Friday, May 14th, 2021

“All Art Comes From Something”: Mary Weatherford and May Stevens at Site Santa Fe

Mary Weatherford: Canyon – Daisy – Eden; May Stevens: Mysteries, Politics and Seas of Words 

Weatherford: April 16 to  September 5, 2021, Curated by Bill Arning and Ian Berry
Stevens: March 26 to June 9, 2021, Curated by Brandee Caoba and Lucy Lippard
1606 Paseo De Peralta, Santa Fe NM 87505 

Mary Weatherford, lovely day, 2015. Flashe and neon on linen 99 x 112 inches, Collection of the Artist
Mary Weatherford, lovely day, 2015. Flashe and neon on linen 99 x 112 inches, Collection of the Artist

Two exhibitions at this year’s Site Santa Fe present, respectively, an extensive, career retrospective of Mary Weatherford and, in the new side gallery, (SITELab 14,) a two-room glimpse at the career of May Stevens, a local resident for the last twenty years of her life. John Elderfield, speaking on a video at the Gagosian website on Weatherford, who is represented by that gallery, cautions against succumbing to the tyranny of stylistic influence: “as these stylistic things get absorbed, in a way it doesn’t matter…where they come from, all art comes from something.” This mildly disingenuous statement suggesting we check our modernist or post-modernist critical attitudes at the door, is nonetheless something I found helpful in viewing the early careers of each artist. It’s more problematic, however, with their mature works.

A couple of early Weatherford “target” paintings, while accomplished on their own terms, are very much par for the course with this genre, making attempts by the show’s co-curator Ian Berry in a press walk through at Site Santa Fe to suggest temporal and arboreal associations feel belated. Much more convincing for me, in this show of large, amply spaced canvases, is the group of works starting in the 1990s that incorporates imagery, often silkscreened, on the same canvas as a quasi-color-field background.  Of this type, Her Insomnia (1991) and 5:00 a.m. (1992) form a night and day pairing at the far ends of a long gallery. Both feature the vertical, thorny stalks of silkscreened plant photographs and there is a gentle beauty to each reminiscent of effects achieved in Gerhard Richter, Jules Olitski or Donald Sultan.  In the same room hangs Night and Day, (1996) one of several paintings executed on jute, at a distance a dead ringer for Munch’s woodcuts and lithographs of embracing or hand-holding couples. There is even Munch’s obligatory full moon albeit minus the phallic reflection.

Moving deeper into the exhibition we encounter what are generally considered Weatherford’s ground-breaking works and a shift to figuration in a series of paintings of rocks and then caves done when Weatherford returned to art school for her MFA at Bard College. This surely entailed a commendable degree of humility on the part of an artist who at this stage in her career (2006) was carving out prestigious solo exhibitions with clockwork regularity. I get the sense that these paintings afforded Weatherford a new formal syntax, redolent of Cézanne –she never seems to directly utilize Cubist architectonics and sleights of hand – that comes with working from direct observation.

Mary Weatherford, 5:00 a.m., 1992. Acrylic, Flashe, and ink on canvas, 72 x 120 inches. Collection of the Artist
Mary Weatherford, 5:00 a.m., 1992. Acrylic, Flashe, and ink on canvas, 72 x 120 inches. Collection of the Artist

What has really catapulted her to international acclaim and the attention of Gagosian, is surely her series of “stained“ gestural abstract paintings. These typically include slender custom-made neon tubes that traverse the surface of canvases in loose harmony with their attendant electrical wires, both partners typically meeting at floor level to slink along the baseboards to their origins in a white transmitter box decorously aligned off one corner of the canvas. These began in 2012, the result of several visits that made up a teaching residency at CSU Bakersfield in which Weatherford underwent an epiphany of sorts inspired by the prevalence of neon decorating the facades of restaurants and factories. I’m sure the irony wasn’t lost on an artist whose “Bakersfield Project’ yielded sublime paintings from a locale, that inhabitants of the San Joaquin Valley – I was one myself for twenty-five years – considered a byword for car theft and industrial scale agricultural blight! Thus a question posed by the presence of neon  in this recent instantiation, is whether it functions as it might in a Rauschenberg “combine”, transforming the quotidian into something, that by virtue of mimicking painterly signs or marks, achieves a putative sublimity, and is thus subsumed into a larger creative vision; or whether a more deliberate contrast is sought between the mundaneness of neon and the lyrical ferment displayed on canvas after canvas with appreciative side-glances at Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler.

