With The Liminal landscape at Marta Hewett Gallery, Guggenheim Award winner and Cincinnati native Frank Herrmann presents an enlightening shift in a body of work that has been remarkably consistent and serious for the last 15 years. I encourage you to go see the exhibition; Herrmann is the breed of artist that is rare in Cincinnati: Ambitious, hard- nosed, and focused on painterly innovation at the cost of all else.
Known internationally for densely covered and heroically scaled works, Herrmann has recently discovered a new dynamic space in his paintings. In The Liminal Landscape we are presented with a range of works from small watercolors to medium sized dry media pieces on paper, to large and huge oil paintings on canvas. There is remarkable quality to be found everywhere across the spread. The different sizes and mediums proceed with momentum from one to the next and the changes of pace therein are noteworthy and illuminating.
The Professor Emeritus began making watercolors and drawings during downtime at the University of Cincinnati in recent years, and then expended considerable energy exploring printmaking with Mark Patsfall last year at Clay Street Press. There are no prints on display in this show, but the many drawings and watercolors are a knock out collection. The result of this drawing practice is a more open and energized field in the paintings. Space scatters across and around the new paintings instead of moving predictably up and down, front to back. Color relationships have intensified and clarified, and the conversation between objects and surroundings has become more surprising. This is an especially important innovation because Herrmann puts a lot of visual information into the works.
In the past I felt trapped by the density of surface treatment and the inert shapes in Herrmann’s large works. Paintings felt painted onto: covered up, muffled, and buried. Both of the largest works on view in Liminal Landscapes continue to struggle with the weight of their own surface surfeit. Bouyant-1 presents an almost impossibly dense field of acrylic paint, which has been built up into extravagant passages both lushly patterned and seemingly pitted with age. Air is mostly absent in this and the other truly huge work on view. The paintings have been painted to a near standstill. Ground, Figures: each is impeded and compacted by the other. Stillness and humidity fill the air. The works look like scarred wood or incised hides. These are still powerful paintings, but they fall short of the range that is exhibited in the rest of the show.
The new works are painted through, into and out of. They open indefinitely given prolonged engagement. The material density is still there; Herrmann can manipulate acrylic in ways that seem alchemical. The best works like Bouyant-4 offer a myriad of surfaces, each making the others more powerful. Some are thinly painted and vividly stained, others lush and swirling with semi- translucent impasto. These rich passages are pitted against strange vessel like shapes, a reoccurring Pod? Gourd? Bladder? Bomb? appears in every work as if a stand-in for the artist himself, a symbol of order within the fray. As a shape it has little to offer and its symmetry threatens to silence the images. However, in the best works it serves to intensify the experience.
When you visit the exhibition (up until May 14th) try this for all the larger works: imagine that your eyes are ears, look at the paintings and listen to what you see. Herrmann is more capable than most at creating a painted environment that presents sights, sounds, tastes and smells. Now focus on the painting as a landscape, move through the painting as if it has different types of climate and terrain. Allow yourself to accept the painting’s environment on its own terms. Only then think about the imagery.
On a recent visit to Herrmann’s studio, I observed a giant painting in its early stages. A dynamic composition presented itself with great diagonal thrusts of sun breaking through various firmaments tangible and intangible. With a residency at MASSMoCA near Boston on the horizon, it is exciting to imagine what is yet to come from this fantastic artist.