Rather poetically, the announcement card for “Winter Solace” says the two-woman show of Kim Flora’s paintings and Trina Feldhake’s ceramic baskets “reflects the quiet, the surprise, and the texture of the winter season.” It does. At least in part.
To start, a group of Flora’s haunting encaustic-and-oil-over-digital-transfer panels immediately captured my attention as I mounted the graceful stair to the second floor gallery at the YWCA. With its brass railing and handsome ironwork, it set the mood for this artist’s half of the exhibition.
As someone who has written extensively about the crafts, I resist talking about technique instead of content, but here Flora is working with a medium—encaustic—that enhances her message. The challenging process involves heating beeswax and adding pigments to color it. The resulting liquid or paste is “painted” or applied to a surface, usually wood.
In these small—generally 8” x 10” or 9” x 12” panels from Flora’s Personal Vistas-Architecture series–she starts with a digital transfer of a photograph, almost all bridges here, and covers it with layers of oil and encaustic. The wax draws a palpable veil over the image, creating a sensation of fog that obscures the bridges. She has ventured into J. M. W. Turner’s (British, 1775-1851) and James McNeill Whistler’s (American-born British, 1834-1903) aesthetic territory where landscape is more about feeling than precision.
On this side of the pond, Flora’s use of light links her to the Luminists of the mid-19th century. The name of this school says it all. Flora’s light is luminous. She also shares their desire to create tranquil and quiet scenes.
One thing about all of Flora’s work on view is that it conjures a comparison with earlier artistic giants without ever looking derivative. Here it’s Turner, Whistler, and the Luminists, but “Petals Adrift on the Concrete,” 2012, oil on canvas, 36” x 48”, evokes Monet, specifically his water lilies. Hers is an impressionistic rendition of pink-ish, salmon-ish blobs—too ugly a word but descriptive of the maybe cherry blossoms, maybe roses—strewn on a sidewalk. It could also conceivably be called Impressionist, cap I. But her painting is not a mindless imitation and should not be consigned to a market that just wants a pretty picture, which a number of contemporary artists happily make. Why else would you want to spend any time with it, which I did? The lush palette, tilting composition, and teasing game of figuring out what I was seeing kept me standing there.
Flora’s encaustic pieces were mostly made in 2009 and 2010, and there has been a shift in her work since then, both in subject and technique. Working primarily in oil on canvas now, she is focusing on barren trees in a landscape. Instead of ghostly, they are shadowy, as her palette has darkened. Her brushstrokes defining the bare branches are aggressive. Standing out against a broader landscape or dominating the picture plane, the sooty black limbs are spikey, spooky, and almost animate.
Here it’s the regional painter Charles Burchfield (American, 1893-1967) who comes to mind but so does Asian painting. There are comparisons that can be made to the Lyric Style painting of the Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1279), which influenced Japanese painting during the Ashikaga Period (1392-1573).
Also Flora “records” the Ohio River valley in a way similar to the painters of another mid-19th-century movement: the Hudson River School, which the Luminists can be considered a part of. The Hudson River painters eschewed the idealized and idyllic version of nature, promulgated by Italian and French painters of the 16th and 17th centuries, such as Annibale Carraci (Italian, 1560-1609), (Nicolas Poussin, French (1593-/4-1665), and Claude Lorraine (French, 1600-82) painters. Instead with Flora you get almost what you see, with a side of romanticism.
But these larger (up to 36” x 48”) oil-on-canvas landscapes don’t have the power to captivate as do the smaller encaustic bridge paintings. Fortunately the artist has not totally abandoned encaustic, and I find the most interesting works from 2011 and 2012 (busy girl) use it.
For example, in “Bloomen” her rough branches stand out against a turquoise background. It might be sky with the viewer looking upwards through the limbs, but the field of blue reads more as a background against which the branches are silhouetted. The picture plane is flattened à la Abstract Expressionism. The effect heightened by Flora’s waxy surface. The painting has a Japonesque quality and is decorative, which is not a pejorative here.
“Winter Solace” is a two-woman exhibition, and Feldhake’s ceramic pieces fill space in the gallery, but they have little in common with Flora’s paintings nor are they particularly wintery. The announcement card describes them as baskets that “emphasize the strength, fragility, and versatility of clay.”
I’ll give Feldhake two out of three. Some of these pieces look rough and tough but none look fragile. Even her porcelain work, normally delicate, looks muscular. And there is a sameness to her work.
The next sentence is puzzling: “With textures and handles, her glazes caress the work revealing intimate beauty.” For me her mostly too shiny glazes detract from the form.
Not all of the works on view are basket-inspired; some are generic vessels, all a little crude. Not that crude is necessarily a bad thing. No one would ever call the slashed plates by the acknowledged master of the studio clay movement Pete Voulkos refined. But he has a master’s touch while Feldhake’s work is more on the student level.
But her stoneware baskets, like “Knotted Sway” and “Chesshireknot,” are quite attractive. The forms are resolved and satisfying; the handles are graceful; and the surface decoration, a mix of glazed and unglazed surfaces, is beautiful and even sophisticated with a deliberate rawness.
Feldhake’s most impressive work by virtue of size is “Leaf Basket,” 24” x 3” x 7”, which is slab-built with the sides pinched together. Regular undulating lines, which might have been made with a comb and are sometimes pulled into rolling waves, could be seen as stylized water with an Asian accent. They cover the back while the incised leaves cover the front. “Leaf Basket” could belong to any season but winter.
There is one more thing that I want to say about the exhibition: the title—“Winter Solace”–is quite wonderful. I can imagine ducking into the gallery when winter actually arrives, escaping the snow or, more likely in Cincinnati, freezing rain. And for me Flora’s work provides the most solace.
“Winter Solace” on view through March 15, 2012, at the YWCA Women’s Art Gallery, 898 Walnut St., Cincinnati, OH 45202, 513-241-7090, www.ywcacincinnati.org.