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False Dawn by Barbara Mink

ITHACA, NY -- Over the 15 years that I’ve been covering Ithaca’s visual arts scene, Barbara Mink has always been one of the biggest names — and deservedly so. Parlaying a wide-ranging intelligence and a long history as part of the local cultural establishment into a new career. The prolific and energetic artist has evolved from a painter of botanicals and lushly romantic landscapes into an eclectic, sensual abstractionist. 

Previously a reliable anchor at the cooperative State of the Art Gallery, Mink has since struck out on her own. In addition to showing widely in the upstate New York region and beyond, since 2013 she has run the do-it-yourself Mink Gallery out of a converted garage in her Fall Creek home. Mostly highlighting her own work, with the occasional guest artist, the intimate two-room space has become a neighborhood fixture. 

Although affected, like local arts organizations large and small, by the current pandemic, the semi-private nature of the Mink Gallery offers a welcome leeway. (Gallery visiting in Ithaca appears to be relatively hygienic, in general, as far as public activity goes.) Open by appointment since the summer, the artist has also participated in a number of Art Trail open studios — most recently Dec. 5. Throughout December, she is showing an informal selection of recent and older pieces, characteristically diverse in approach. 

Working on canvas with fluid acrylics, Mink’s most characteristic work echoes the “dripped” Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock and the “stained” Color-Field abstraction of Helen Frankenthaler while often superimposing drawing-like elements that — for better or for worse — nudge the legacy of Formalist Abstraction in the direction of idiosyncratic personal fantasy. (Typically a few feet by a few feet, they are modestly sized by the standards of the genre, but large by those of local painting.) Returning to her work year after year, one sees a kind of dance between variations of this familiar approach and series that explore stranger territory. 

Square in shape but suggesting a liquefied landscape in suggestions of stacked horizons, “False Dawn” is an exceptionally striking piece in this vein. Painted in the runoff to the recent election, the title is a characteristically portentous metaphor. (The piece has been sold and is no longer at the gallery.) Densely painted but airy and open, the painting balances small patches of bright, acidic blue, green and pink, with hazy clouds in off-white and warm grays. 

Like the work of fellow local painter Suzanne Onodera—although fully distinctive in its color and tactile sense—“Dawn” reinvigorates, if ever so slightly, the longstanding connection between landscape and expressionistic abstraction. It’s a major effort. 

As usual at her showspace, Mink has up a hanging of miniature, square-format pieces on paper. The selection, at least during my visit, leaned toward black-and-white pieces with clear echoes of Pollock. Others were spotted in hazy, luminous colors. 

Although a show of this scale could only hint at the artist’s range, cohesiveness is not the goal here either. (This is readily forgivable, again, given the informal nature of the current presentation.) It’s difficult to know what to make of the grungy Ab-Ex of a piece like “Ballet Mechanique,” with its graffiti-like swoops and meticulously horizontal drips of black against a dirtied yellow field. More capable, and more familiarly Mink-ian, is “Take the A Train,” with its hard-edge, predominantly black-and-white geometry enlivened with fogs and filigree in playful multichrome, both pale and saturated. Collectively, the work here evokes an expected unpredictability: mixing earnestness and insouciance in approximately equal proportions. 

One wishes for a more formal presentation of Mink’s work somewhere in town, or at least nearby. It may be awhile before we see one. Still, in a season where Ithaca’s modest gallery scene is struggling to assert a “new normal,” business as usual at the Mink Gallery is welcome enough. More than anything, it’s a reminder that sensuous color abstraction — taken for granted by some in the busy contemporary art world — maintains a pull on human sensibility, both a challenge and a balm for benumbed eyes and brains. 

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