Last month, aeqai posted both a profile of area artist Kay Hurley, and a review of her new work (and that of sculptor Margot Gotoff). Interest in Hurley’s work is abundant, so aeqai is reprinting, with permission, a feature that aeqai editor Daniel Brown wrote for The Artist’s Magazine about Hurley in 2008 for our readers’ interest
Mary Katherine Hurley’s oil paintings and pastel drawings are a contemporary version of the American Sublime, the 19th-century movement that followed from the Hudson River School and looked to the works of European Romanticists like J.M.W. Turner. Hurley’s works similarly express an awe of nature. Nonetheless, she vigorously, even radically, limits the amount of visual information each painting includes. Sections of her work are large, abstract color blocks that coalesce not into landscape paintings, but rather paintings that have “landscape” as their reference. Her landscapes, in fact, are reductionist: Matisse’s handling of color comes to mind, as does Ellsworth Kelly’s. Hurley has studied in Vermont with the great American colorist Wolf Kahn, as well.
In the course of 3o years, her paintings have changed significantly. “I started out doing small graphite drawings,” she says. “I was intimidated by color. I ventured into color with colored pencil; then I moved to oil pastel, then to pastel and finally to oils. My style started out impressionistic and has evolved toward greater abstraction and more mystery. Every three years I can feel a major change brewing. It may not be the direction I’d wanted to go, but I have to surrender to
whatever it is.”
One theme that recurs and is consistent throughout her body of work is the idea of sanctuary: a pond, a forest, a barn—all images of actual places that exude a nearly otherworldly serenity. “Barns are what I call the American cathedral,” she says. “Barns were apparent in my work several years ago. For an unknown reason, they disappeared. The landscape became front and center. Now vistas have become broad again, and the barns that are so much a part of my childhood are reappearing. I’m trying to find my way back home.”
The vibrancy or quietude her work presents is spiritual. Her years of observing nature and distilling it into color, light and form involve a letting-go—not directing the creative process, but “being guided.” She describes herself as an “intuitive” painter, and we viewers respond to these mystical-spiritualist qualities in her work. “The painter,” she says, “is just the instrument.”
Hurley is a superb colorist. Her most brooding paintings bring Albert Pinkham Ryder to mind. She’s drawn to morning fog, to sunrise and sunset, when natural forms are partly hidden, elusive and evolving. The simplifications and reductionisms in her landscapes hark back to American Luminism of the 1850s and 1870s, a style characterized by the use of aerial or atmospheric perspective that posits that objects farther away are blurred and bluer. Hurley’s landscapes also bring to mind a term coined by Leonardo da Vinci, sfumato, for the edges are indistinct; the brushstrokes, not visible. Less obvious correspondences are to the philosophical and aesthetic tenets of Chinese painting, particularly
the painting of the Northern and Southern Song dynasties. Northern Song paintings, perhaps Chinese art’s greatest achievement, capture the grandeur of nature with minimal detail (and almost no color). What
Hurley’s work has in common with Song painting is the search for essences, not likenesses.
A Southern Song work assumes or sees nature-as-microcosm; for example, a close-up of a bird on a flowering branch can, in Buddhism, symbolically represent all of nature/life, growth and beauty. Hurley can do this, using a small part of a scene to imply all of nature. This synchronicity of styles—between her own art and that of the American Luminists and the Song painters of the Northern and Southern dynasties—brings her to the forefront, in my opinion, of America’s contemporary landscape artists.
The key to Hurley’s color is what she calls “tonal painting,” a phrase that describes paintings exhibiting a very limited range of closely related tones or only one or two colors. Some pastel drawings, in particular, appear to have three or four near-monochromatic gradations of color, but it’s these gradations that make the work concurrently subtle, nuanced and vibrant. To make an analogy to music, Hurley draws and paints the way Barbra Streisand sings: Streisand sings around a note, then hits it; Hurley works around a hue, and its gradations become apparent the longer and more intensely we look. Hurley thereby slows us down; her color forces us to look—outward at the work, but inward, as well. Her works can thus be called mirrors—of nature and of a soul.
What is tonal painting exactly? It involves subtle shifts of values—in essence, hue translated into value—so that color is diffuse. Fused edges, passages characterized by soft transitions in color and value, are important to the effect. “After the underpainting is dry enough,” she says, “I start layering: pushing and pulling shapes, colors, and values.” She uses a paper towel for oil paintings and an eraser for pastel drawings to create these subtle transitions between intense colors,
which, according to Hurley, “create mystery, intrigue and dimensionality.” Hurley says she feels “closest to God” when she’s either looking at or painting a landscape. “Everyone is seduced by color. We need it and love it, but what seduces me more is the mystery.”
What she’s doing through her art, in essence, is encouraging “a deeper way of seeing.” For that reason, simplicity of form intrigues her more than complexity. “I had to experience complexity in order to let go of it,” she maintains. “We are in a tug of war between being human and spiritual beings.” The key to Hurley’s transcendence may be nature itself, but the artist’s instincts prompt her continually to adjust subtle shifts in color, temperature and value until the painting reflects a feeling more than it depicts a place. In an actual scene, the values apparent in the middle of the day interest her less; they’re too lavish, too extreme, unlike morning’s fog and evening’s mists (here her sensibility is akin to a Japanese Zen painter’s). Bright sun and clear outlines convey facts, rather than imply mystery. And mystery is what’s beautiful. People, Hurley believes, “want to be filled with beauty.” The unseen hand that guides her always leads us there.
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ÆQAI (pronounced ‘I’ as in ‘bite ‘ and ‘qai ‘ as in ‘sKY’ ) is a Cincinnati-based e-journal for critical thinking, review and reflective prose on contemporary visual art. The word ‘ÆQAI’ was selected as a mispelling from a reprint of Livy’s text for the ‘Aequi.’