Under the Big Top

Barbara Mink has been a long-time presence at Cornell and in Ithaca. An instructor at Cornell’s Johnson School of Management, she has also been known for her diverse involvements in culture, journalism and politics over the course of over three decades. Between 1989 and 2001, she was a member of Tompkins County’s board of representatives. More recently, from 2000-2011, she was the director of Light in Winter, an innovative festival of the sciences and arts, which she founded.

For the past decade or so, Mink has become increasingly known for her paintings. She started her formal art training as a botanical illustrator, working with several local teachers in what is a popular local idiom. Via landscape (another widespread genre), her work became increasingly lush and painterly, moving into abstraction. In the past five or so years, “pure” abstraction – largely devoid of recognizable objects – has been her territory. Her work has evolved rapidly but surely.

She has shown her art in numerous solo and group shows, in upstate New York and beyond. Her involvement with Ithaca’s State of the Art Gallery is particularly memorable.

Early last year, Mink saw a retrospective show of work by the pioneering abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler at the Knoedler & Company gallery in Manhattan. Frankenthaler, who died in December of the same year, is known as the main inventor of the “stain” technique in contemporary abstraction: soaking thinned paint into raw canvas like watercolor onto paper. Although her own recent approach is distinctive, Mink was inspired to move away from the build-up of thick paint that characterized her earlier work. Following Frankenthaler, her latest pieces are done with acrylic paint on unprimed canvas or linen.

The paintings in this month’s “Timelines” strongly contrast with those from her previous SOAG show: “Event Horizons” in 2009. In that show, taking loose inspiration from concepts in the physical sciences, she translated them into thickly impasto-laden surfaces in the tradition of Abstract Expressionism – Jackson Pollock’s thrown paint in particular. (Granted, her inclusion of more clearly defined “objects” departed somewhat from the mainstream of that movement.) Her newest work, by comparison, plays off her characteristic painterly lushness against more muted colors, geometric grids, and the use of empty (more or less) uncovered fabric as an active presence.

They have sparseness, bordering in some cases on austerity. Mink uses the French une jolie-laide, which refers to women not traditionally beautiful but full of character.

She has used a fairly consistent vocabulary for most of the paintings here, giving the show a greater feeling of consistency that some her past exhibits. Chief among these are straight black lines – a new feature in her work – that are overlapped to form dense, irregular grids. In places diagonal lines pull out from points like rays of light pointing off-stage. They have been made in the manner of chalk lines and have a sense of physical substance that makes them feel more architectural than mathematical. The spaces between these grid-lines – chiefly squares, rectangles and triangles – are often painted-in. Applied more thickly here than elsewhere, the paint is more opaque, often brighter. As a result, these areas tend to stand out, as if emerging from the surface.

In connection with two small, upright canvases – Red Grid and Blue Grid – Mink associates this motif with the historical city-grid of Manhattan. (She cites a book, The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011 edited by Hilary Ballon as a particular inspiration.) Indeed, while remaining resolutely abstract, there is something urban and/or map-like about many of the pieces in this show: both in their schematic geometry and in the way they seem to relate to the human viewer. They have both an expansiveness and lack of determinate orientation – they seem to go on in all directions beyond the edges. They can be thought of as akin to bird’s-eye-views, landscapes without horizons.

A brief taxonomy of other recurring motifs: multi-colored loops; Klee or Miró-esque flat colored shapes; vertical paint-drips; cursive doodles; and, most strikingly, an array of thinned paint clouds and pools. Except for the latter, these tend to be small – like tiny figures in a vast landscape – or otherwise unobtrusive.

Done on a large square canvas, Number 1 was Mink’s first venture with her new approach. Although not noticeably iridescent, its colors give it a metallic feel: black and gold, with hints of greenish-blue. In contrast to her later pieces, spottings and drips of paint dominate over straight lines. A cluster of diagonal rays accents an accumulation of wet-on-wet paint-marks that are suggestive of lichens.

In several large, wide-format pieces, the artist builds up intricate straight-line lattices while preserving large areas of more-or-less untouched fabric. These are among the most compelling pieces in the show.

In Number 3 (all pieces on canvas unless otherwise noted), three ray-clusters balance off of each other in careful, seemingly mathematical proportion. The work is perhaps the sparsest here: some vertical lines and streaks; some blurred color-loops; some mute brickwork. The piece is paradoxically austere yet rich.

Marina Del Rey shows off the strength of Mink’s new approach at its most complex and developed.  The underlying straight-line architecture has a zigzag emphasis. Rays emerge from two points: towards the top right edge and lower left one respectively. Stiff but not quite straight, fainter dark drips come down the center like a vertical curtain. Rectangular fields have been colored-in in a range of pale, quiet colors: pink, tan, beige, brown, terracotta, blue, purple, green. Watery black-to-gray blurs further enliven the piece. The piece achieves a delicate overall balance between the stiff and the fluid, suggesting a landscape of earth and water.

