More images

* * *

Trees

By Boris Bernstein

At one point she became enthralled with the motifs of California landscape. She painted an old chestnut tree: a stocky trunk, rooted powerfully in the ground, full-blooded limbs sculpted with light and shadow, twisting vigorously into surrounding space, and morphing into a transparent graphical grid of naked twigs with a few fruit interspersed, with a receding green hillside and a distant mass of forest as backdrop. Sufficient unto the motif the trouble thereof, to paraphrase the biblical Gospel of Matthew: a whole and complete piece has been created. But the theme is still open, and on a different, now four-part, piece, the same chestnut tree is painted four times. It consists of four canvases put together so that they form a single painting. Yeah, you say, we've seen that, can't do it better than Claude Monet. Perhaps not better, but it can be done differently. It's not by accident that the first four-part composition is entitled Four Projections of a Chestnut Tree. "Projections" means that the angle of view is changing. Monet's haystacks looked different every time -- Maria's trees are seen differently. The tree may be taken from a different perspective, and if its appearance has also changed, this change gets a visible enhancement, with backdrop transformed in accord with the new look of the tree, its color, with the rhythm of the intensely curved branches. That's right -- the artist is in charge, her active viewing and painting brings to life new interpretations of the same subject: variations on the theme of an old chestnut tree. This four-part piece in turn belongs to a broader row of paintings documenting metamorphoses of the tree; one could speak of a smaller, compact cycle within a larger one. A set of independent variation-paintings meant for sequential viewing is compressed here to create the simultaneity of a visual polyphony.

Hills

This series, I believe, contains dramatic tensions that are not immediately obvious, but extremely fascinating. One concerns the format. In reproductions, it turns out, the painting, abstracted from its medium, deceives us with respect to its own size. It seems much larger than it is. In fact, all these paintings are modestly sized, between 10 by 10" and 20 by 20". But seen from a low viewpoint, a steep hill with a road climbing its side acquires an unusual degree of spatial prominence. Hills and dales seen from above turn out to be no less prominent: the high horizon creates a wide-angle, "Bruegelian" perspective which fits swaths of landscape which are breathtakingly incommensurate with our own scale into just a few square inches of canvas. In both cases, the powerfully molded relief of the earth recalls the tectonic shifts and tensions which have formed these enormous folds of crust. These awe-inspiring pressures are still churning beneath the rotund, bulging surface of the massive hills. Such a pathos of landscape could conceal a layer of the neoclassical rhetoric (a reincarnation of the "heroic landscape"?) which is so alien to contemporary sentiment. This danger, however, is avoided through the soft, lyrical irony of textural adventures, which break the whole into the necessary details just as much as they escape from slavish imitation and into the free play of painterly elements. Brushstrokes, scratches, creases in the painted surface at times trace the shape and command the eye to experience bumps, depressions, the fine rhythm of vegetation, but at times rebel and start building their own patterns. In this way the illusion of similarity is questioned, "lazy", passive viewing is impeded, requiring the eye to expend extra effort to constantly experience the tense duality of the image. Texture builds temptation: aren't you drawn to feel the roughness of the surface with a light touch of your finger? Of course, this desire has to be curbed, paintings are fragile -- but the tactile experience provoked by the interplay of textures remains.

Of course, none of this is new. Since the collages of synthetic cubism, where oil paint was married with completely new materials -- plywood, fabric, sand, scraps of newsprint, etc. -- it has been hard to surprise anyone with games with surfaces. On the contrary, it is this historical background that puts meaning into a special tact, a fine nuancing, a feminine softness in the restrained use of fairly traditional means of textural orchestration.