At Great Heights

A longstanding fascination with the world as seen from above unifies the eclectic work of Trumansburg artist Barbara Page. Watercolors, oil and acrylic paintings, collages, drawings, and the odd foray into sculpture mark a career and an aesthetic sensibility that bridge naturalistic observation with a historically informed yet personal approach to abstraction. Her experiences as a pilot, a scuba diver, and an observer of landscape have merged with her background in modern art.

Page is probably best known around Ithaca for her permanent installation at the Museum of the Earth, “Rock of Ages, Sands of Time,” a sequence of painted bas relief panels interpreting the last 544 million years of natural history and forming a compelling visual and narrative core for the museum. (The project is also the subject of a fine 2001 book of the same name.)

Although Ithaca has an abundance of mural art—some of a high caliber—it is most impressive to find a piece of such multi-faceted ambition that is also an architectural centerpiece. And although many contemporary artists have taken inspiration from the sciences, the broad imagination and the years of research and work that Page has put into her effort have resulted in a unique accomplishment.

She is currently the subject of a small retrospective display at the MotE, in celebration of its current 10th anniversary.

Page moved from Ithaca to Trumansburg in 1987, into an old house on the village outskirts. The following year, she got married—to the late, esteemed Cornell ecologist Richard Root—and had built on the property a small elongated two-story studio building where she still works. I visited her there on a recent, snow-draped afternoon to see her latest work and to discuss her rich creative history. (Further quotes are pulled from subsequent email exchange.)

The ground floor holds a garage-like workshop and storage space. Upstairs is a generous, skylight-capped white room laden with well-managed clutter. Tables, easels, and sections of wall separate various bodies of work, mostly current or recent.

On an end wall hangs a grid of recent collages, garish and playful pieces assembled from the pages of Artforum and preserving the magazine’s distinctive near-square profile. (Page is further transforming these into digital images.)

Against the far opposite wall a pair of pieces transform aerial landscape images pulled from the Internet into abstract explorations of tone and topography. She explains that she has been influenced by the arbitrary colors used by mapmakers.

As these paintings suggest, Page’s most customary working method involves a tight control. A stay this past September and October at the Golden Foundation Residency in New Berlin, N.Y. has motivated a new direction in her work. Inspired by the available materials and activities, she has taken up thick painterly experiments in a post Abstract Expressionist vein. (Golden is a leading manufacturer of artists’ acrylic paints and its late founder, Sam Golden, is the inventor of the medium.)

She has acquired a substantial collection of Golden acrylics and mediums, and has been using them almost exclusively since returning home.

A row of pieces from the residency feature drips and pools of brightly colored, shiny acrylic silhouetted against black and gray foam boards—akin to the work of contemporary abstract painter Carolanna Parlato. (Her home studio, Page explains is too cold; the poured paint cracks.) As fresh and playful as they are, they feel tentative. More robust is a group of paintings combining fluid marbled drizzles with thick encrustations applied with a palette knife. Of her new experiments, she said, “I’m struggling but every once in a while something comes out that just turns out to be beautiful.”

Looking back, she describes taking to the air as the main impetus for her decision to pursue art seriously. “I started flying around 1970 and pursued it for three years. I was living in California so [I] enjoyed flying up the coast and over to the foothills in all seasons. I flew a Citabria (Airbatic spelled backwards), which is a tail dragger (small wheel in the back rather than the front) and also gliders. Mostly I was working on improving my skills. After I started going to grad school I quit. Flying had given me the necessary self-confidence to feel like I might have something to say.”

She went on to study for an MFA at Cornell, which she received in 1975. Page cites the color field painter Friedel Dzubas, who taught there at the time, as a particular influence. She worked one summer as an assistant to the noted abstractionist and later took over his downtown Ithaca studio, where she worked for a decade. “He was my model of what an artist was,” she explained. “He was very outspoken, you know, he would really just prod you and make … [you] feel like an idiot.”

Page also recalls her experience with the well-known modernist art critic Clement Greenberg, whom she met through Dzubas. Although she describes him as “dogmatic” and discouraging, she admits that he influenced her thinking about “the flatness of the picture plane, the framing edge, and paint as paint.”