I’m uncertain on what level to absorb these paintings, a confusion which Elderfield might be keen to absolve me from. I share his ennui with over-conceptualization of art, and the constant search for the next youthful font of true originality — generally now emblazoned with signs that the artist is up on the latest in digital gizmos or the newest fad in emojis — a search which seemed to have largely petered out sometime in the mid-1980s. Might it not be possible to replough the under-tilled pastures of earlier exemplars, who opened up alluring new territories –Picasso was, in this regard at least, supremely generous – and explore their potential in the patient afterglow of their timeliness, a luxury that Cézanne, Kandinsky, or Jackson Pollock did not afford themselves? And yet I worry that gestural abstraction, color field variations included, has perhaps become too much of a monoculture to yield a lot in this regard.  I am ready to be proved mistaken and Weatherford seems well positioned to do that.

Site Santa Fe inherited this exhibit from the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College, and has perhaps not landed the cream of Weatherford’s fresh crop, like her recent series of “Railyard” paintings that really do seem to stop us in our tracks. I also think it’s inevitable that an artist who works intuitively, canvas on the floor, should produce an uneven output.  There is much to admire in that; freshness at a premium, working from an authentic core of fallibility, no pat formulae, etc. Munch might be the exemplar in this. In Lovely Day, the artist seems in earnest about the title, inviting narrative association and, beyond the fresh major key chromatic triads can be glimpsed the suggestion of an outdoor gathering of at least three seated or reclining women forming a broken carmine triangle near the picture’s center. These forms are interspliced with ultramarine angular animal or male figures who pay a kind of frolicsome attendance. My question remains whether the tenuous links provided by canvas or exhibition titles and the neon add-ons give us enough to work with, open-endedness notwithstanding, so that gestural abstraction can occupy territory normally reserved for monumental narrative painting, but without the attendant representational slog.

These are accomplished, nuanced paintings, where the skein of paint hangs tantalizingly between a state of floating upon – or immersion within – the raised linen or jute weave that receives it.  The relationship between controlled color saturations and the physical saturation of pigment into the woven surface is something to behold.  Nonetheless the naivety implied in attaching neon strips to gestural color field paintings seems a tad disingenuous. When interviewed, Weatherford generously acknowledges her forbears in the use of neon, but she has perhaps not paid sufficient painterly dues on the canvas, where it counts. Dan Flavin is the first who jumps to mind, but Weatherford’s electric affinities are closer to Arte Povera and the poetry wrested from neon by Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz and Lucio Fontana. It is almost as if the generosity of interpretation granted the viewer has been afforded too much license in Weatherford’s case, as if the Maenadic wave of energy that yields the painterly saturations, instead of suspending, somewhat blurs her critical sense.

May Stevens, Galisteo (Creek, New Mexico), 2001. Mary Ryan Gallery, New York
May Stevens, Galisteo (Creek, New Mexico), 2001. Acrylic on unstretched canvas, 84 x 144 inches. Mary Ryan Gallery, New York

May Stevens, arguably in her heyday in the mid-1970s which saw her involvement with the feminist “Heresies” magazine, featured in a documentary at an adjoining room at Site, produced her best-known paintings, those depicting “Big Daddy”, during that period. It is hard to escape the notion that this level of notoriety remined elusive for the remainder of her long and productive career. Did she crest too early? Exempting her responses to the death of Rosa Luxemburg lasting from 1976-1990, a topic previously addressed by Kathe Kollwitz and R.B. Kitaj, and represented here by Death Squad, (1986) her work since the mid-1980s is her most refined and expressive. The proviso being that works with weighty political and historical subjects are not preferred over those with more elusive content.

Green Field, (1988) is a triumph. The central ghostly figure of May’s mother reconciles the skein of painterly marks which hover deftly between doing their own painterly thing and describing a landscape field at an inclined plane to that of the picture surface. Sea of Words, (2004) a title taken from a canvas not on display, gives the central metaphor for a group of giant acrylic canvases that were Stevens’ focus through the early 1990s. The pictorial dynamics again fuse color field elegance with gently inclined perspectives. We view ghostly boatwomen afloat upon and enmeshed within a slippery veneer of elegantly cursive words that also function as the lit crests of rivulets and runnels. As the century ends these canvases deepen in color and subtlety with the vertical accretion of drips reasserting painterly prerogatives over gentle descriptive imperatives. Her Boats, (1996-7) Galisteo (Creek, New Mexico), (2001) and This Is Not a Landscape, (2004) are exemplary. The museum guard was eager to inform me that “Galisteo” depicts the creek where Stevens cast the ashes of her husband. The words/ripples are now tiny, the drips suggest rain, seepage from the creek and just paint drips. The canvas displays a negotiation of close hues and values that evoke the sublimity of sustained, enduring grief. Indeed, the horizontal blaze of the river that gleams out of the penumbral warmth reminds of the neon strips in some of Mary Weatherford’s paintings. This is a long way indeed from the overt satire of the “Big Daddy” canvas that begins Stevens’ show.