In the early 20th century the artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) realized multiple paint colors, which did not represent a house or a tree or a person, could be applied to a canvas and it would be a viable painting. It was called abstraction and it marked a revolution. Painting, the artists said, could just be about color and the formal aspects of art, like lights and darks, mass and space, line and plane.
These formal qualities made a composition, which had to have a relationship with each part of the design and it would be obvious to the viewer whether the artist had achieved the perfect organization. Kandinsky compared his colors to the sounds of music, the one art form which has always been abstract. By the mid-20th century the great artists were all painting abstractly. Dekooning stopped painting gigantic women to use slashing colors and shapes; Pollock worked constantly to erase the realism that continually filtered through his canvases; and Rothko drove himself mad trying to make color float just off the surface.
Abstraction was a gift to the world. Before that artists had only realism to frame their ideas. Important war memorials had been about dead bodies on the battle field, generals on horses, victims bowing down to the conquerors. Now they could be about slabs of concrete, covered in names emerging from the earth, or gardens flowering in the spring and resting in the winter.
And so today artists have choices; they can paint realistic forms or they can make paintings covered in shapes of varying colors with paint slathered across the surface or marks of carefully defined lines. Judy Keene (b 1946) is one of those who chooses to use color as her subject. She writes about using palette knives and brushes and, by varying the thickness of the paint, experiments with the lost and found edges of shapes that appear and disappear. Her surfaces are painterly; sharp lines are non-existent. The overall effect in this show is the paint, which with its own qualities of depth and flatness, settles into window-like shapes created as much by the paint as the painter. It is through those abstract windows we see her version of nature.
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As a child, Keene traveled throughout the West with her parents learning about rocks, geology and the landscape from her dad, a prospector of rare and precious metals, and about reading, music and sewing from her mother, a teacher. Her paintings reflect those interests. Although she has been immersed in art all her life, she only began to paint full time in the late 1980s when she studied painting with Marvin Salzman at UNC-Chapel Hill. She has an art history undergraduate degree from the University of Calif, Riverside, and has worked in the registrar’s offices at the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, and the Freer Gallery of Art, in Washington D.C. In Durham, she worked in the conservation department at the N.C. Museum of Art. She paints abstracts but constantly studies landscape and classical academic painting. Landscape artists can paint water tumbling over rocks and skies heavy with clouds, but color as shape and form can also relate to the land. There is order in nature and there is freedom; Keene’s paintings reflect that.
The Durham Arts Council is hosting a celebration of stitchery by the group Threads, created in 2000 by Georgia Springer, a Meredith College Art Department faculty member, as a student enrichment program. Today the small membership includes former students and local artists who are trained in textile arts and who are close friends. Their techniques include quilting, shibori, indigo dyeing, weaving, beading, book binding, silk painting, mixed media and embroidery. Christine Hager-Braun, one of them, has a solo quilt show in the Allenton Gallery. In her introductory panel she describes her process as “Small pieces of fabric sewn together on a domestic sewing machine and, subsequently, lines are stitched with thread to add contour and depth.” She writes these particular pieces were created when she was grieving for a friend who had died. Her studio window looks out on a quiet wooded area so these objects are peaceful. Making them, she wrote, was a significant part of her personal healing process.
In the Semans Gallery upstairs is a group show of work from the other members. Hager-Braun spoke of her work as part of a healing process and so does Springer. Springer uses an embroidered circle on a small square of cotton as a memorial to her son and his husband, who died accidentally. It is an evocation of the Chinese circle which symbolizes the connection between heaven and earth and functions as a funerary object accompanying the body on its journey into the afterlife. In 2002, when North Carolina was experiencing one of its worst droughts in history, she also borrowed the circle to embroider a prayer for the earth.
Several of the objects are a response to the earthquake at Tohoku, Japan, on March 11, 2011. Susan Fennell’s “Rising,” a linen wall hanging painted with indigo dye is one. The earthquake caused a tsunami and a nuclear power plant was destroyed. Thousands of people were killed or have been affected by radiation. Her large fuzzy blue open circle hovers above the indigo painted lower half with two dark circles embedded in the pattern. Even without the title to guide us, there is something terribly wrong with the circle that has escaped.
Not everything these artists are doing is dealing with sorrow; they also make small fun objects and beautifully designed fabrics. It is a wonderful gift, however, to be able to create art which brings peace of mind. They show them because if the message makes a personal connection with a viewer, it is a gift.
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“Judy Keene: Color Search,” Craven Allen Gallery, 1106 1/2 Broad St., through May 6.
Durham Arts Council, 120 Morris St., “Peace of Mind: Art Quilts by Christine Hager-Braun,” Allenton Gallery;” “Filaments of the Imagination: A group show by Threads,” Semans Gallery, through May 12.