Rachael Wren: Site Lines at The Shirley Project Space

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Rachael Wren: Site Lines at The Shirley Project Space, March 2023installation view. Photo courtesy of Kate Glicksberg.

The Shirley Project Space in Brooklyn is a sympathetic environment for Rachael Wren’s Site Lines, a solo exhibition of six paintings and an unexpected site-specific installation. With two large windows on street level, the gallery’s abundant natural light heightens the relationship between the paintings and the outside world. This bright and airy effect is amplified by the minimalist architecture and tall ceilings, leaving the artist’s painted trees room to grow, an illusion propelled by the restrained installation which leaves ample space around each work.

Space is intrinsic to the making of Wren’s art and the understanding of it. While she is known for depicting stands of trees, these function as an armature which holds together the main subjects of the work – space, light and atmosphere. Depicting filtered light, haze, fog, mist and various weather conditions, Wren is focused on what is between the trees. She paints visual recollections of time spent in wooded spaces, imparting her impressions on canvas. Viewed through this process of moving-noticing-experiencing, the paintings can be read as a body-mind-environment conversation.

Rachael Wren’s work has become more experimental in the past three years. She introduced an expanded range of marks which overlap in various arrangements of shape, color and density to define both space and form. From a distance, the overlapping marks resolve into legible tree trunks. Up close, the vertical lines dissolve into a mass of cross hatches and other quadrilateral forms. More recently blotches, trefoils and thin lines made their way into Wren’s vocabulary of shapes and gestures, adding more dimension to the work.

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Anniversary, 2022, oil on canvas, 36” x 36”. Image by Garrett Carroll.

Wren also increased the space between the gestures in her recent paintings, almost pushing the tree forms to the edge of dissolution. Deftly balancing the elements of space, gesture and color, she allows the marks to be read individually, though she overlaps them accordingly to spatially unify them into a recognizable form. This sense of impending dissolution is clearly seen in Anniversary which bounces with energy. The tree trunks are frenzied concentrations of blue, gray, purple, pink and green that glimmer abstractly in close proximity to the work. From a removed vantage point, layers of individual marks coalesce into a defined stand of trees receding into a dark background. Wren’s work teeters between cohesion and collapse – contingent upon the viewer’s distance from the work. Additionally, the viewer’s somatic experience with the paintings echoes Wren’s movement through the spaces and moments she paints.

Holding Place, a six-foot square painting that pushes forward Wren’s interest in proprioception – an awareness of the body in space – is a jump in size from her characteristic three and four foot square format. This larger, more human scale brings an even more palpable sense of bodily involvement to the paintings. The scale is large enough for the viewer to feel immersed in the atmosphere, light and spatial arrangement of the paintings, and they are large enough to feel as if one can step into them.

With Holding Place Wren introduces a brighter palette that is uncharacteristically spring-like. Though the canvas is predominantly green, from up close a nexus of pink, yellow and purple marks emerge from the background. Arranged with the lightest areas of color concentrated at the top, the painting feels as if light and mist are raining down through the depths of a forest. The bottom third of the work is darker, lending heft so the upper two thirds of the canvas appears comparatively weightless and ethereal.

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Holding Place, 2023, oil on canvas, 72” x 72”. Image by Garrett Carroll.

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Holding Place (detail), 2022, oil on canvas, 72” x 72”. Image by Garrett Carroll.

Building on the advances in Holding Place, Wren turns her attention to working in three dimensions with a site-specific installation Linelight, a first for the artist. The installation is a logical step for an artist captivated by the subject of space, its dimensionality and the body’s relationship to it. Linelight occupies a six-foot cube tucked into an architectural niche in the rear of the gallery awaiting the curious visitor. Painted directly on the rear wall of this ensconcement, Wren arranged her signature trees in a familiar-feeling geometric formation, but here the paint is applied flatly, lacking the overlapping marks, colors and shapes that normally define her work. The solid dark green background lacks a gradient or other elements to suggest streaming light as she often does in her paintings. Trees also appear as solid vertical bands of lighter green and yellow.

Light and dimension is instead achieved with a series of thread lines spanning the width of the niche. The horizontal lines are organized in a tight grid formation in front of the painted wall to a depth and height of six feet. The 576 meticulously gridded strings are arranged in a gradient, with yellow at the top yielding to a darker green at the bottom, simulating light effects via fiber. The thread glows convincingly in a way that replicates the behavior of natural light, offering a lustrous quality to the work in three dimensions instead of Wren’s usual oil paint medium.

The gridded string arrangement more directly addresses notions of space, providing literal layers to the work instead of painted layers. The thread, though thin, introduces a veritable proprioceptive experience. Exploring Linelight pairs bodily movement with visual experience. The light changes when moving up and down through the height of the work with changing latitude lines that form slippery horizons that become darker further down the height axis. Moving the body upward physically, one experiences an increased sense of light. Similarly, the string grid seems to warp and skew in relation to bodily movement, creating parallaxes and interference patterns. Despite this level of viewer engagement, there is no way to access the interior. The tightly gridded thread forms a physical barrier, leaving viewers on the frontal plane peering in from outside. Though Wren has moved her work into the round, entry to that space is once again, like in her paintings, denied. Viewers are left to explore from the plane of the work.

Perhaps that is the point. While Wren shares her experiences through art, they remain personal experiences. There is something sublime and indescribable in the phenomena Rachael Wren communicates in the work, perhaps something even spiritual. Her artwork might be understood as products of solitary moments in the natural world – private moments. While Wren offers these encounters for consideration, there is a sanctity to the work that only Wren can fully access.

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Linelight, 2023, site-specific installation, house paint, embroidery thread and white nails, 6’ x 6’ x 6’. Images by Kate Glicksberg

About the writer: Jeanne Brasile is a writer, artist, curator and yoga instructor living and working in Northern New Jersey. She is currently the director of the Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University.

Rachael Wren: Site Lines is on view through May 12 at the Shirley Project Space, 609 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn