), devoted her long career to painting vividly hued, somewhat abstracted paintings of the subjects around her. Roughly spanning the artist’s last 25 years, the nearly two dozen paintings at Tibor present a handsome sampling of familiar themes: her hieratic still lifes and self-portraits, views of Reykjavik streets and Maine forests, sheep-dotted mountains of Iceland. (Disclosure: I personally knew the artist and have been friends of her family since the mid 1970s.)

At a glance, these images charm with their vivacious brushwork, their frequently exotic scenery, and a brusque, reductive modeling reminiscent of folk art. A longer look, however, uncovers far more. The exhibition catalog’s essay recalls her statement from the early 80s: “The reason I paint is because I want to paint what I see. But to paint what I see, I must build with color.” And indeed, in these paintings, so strangely mute in terms of narrative and style, her colors speak volumes. They record not one-to-one correspondences of hue, but an overall impression of sunlight that weights and animates individual objects. How to convey thousands of leaves overhead, infinite skies, and countless blades of grass below? In “Maine Landscape with Figure” (1976), colors weight forms, and forms direct the pressure of colors. Racing diagonals of grass-greens, buoyant in sunlight, stream around a reclining figure, whose skintones – half-illuminated, in a zone of open shadow – are perfectly captured by thin washes of burnt sienna. On either side tree trunks dart upward, some adamantly straight, others kinking and summing up one another as they clamber above our point of view. Facing us at the canvas’ center, a spiraling tuft of denser greens – a lone bush – hugs the ground just before the earth slips suddenly away to a distant sea. In terms of technique, the fleet brushstrokes and vivid hues are quite beautiful; but formally they are absolutely gripping in their continuous measuring of intervals – the fast recessions, adamant swellings, and anchoring details –that characterize each element.

Louisa Matthiasdottir Two Horses in a Landscape (undated)
Louisa Matthiasdottir, Two Horses in a Landscape (undated)

Contradictions abound in her paintings, just as in life, so that the greens surrounding sheep and horses acquire at some points the vacancy of air and at others the earthiness of the ground plane. These are moments in the cohering perceptions of the artist, who proceeds not as an illustrator (a compiler, in believable but stylistically evocative fashion, of details we already know) but as an adventurer in form (a synthesizer of nature’s innate paradoxes.)

Throughout Tibor’s selection of paintings, one senses a luminous reserve – a private temperament joyfully submitting to an exacting task. We’re rewarded with extraordinary evocations of the observed: the pert attitude of a horse, its tilting head framed as if in a snapshot in the coursing diagonals of foreground and distant hills in “Young Brown Horse with White Feet.” (The exuberant rigor of this small, undated canvas makes it a highlight of the show.) Or, the orchestration of the forms of man, trees, and dog – sweeping, holding, then sweeping again – through a taut composition of “Man and Mishka, Skowhegan” (1976).

Viewers of a literalistic bent may be disappointed by Matthiasdottir’s disinterest in detailed, sculptural modeling. But detailed description in itself was never a determinant of great art. What distinguishes Titian or Rembrandt is a gravity and economy of depiction that makes detail count; one arrives at the extended hand or tightened lip as the denouement of larger, scale-setting gestures. Matthiasdottir may not achieve the rhythmic intensity of detail of these masters – but then, who has in the last century of art? As with Matisse’s work, one finds in Matthiasdottir’s an acute intelligence about painting, as well as humility in its pursuit. I experience it as the drive to live the language of painting, rather than to comment on its processes and cultural implications.

The medium of words, as always, is inadequate to this language, but consider the remarkable coalescence of inventions that is “Two Horses in a Landscape” (undated). This medium-sized canvas unfolds as a meditation on paired objects. Two sturdy horses occupy a field of humming greens, whose contour firmly reserves them to the foreground; twin cabins nestle among hills beyond; way above, a pair of clouds, at once distant and immediate, hover in the ultramarine vacuum of sky. Within this luminous journey, the sheen on the horses’ flanks, and the stretching of their necks to graze, become wondrously necessary moments – arresting insights within the expanding movements of a complete world. There’s no better testimony today to the unique, fluid intersection of observation and re-creation that is painting.