One feels the unlocking of something amidst Barbara Ahlbrand’s paintings. Energy, chaos, tranquility. The atmosphere in the gallery at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center, where a new retrospective of her work titled Encompass: encircle: embrace is being displayed, is simultaneously serene and chaotic. The textures Ahlbrand achieves fuse childish pandemonium with a mature grasp of color and a curious control of abstraction.
Ahlbrand’s work takes place at the intersection of mimesis and abstraction. Her paintings are figurative, but the objects they reference are smeared by imagination, sometimes reduced to echoes of their original form. The traces of neo-expressionism are glimpsed in Ahlbrand’s fauvist brushstrokes, radiant pastels and evocative imagery. The titles of the paintings are all bookended by colons. “flagbearers” becomes “: flagbearers :,” “opportunity” becomes “: opportunity :”—the meaning, if there is one, of this nominal pattern is left for the viewer to contemplate. In a way, it seems as though each painting is a part of an equation, one that welds the language of the imaginary with that of the material. This provides an entirely new way to witness the retrospective, with each painting a result or a part of the one before it.
Ahlbrand frequently breathes a visceral life into her ordinary subject matter. The plainly named “Shirt 1” and “Shirt 2” each depict a man’s shirt with a red tie draped around the collar. The bleeding hues and the white space left at the bottom of the canvas make it seem like Ahlbrand did not carefully labor over these works, but instead hurled an acrylic memory or perception at the canvas, resulting in a violent splash. Older works like these seem to embody the “encompass” part of the title, as we are given the chance to see how cohesive or mercurial her body of work has been leading up to this point.
The newest works displayed forgo the fleeting disquietude of her older paintings; a series of horse representations find solace in the amalgam of rustic ethos and bold repetition. Found objects—rope, twine and in one instance a rusted chain—grace the canvases, unleashing one world into another, as though the paint possesses an alchemical ability. The bodies of the horses depicted often replace the whimsy and open-ended beauty of her older paintings with a more monotonous, rhythmic dance that weaves itself through the curated space. The body of each horse in the series is haloed by a ring of crimson or Prussian blue. This series unmistakably fulfills the “encircle” of the exhibit’s name.
The exhibit is at its best when Ahlbrand’s abilities to arrest the unsettling and kinetic are bared. A triptych depicting five columns of horse profiles in stasis are reminiscent of vertical zoetropic patterns; “: chance :” offers a spectral window into the unknown, using a dark palette of crimsons and grays to project bloodless hands and a yin-yang of mice. Words are scrawled in pastel on many canvases, sometimes legible, sometimes not. India ink is often used to fill large portions of the painting with bright blackness, as in “: tangerine story – part 4 :.”
Because it’s a retrospective without much text accompaniment to give context or cohesion, the choreography of Ahlbrand’s canvases cast a broken spell, but one senses this was the desired effect—for us to be stolen, if not knowingly, in each painting’s fevered embrace.
“Encompass: encircle: embrace” is on display through April 23 at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center.