Melissa Zarem’s “Unironed Will”

These are strange times for abstract art. A radical art-form in the early-to-mid 20th century, it has become more familiar, even domesticated—a traditional genre. The broad stylistic currents appear to have been mapped out: geometric, biomorphic, expressionist, color field. And yet it remains, in the best hands, a source of surprise. 

An open secret is abstraction’s strong local presence. This month, two of Ithaca’s most interesting exhibitions spaces are showing leading local abstractionists. Corners Gallery has mounted “OneTwoThree,” featuring Ruth Sproul (through June 30), while the Eye Gallery presents “Spring Loaded,” featuring Melissa Zarem (June 26). Both artists incorporate drawing media into their paintings, enlivening their expressionism with intimate doodling. 

This is Sproul’s third exhibit at Corners. (Zarem has shown there as well, notably last year with her collaborator Elise Nicol). Her current show is so named for her exploration of diptych and triptych formats alongside self-standing paintings. All are on wooden panels, typically upright. For her multi-panel pieces, they have been conjoined side-by-side in box frames. 

Sproul uses both oil and acrylic—sometimes together—along with ink and crayon. Her mark-making is eclectic: expressionist smears, clean blocks of color, and confetti-like black lines. Her color here is brighter, more endearing than in the past. 

Two small triptychs, Fields and Sky and Swab, suggest landscape in their colors, layering, and helter-skelter energy. 

Sproul’s Bookmarks Project consists of three large, white-painted panels, lined with a grid of upright paper “bookmarks” of various sizes. She shares her bibliophilia with another Corners artist, Barbara Page, whose series of altered library charge cards has a similar pastiche quality.  

While even Sproul’s most compelling works have an ungainly quality, Zarem’s meet you more than half way. 

Her mixed media works on paper blend painting and drawing in a layered hybrid of archaeological complexity. Taking advantage of paper’s inherent generosity as a surface, she stirs together acrylic, gouache, ink, and chalk. Her pieces combine the sort of raw gestures and drips that one associates with mid-century abstract expressionism with intricate hatches and doodles closer in general spirit to the old master drawing or print—I think of Leonardo’s late Deluge drawings, intricate phantasmagoria of apocalyptic floods. 

In the last few years, Zarem has been conspicuously successful by the standards of local art. A busy schedule of exhibits at various local and regional venues was capped last summer by her inclusion in “Locally Sourced,” an 11-artist survey of Ithaca artists at Cornell’s Johnson Museum. Her work was a highlight of that show and was subsequently acquired for the museum’s permanent collection. 

Impure, ingratiating, and deeply exuberant, Zarem paintings are both sophisticated and easy to like. Her work at eye, most of it framed behind glass, demonstrates her range—her capacity to take a familiar lexicon of marks and keep combing them in new ways. The exhibit juxtaposes works at different scales, with the smallest pieces readily holding their one. 

Unironed Will is an upright painting, a few feet in height, dominated by vertiginous loops and tangles of black and white ink and paint. Patches and spots of bold red and Indian yellow—and faint clouds of pale yellow and dirty gray—add to the sense of epic. As they do elsewhere, nearly microscopic white hatches and dashes suggest foam. Subtle vertical striations, drawn and dripped, suggest gravity and weight. 

Zarem is just as compelling when her pieces are small. Murmuration, a tiny square, seems to have nearly as much going on as anything here. Diving Block is an upright strip with Rothko-like patches of color in the background: stormy dark gray above and milky white below. Smaller patches of magenta and greenish ochre punctuate the top half while compact scribbles of black ink do the same at the bottom—the vaguely grid-like overall patterns suggests writing or musical notation. 

In a characteristically playful move, eye Gallery mastermind Julie Simmons-Lynch has published a coloring book, Spring Loaded. Four square-shaped black-and-white ink drawings made for the book translate Zarem’s style into something dry and linear. They’re charming but they’re begging to be colored in—not necessarily within the lines.

Both artists, each with their distinctive style, revel in abstraction’s capacity to evoke and transform the visual experience. Far from being but formal exercises, these pieces evoke worlds both inside us and without. • 

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