Like the above pieces, Back Bay and Santa Barbara – both on grayish linen – share large wide proportions. They come off as being somewhere in-between 3 and Marina in terms of balancing paint build-up with untouched fabric. They echo each other closely: numerous diagonals emerging from the lower left-edge, with supporting horizontals and verticals and with sparse, mostly gray-black painterly smoke.

Number 17 and Number 19 (the former upright and the latter horizontally-oriented) appear on similarly colored linen. Colors are bolder, perhaps to compensate for the relatively dark background. Black, ink-like splotches are decisive elements. So is the panoply of whimsical circus-like shapes (reminiscent of Joan Miró and Paul Klee): triangles, crescents, and small circles. Particularly in the latter piece, these seem to have lives of their own, emerging from the background scaffolding.

Several paintings here make use of a narrow, upright picture format that Mink associates with Chinese landscape painting. Indeed, associations with landscapes abound.

Both Carlsbad and Carlsbad 2 incorporate this format. Both have been painted with black, wavy, irregular contours outlining a range of muted, landscape colors. Cave-like holes open up to more thinly painted backgrounds: vertically streak-stained white in the former, a more opaque, even gray in the latter. The dark outline approach evokes drawing (or work on paper more generally) without being heavy-handed. Particularly striking is the variation of line and tone in the former painting: a necklace-like vertical tumble of lumps sticks out through the shininess of the thicker paint.

Petit Point is another tall strip. A ladder-like grid of boldly colored squares seems to rest up and down the right edge while from the left side sprouts an orange half-circle. Down the middle is mostly open with intense black shadow – the lichen texture again – seemingly sinking to the bottom.

A few pieces seem a bit conflicted.

A scattering of flat, brightly colored shapes punctuates the surface of Number 24. The background, by contrast is dark and murky: mainly browns and blacks, lines and forms obscured by blurring. (Mink likes to pour water over already painted surfaces.) We see areas of fine gridding and a dense, irregular web. The circus-like feel of the foreground shapes – whimsy juxtaposed against deep pollution – seems like a bit of a forced contrast.

Likewise, El Alamillo, which plays off bright unnatural-looking color against large areas of raw canvas and an imposing geometric skeleton dominated by hyperactive diagonals. (Appropriately, the artist named the piece after a bridge by the Spanish modernist architect Santiago Calatrava.) There is something a bit forced about placing all this business against a raw, amorphous backdrop.

The large, square linen Number 30 features an all-over grid – vertical, horizontal and diagonal – and all-over coloring. The watery background coloring is dark and murky. Roughly right-angled triangles poke out, evoking folded corners. Painted more thickly, they are lighter and paler. The geometry seems a bit contrived, the colors lacking differentiation and contrast.

The pale-yellowish Under The Big Top (another large square on linen) is more interesting. It has a different feeling from the other pieces here. While Mink’s “geometric” division of space might call to mind analogies to abstract painters like Piet Mondrian and Richard Diebenkorn, her pieces have a different sense of space: expansive rather than self-enclosing, more synthetic than analytic. Big Top is exceptional in this regard, evoking Diebenkorn’s late Ocean Park series in its tight construction.

Mink’s approach to abstract painting combines a deep familiarity with her medium and its history with a restlessness that is refreshing in an artistic community that sometimes seems to reward either skillful adherence to formula on one hand or willful (often poorly conceived) novelty on the other. It represents an innovative but tradition-minded philosophy able to synthesizes various strands of twentieth-century Modernism into something both familiar and new.

Mink’s work has some affinities to the work of Scout Dunbar, one of two new members at State of the Art. (Shirley Hogg, an animal portraitist is the other.) Some of Dunbar’s ink and watercolor drawings are city-like abstractions of densely overlapping straight lines with patches of muted color. Conversely, many of her black and white mixed-media prints tend towards a lusher, more painterly feel, evoking waves and stars. In both cases, she and Mink seem to be dancing around similar territory. They might make for an interesting two-person show.

It is worth making note of the SOAG’s new floor: wood replacing gray carpet. The result is a much enlivened gallery space.

“Timelines An Exhibition of Paintings by Barbara Mink” will be on exhibit at the State of the Art Gallery between May 30 and July 1. See www.soag.org for more information.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

This is a space for civil feedback and conversation. A few guidelines: 1. be kind and courteous. 2. no hate speech or bullying. 3. no promotions or spam. If necessary, we will ban members who do not abide by these standards.

Recommended for you