Her idea for a timeline series dates back to the early ‘90s. It was given a further, crucial push after local paleontologist Warren Allmon saw work from a preliminary version at the (now sadly defunct) Upstairs Gallery. Allmon has been since 1992 the director of the Paleontological Research Institution, now affiliated with Cornell, where he also teaches. He hatched upon the idea of making a revamped version of her project central to his new, then unbuilt museum.

Page completed the work for “Rock of Ages” by 2001, following a devoted three years of alternating research and painting. The strikingly contemporary Museum of the Earth, concrete and glass with dramatic cut-like pitches, opened in 2003 with the paintings creating a wall that wraps a long ramp between the lobby and galleries.

Attached to tall scaffolding, the mural is composed of 544 board panels, arranged in irregularly spaced rows. Each is eleven inches square and represents a million years. Descending the two long ramps that surround the piece, one travels backwards through 11 geologic periods by “reading” the piece from right-to-left, top-to-bottom and then the same down the other side. Space—and the viewer’s movement through it—becomes a metaphor for the vastness of an eon.

The panels are painted in acrylic with occasional shallow relief figures sculpted in paper-infused clay. Rendered primarily in pale and earthy colors, we see a panoply of flora and fauna: from trilobites and shelled creatures to fish and dinosaurs—all life-sized. To get their anatomy down accurately, Page literally drew from books and from fossil collections worldwide.

Art historical allusions abound. The fragmentation of the larger specimens (too large to fit on-panel) and the alternation between busy and sparse echo East Asian art. Abstraction is another source. Although some organisms—large animals in particular—look familiarly skeletal, others evoke alien patterning. Periods of extinction and cataclysm are marked with passages of abstract expressionist caprice, often incorporating pumice for texture.

Page’s shallowed imagery here frequently calls to mind what the art historian Leo Steinberg named the “flatbed picture plane,” a post Abstract Expressionist space which he diagnosed in the 1950s and ‘60s work of painters as diverse as Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland.

“Rock of Ages” is an incessantly compelling work, compressing time and space into a lush and engaging visual drama.

The act of painting is analogous to the stratification of fossils and earth. Painting is most characteristically an art of layering, creating a robust sense of depth-in-flatness. Here accumulated brushstrokes, traces of the hand, echo the character of fossils as imprints or mineralizations of long dead organisms. (Fittingly, the most recent panel, dated 2000, features the artist’s handprints.)

In 2011, Page completed a commission for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, which reprises her timeline idea as an outdoor pedestrian bridge.

The MotE’s current show “Rock of Ages, Sands of Time: A Look Back with Barbara Page” includes a range of supplementary material arranged in small glass cases. Sketches and plans (together with a computer terminal highlighting scanned notebook images), newspaper clippings, photos, reproductions, and ephemera offer bits of context while mounted wall texts help round out the story.

Granted that this is a show in a science museum rather than a proper art exhibit, I would have liked to have seen more finished artwork. A few substantial pieces are included, notably a beautifully detailed early drawing in graphite and a tile-like relief done in collaboration with the ceramicist Linda Blossom. Most engaging is Time’s Magic Carpet, an intricate and richly toned watercolor showing close-up a slice of petrified wood. (Similar slices recur intriguingly in the mural and a memorable show of Page’s variations on the theme was held at the museum in 2007.)

Those interested in seeing more of Page’s work have some recourse in two current local shows. This month, the State of the Art Gallery is showing several of her recent abstract paintings as part of their “Second Annual Small Works Show,” an open-call group exhibit. The Tompkins County Public Library is showing a small grouping of her “Book Marks” as part of “Banned!” a group show inspired by censored books. More of these will be on display at the library starting next April as part of “Artists in the Archives.” Also, a one-woman show of her work, tentatively scheduled for March and April, will be held at the Corners Gallery in Cayuga Heights.

Page partakes in what the popular science and culture writer Steven Johnson has called the “long zoom,” a readiness to observe reality at a variety of scales, from the very small to the very large.

She describes her sensibility and how it extends to her latest work. “I would say that looking at the world from different altitudes has been a strong theme in my painting. I have examined the topography from three feet off the ground to 3000’ in altitude and also looking beyond, doing a little celestial navigation. And then there is everything below ground level. Paintings of tide pools. Not to mention uncovering all the geological strata underground. Each type of painting has been generally flat with a lot to look at. I’ve always wanted to paint flatland with paint that is very textured so I guess that is the challenge of the moment.” •

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