Circles Swirls Pixels Curls

Many Moons by Alison Shull. Photos courtesy of Alison Shull and

This week, I’d like to write about the work of an artist named Alison Shull, who has an exhibit of abstract expressionist paintings at Benjamin Peters on the Commons here in Ithaca.

It occurs to me, that in the years I have been writing about art for the Ithaca Times, I have seldom written about abstract expressionism. My colleague Arthur Whitman (who I always think of as the real Ithaca Times art critic) is quite adept at writing about the genre. So this is my “You, too, can be Arthur Whitman” entry.

True, I just adored Alison Shull’s paintings. That helps.

And, more helpfully, she met me at the upstairs mezzanine gallery at Benjamin Peters (an upscale clothing store on the Commons) to look at the paintings with me and tell me what was going through her mind when she painted them.

And I think the first fascinating thing to mention is that Shull, who is an Ithaca native, is a scientist. She studied engineering and Asian studies at Cornell. (And she began to paint fairly recently in 2009.)

In conversation, she said, “When people asked me why I do abstract … I started thinking, ‘Why is abstract so attractive to me?’ And I think it reflects all those years of being very comfortable with thinking of the intangible aspects of science on the nano-scale.”

Without a doubt, my favorite painting in the show is Universe on a Picnic—With Costume On.

This is a digital reworking of her original acrylic painting Universe on a Picnic. She finished it around Halloween, and noticed people posting photos of their children, pets, and selves in costume on the Internet, and thought, “Hey, I’ll put one of my paintings in a costume! And I stuck it on the Web as a way to say, ‘Look, I dressed the painting up for Halloween!”

The original Universe on a Picnic has spring-like colors appropriate for a cosmic picnic: the background a cream color with foreground swirls of summer sun orange-and-yellow and lakeside bubbles of blue-and-green. But when Shull computer-manipulated it, she reversed all the colors to their complements, and it became a black multi-verse lit with glowing bubble-universes of purple-and-violet, and cluster-universes of incandescent russet-and-yellow.

Parting Wave—L & R is a marvelous abstract work composed of two paintings that form a single image of a wave.

“I started to paint on a single canvas,” Shull said. “And as my arm started to move, I felt something really big coming, so I quickly grabbed another one and spontaneously set it down as my arm was moving.”

To me—with its ocean blue background and swirling wave of green-and-blue and snowy white scattered cloud particles—Parting Wave looks like one of those satellite photos of hurricane storm systems roiling over the planet’s surface.

The painting Many Moons looks like a colossal cluster of dark blue-and-green planetoids orbiting near the hot yellow-and-red surface of an alien sun.

And Vital Signs, painted while the artist was thinking of a friend who was hospitalized, is a riff on those hospital machines displaying a heartbeat or a brainwave or something. It’s painted in pastel colors with waves and lines and bars and popping circles that seem to be vibrating and dancing like the animated Toccata & Fugue sequence in Walt Disney’s masterpiece Fantasia.

In See Life, the yin-yang of blue bubbles and bright yellow-and-white light and emerging yellow-green bubbles is like a vision of micro-life coming into existence in the primordial ocean.

And Spinning Promises with its multitude of colors and continuously surprising shapes is like a glimpse of the quantum structure of reality …

There’s more, but I’m already out of room here.

The only other thing I’d note is that Alison Shull’s paintings make me happier when I look at them. Which is the whole point of art, isn’t it?

Alison Shull’s exhibit Circles Swirls Pixels Curls will be on display at Benjamin Peters 120 the Commons, Ithaca, through the month of January 2014. There will be a reception on Thursday Jan. 23, 2014 from 5:00 P.M. – 8:00 p.m. Alison Shull’s work can also be viewed at •

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