Local painters Domenica Brockman and Ileen Kaplan embody some of the challenges and pleasures of “going abstract” in a local culture where abstract painting exists in a strange cultural limbo. Brockman was previously known for her moody, darkening landscapes while Kaplan remains active as a painter of still-lifes and other finely crafted, effusively coloristic representational pieces. Both artists have turned to abstraction in the past few years. Both have shown real ambition in doing so. And yet, both follow well-worn tracks that indicate abstraction’s status as an established—if popularly misunderstood—genre.
Brockman also co-owns local vintage boutique Petrune, which occasionally hosts art shows, and maintains a studio in a historic building in Trumansburg. Kaplan is affiliated with both Ithaca’s State of the Art Gallery and Corning’s West End Gallery.
“Freedom in Constraint,” their two-person exhibition at Corners Gallery, features new work created by both artists during the current pandemic. Opened in early October, the show will be up at least through the end of November. (The gallery and frame shop remains open by appointment only.) This is their first two-person show and it is a welcome pairing.
Brockman’s work is the more challenging of the two: recalling, if hardly resuscitating, abstraction’s radical past. Her current work hearkens back to her training at Cornell under the late Eleanore Mikus, whose painterly minimalism resonates in the work of the younger artist. Working with encaustic (wax paint) on wood panels, Brockman combines insistent geometry and lush painterly surface.
Her work continuously shifts, often drastically. Here, she eschews her signature multi-panel configurations. In single-panel pieces such as “Sound of the Ocean” and “Refractions #1,” she moves away from the reductively flat, frontal geometry and limited (often monochrome) palette of much of her recent work. Spiky, faceted shapes, joyously multi-colored, seem to pop out of her bare wood backgrounds. The use of paper collage (though not advertised as such) gives these forms unusually crisp edges. Smaller works in this vein, such as “Glimmer Refraction” and the noctilucent “Bright Spot,” are both playful and intimate.
But Brockman’s shows challenge their dominant voice. The white-line-on-black-background designs of panels like “Galileo” and the smaller “Balancing Act” recollect geometric abstraction at its most austere, while the pie-chart shapes and drier textures of “Periscope” and “Aunket” suggest her interest in the visionary but awkward proto-abstraction of the recently-revived Hilma af Klint.
While Brockman’s turn to abstraction felt willful, Kaplan’s back-and-forth comes across as more organic. As if to advertise this, she is showing four flower paintings in the windows as an adjunct to the main show. These playfully deconstruct a signature theme: incorporating sketchy drawing, abstract forms and brushwork.
As with these florals, Kaplan’s “abstracts”—mostly larger works on canvas as well as small ones on paper—are showily mixed-media, typically combining graphite drawing, pastel, oil and/or acrylic paint, as well as collage and sometimes printed textures. In this and in their domesticated abstract expressionism, they recall the work of former gallery artist Melissa Zarem, sadly missing from the local exhibitions scene for the past few years.
Kaplan’s abstract work lacks Zarem’s deeply individual character, the latter’s profoundly sophisticated insouciance. Still, these are engaging, well-made paintings. Larger canvases such as “Dreaming in Red,” “Kiss,” and ”Big.Pink.Bang” combine big, bright shapes with stormy weather. The one-two punch of “Together” and “Calm” plays well with Brockman’s varied contributions. With their pale pink, warm and cool grays, and more geometric approach, they suggest a fruitful direction.
Kaplan showed similar work at the State of the Art last fall in a two-person exhibition with fellow gallery member Patricia Brown. While SOAG exhibits typically feature one to four gallery artists, brought together on what often seems an artistically ad hoc basis, owner Ariel Bullion Ecklund’s shows at Corners display a more nuanced curation. While pairing Kaplan with an artist tentatively exploring mixed-media abstraction makes sense, pairing her with one of Ithaca’s most ambitious abstractionists is more illuminating still. “Freedom” is a classic study in opposites that blur upon closer inspection.
This November, Corners Gallery is repositioning itself as Corners Gallery and the living room, “a celebration of art+minimal design.” The new project is a collaboration with local photographer and graphic designer Rachel Philipson. A portion of proceeds will go to local non-profits “doing work to benefit our communities.”
One looks forward to the gallery’s latest iteration with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. Over the past decade, and particularly in this pandemic year, Corners has been a leading—probably the leading—independent local venue for painting and other more traditional “fine arts.” There’s much to be said for seeing high-end works of “craft” in a more formal gallery setting. Still, Ithaca needs a serious white-box gallery more than it does another craft shop; hopefully, Corners will maintain a distinctive course.