To confront a person with their own shadow is to show them their own light.
– Carl Jung
In her current exhibition at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, Light to Light, Susan English explores the vagaries of light as it penetrates layers of polymer and pigment. Subtle gradations in color are infused with radiant light, recalling the sfumato in Van Eyck’s translucent skies or Cimabue’s blushing Virgins. The seamless transitions are achieved through the artist’s unorthodox technique of pouring thin layers of tinted polymer onto panels, then tilting the panels while the pigments settle and dry. The multiple layers interact with light to create varying effects – sometimes luminous, sometimes opaque – which are punctuated by cracks and blemishes in the medium as it dries. These accidents are essential to the piece, as they provide a counterbalance to the exquisite surfaces and tight control of their execution. Indeed, English manipulates the panel in such a way that crackling is anticipated, and she views the result as a simulation of the fissures and fractures found in nature.
Nature inspires and informs the work, as light filters into the artist’s studio and determines her choice of pigments. English also spends considerable time outdoors, including summers on the coast of Maine, where light refraction and weather systems continually shift to produce the tertiary grays that infiltrate her palette. While the effects of pigment and light are determined by the surface sheen (glossy vs. matte), the interaction of color is achieved through the sequencing of the multiple panels that comprise each painting. A series of horizontal panels create a narrative of color, space, and atmosphere, as seen in Lieutenant’s Island, a reference to an island off the coast of Cape Cod. Barely perceptible shifts in hue are interrupted by tinted striations that slowly emerge from the gray tones, as if piercing through fog. The luminous cool blue in the top panel reacts with the thin wash of brilliant orange toward the bottom, giving the painting a chromatic anchor from which the hazy grays materialize.
English states that she is influenced by her experience of place; her paintings are never literal representations. Siracusa is based on a visit to the ancient Sicilian city, with fragments of Mediterranean-inspired colors that shift at irregular intervals. The palette abruptly changes to earth tones, alluding to (but not describing) the relationship of earth, sea, and sky. English responds to an environment emotionally, and this content finds its way into the painting. She also paints numerous watercolor sketches en plein air, capturing the light and essence of the location, and often uses these for reference in her larger paintings. Her vibrant colors are intuitive, as she masters a medium that relies heavily on variability and chance. One cannot regard her work without thinking of Josef Albers, particularly in those passages where the sequences come together and their saturated pigments interact. These deliberate juxtapositions reveal the artist’s control of color as it shifts from panel to panel, light to light.
But these light-infused paintings cast deep shadows, exposing a darker side that is not immediately apparent. English pours many layers of color to achieve dramatic effect; indeed, the passages appear to be deeply felt and hard won. The accumulation of pigment is a combination of chance and control, with some passages seeming to veer out of the artist’s command. On closer examination, the immaculate surfaces break down into countless accidents, where colors collide or coalesce. The surface flaws bear witness to the process, like archeological curiosities entombed in layers of pigment and polymer. English’s presence is singularly manifest in these passages, as she resolves each sequence by correction or inclusion: namely, by deciding what stays and what goes. This is the artist’s moment of creative finesse, when she displays her mastery of an unruly medium and moves the painting toward its realization. The depth of her work is found not in its perfection, but in those unedited accidents that are included as if to reflect the flaws in our humanity.
And yet not all the work feels complete. Several pieces seem to be works in progress, not unresolved, but complete only for the time being, until the light shifts and hints at another configuration. In Through the Middle, vertical striations read as a concise narrative. Like bookends on a series of volumes, the painting begins and ends with the same hue, containing within it the potential for infinite revisions. But English is in control; she determines the intervals and the interrelationship of each sequence, like a photographer who chooses to capture this moment rather than another. If there is hesitancy in her editing choices, it doesn’t show up in the final painting, which is resolute and self-assured. Her command is felt throughout, from the pigments suspended in polymer to the sequencing of panels as they intensify the interaction of color. If light is the spark that animates the surface of her paintings, then English casts the shadow that gives the work its emotional depth.
Susan English, Light to Light runs through December 3 at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, 529 W 20th, Suite 6W, New York, NY 10011.
Meg Hitchcock is a painter and text-based artist living in the Hudson Valley. She uses sacred texts in her work to explore the relationship between religion and psychology as it pertains to human consciousness. Her work has been shown at MASS MoCA, Currier Museum of Art, Crystal Bridges Museum, CODA Museum (Netherlands), and Virginia MOCA. Her work has been reviewed in Art in America, ArtCritical, The New Criterion, Huffington Post, and Hyperallergic. She studied classical painting in Florence, Italy, received her BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, and is author of the blog IN THEIR STUDIOS: Conversations with Women Artists.