The use of eccentric, unstable perspectives in painting goes beyond mere novelty. In the hands of a skilled, imaginative artist, it can challenge us to rethink our relationships to our bodies, ourselves and our worlds. At its deepest level, painting—and the visual arts more broadly—engage a primordial human relationship to space. The history of art and its various styles can be seen as offering ways of questioning and rethinking that relationship.
In her current show in the lobby of the Kitchen Theatre, local artist Stiller Zusman explores the metaphorical resonance of point-of-view in four recent paintings. Up through April, “Up is Down” is too small a display from this rarely exhibiting artist. Nonetheless, this is a thoughtful, interesting series—worthy of further development and a more considered exhibition.
Zusman is currently the Kitchen’s scenic artist-in-residence. (You can see her work on the set for the theatre’s current play: “Cry it Out,” with its unusual, encompassing grass lot setting.) For many years, she ran Abovoagogo, a community arts center for children located right around the block from the theatre.
Done in oil or acrylic, three pieces here conjoin stretched canvases under single frames. Like other works of sequential art—from stained glass windows to graphic novels—we are moved to “read” these in a left-to-right (or perhaps reverse) order. But a painting on a wall is not a book. Plausibly echoing the artist’s act of creation, these pieces push us also to engage their non-linear and all-at-once qualities. As the artist offers in a statement, they embody “a woven vision.”
Two canvases occupy a distinct genre of landscape-as-abstraction, recalling precedents as diverse as Kandinsky and Richard Diebenkorn. Too, they engage what the writer William Fox has called “aereality”: birds-eye-view as a distinct mode of experience. Both combine richly worked oil with drippy contours in what turns out to be Elmer’s glue. (The latter adds a tactile, relief element, also recalling Pollock’s thrown paint.) These enclose lumpy little shapes colored mostly in pale, lucent or darker blue: lakes or ponds seen from some great height. Sky and horizon go missing, disorienting the viewer and throwing her back towards the earth.
In “Wake Up,” a diptych of two stacked horizontal canvases, a smoky background of grass green, chilly yellow and amber suggests an idea of landscape without much specificity. (It might have been more interesting to see a more purely abstract use of color.) The split between the two canvases creates a sort of surrogate for the missing horizon. The piece plays with a compellingly ambiguous perspective: we could be looking up or down—perhaps neither or both.
A single oil canvas, “A View of Lakes” offers a more recognizable, if still abstracted, aerial landscape. Flatly painted, sharply lit lakes punctuate a field of richly varied, naturalistic greens. (The glue lines add an abstract element, resembling lines on a contour map.) We are clearly looking down—though the oblique orientation of the landforms keeps things from getting too stable.
Composed of five pillar-like canvases in a row, the acrylic “Looking Up at Ponds” is Zusman’s most complex, demanding piece here. (The central column is split down the center into two distinct painted areas, creating an interesting division-within-a-division.) Emphasizing glowing white and chalky pinks and blues—with yellow-orange accents and gray-green murk—the polyptych sets up a rhythm of banded, eye-like shapes. We are deep underwater—looking up towards the light. Done in faded black silhouette, tiny dolphins and divers clarify the subject matter but feel like afterthoughts.
More compellingly figurative is “Up From the Nether,” also in acrylic. A grimacing man emerges head-and-shoulders from the achromatic shadow that suffuses the bottom of the lower canvas. He cocks his head up: eyes closed, mouth bent down. It’s a strikingly direct image in pointed contrast to everything else here. Elsewhere things are more abstract: clay red and aqueous blue filling a space that appears half-landscape, half-mosaic.
Though not a dedicated gallery, the Kitchen has a solid record of exhibiting some of Ithaca’s most ambitious painters—mostly abstractionists. Large, boldly colored pieces tend to fare best in this setting and unfortunately Zusman’s relatively quiet pieces here get lost in their surroundings.