Thursday, March 7th, 2013

The Connective Sublime: A Retrospective for Margaret Grimes

Margaret Grimes, A Retrospective, at Western Connecticut State University

February 14 to March 14, 2013
The Gallery at Higgins Hall
Midtown Campus,
181 White Street, Danbury, Connecticut

Margaret Grimes, Forsythia II, 2003. Oil on linen, 54 x 72 inches.  Courtesy of the Artist
Margaret Grimes, Forsythia II, 2003. Oil on linen, 54 x 72 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

Margaret Grimes’s paintings are about vastness, not just the all-encompassing kind, but also vastness at the molecular or cellular level.  She paints the individual leaf and the entire screen of the forest. And although Grimes depicts trees, her work also suggests technology. She paints the hard drive, the motherboard of nature.  The interlocking, crisscrossing branches and root systems could as easily be wires and cables.  The patterns the roots form are not exactly grids, but they nonetheless imply matrixes because they play with our desire to find patterns and regularity in the midst of chaos.  In this sense they are about the sublime, the beauty that is at the edge of our grasp, in Rilke’s sense, “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.”

Grimes is the subject of a retrospective at the gallery of Western Connecticut State University where she is also founding coordinator of the MFA program. She herself studied with Neil Welliver and Rudy Burckhardt at the University of Pennsylvania.  Her artistic peers also include Stanley Lewis and the younger painter Allison Gildersleeve.

“In art school we were taught to look at nature as if we were seeing it for the first time,” she has written.  “Now we look at it as if we were seeing it for the last time, hence the need to meticulously observe.” Her paintings—dense networks of trees, vines, and roots—are about both these ways of looking: for the first and last time.  They provoke us similarly.

To see Grimes’s show is to be hit with darkness as well as blooming forsythia, black paint swelling out between the greenery, and wiry, twisted, uncontained energy.  The exhibition includes two of Grimes’s early paintings (from the 1960s), although the other twenty paintings date from the 1990s to the present.  Those earliest works show an interest in Van Gogh, but really Grimes is more aligned with Soutine.  Van Gogh is an outliner of forms, polemical in his positioning of right and wrong, whereas Soutine creates an allover field, not just of painterliness, but where danger and beauty meld into one another.  Grimes’s work makes me think of Soutine’s Return from School after the Storm (1939), in the Phillips Collection, which was painted, literally, as Soutine was fleeing from the Nazis.

Margaret Grimes, 4 AM Harrington, 2012.  Oil on linen, 48 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the Artist
Margaret Grimes, 4 AM Harrington, 2012. Oil on linen, 48 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

Grimes’s painting alludes both to the magic of our interconnectedness (the common root systems we share, like spirals of DNA) and the terror of connective systems we have invented, like the Internet.  These paintings remind us of the potential for self-destruction, the pressures we impose on nature, even though Grimes is not literary or didactic.

Her paintings do have a powerful, surprising, and sometimes overwhelming scale, all the more impressive since she works from direct observation.  But it is not just about the paintings’ size. Rather it is in their insistence and the explosiveness that comes out of recursive patterning–patterning that we know, intuitively, exists on both a universal and microscopic level.

Margaret Grimes, Baldwin Hill Road, February, 2010.  Oil on linen, 72 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the Artist
click to enlarge