June 26 – August 30, 2020
What would it look like if classical mythology were re-written not from the perspective of human protagonists but from the point of view of the natural environments and ecosystems in which those stories were set? Aegis, the title of Ashley Garrett’s new exhibition, calls to mind moments in Greek mythology, for example when Athena received her father Zeus’s breastplate. And accordingly, the tiny oil paintings, scaled to the size of pages from a small book and spaced apart creating a steady visual rhythm on the gallery walls, read as 15 episodes in an epic tale that culminates in one climatic canvas towering over the viewer at 94 inches. However, these abstract works do not recount a hero’s journey but bear witness to vibrant forces of nature through swirling forms, capricious brushstrokes, and passages of brilliant light. It is as if the forests in which Artemis hunted or the seas which wrecked Odysseus’s ship are given agency in Garrett’s work and begin to tell their own tales of turmoil and splendor.
In Nunc (2020), the viewer enters a closely cropped landscape of standing trees and vibrant melodic hues. The airy light recalls a distant memory—a playful temporal paradox for a painting with the Latin title meaning “now.” Garrett in fact is informed by childhood memories of rural Pennsylvania, and the artist generally does not work en plein air, but rather constantly observes nature, absorbing the surroundings of her upstate New York studio, allowing both past and present observations make their way into her abstractions. Her process recalls the words of Simon Schama: “…landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.”1 But with occasional Latin titles and references to Greek mythology, Garrett’s work is not only about personal memory but uncovering landscapes hidden within cultural memory.
Following the walls counterclockwise, as if stepping back in time whilst moving forward in the exhibition, we encounter episodes of both becoming and loss. Whorl (2019) is composed of high velocity brushwork. A sweep of cadmium red burns against a deep purple ground whose darkness obscures any secure footing. Behind, shadowy branch-like forms radiate luminous red, violet, and orange lights. In Temple (2019) a slice of cake that resembles an architectural structure decays in a weathered landscape. Palette-knife scrapes and coarse brushwork excavate the surface of paint, revealing the white gessoed paper, returning the viewer literally and figuratively to an archaic ground beneath the surface. White light on the horizon bleaches the misty, pale gray-blue sky above a mournful violet earth.
Out of the dying order of Temple emerges a new vital world in works like Quiver (2019). Erupting with a power that extends beyond the edges of the paper, the painting overwhelms the viewer as nature takes over. A life force swells as yellow, pink, and green speckles vibrate, singing as wind passes through them. Female Rain (2019) a horizontally oriented, all-over work resonates with tensions: thick brushstrokes contrasted with thin palette knife etches, black paint contrasted with white gesso, aquatic blues against molten reds. As the viewer’s eye moves in and out of the textures—the painting is as tactile as it is visual—the surface scintillates, embodying jouissance.
The last small-scale work before the climatic Aegis is Wind Collector (2017). The black trunk of a leafless tree, its roots having dissolved, is suspended in a field of blue whose circulating currents dematerialize the remaining branches into gray smears and sprites of yellow. The wind takes on its own life, like the Greek Anemoi but without any humanistic anthropomorphism. If anything, the title suggests the human vanity of trying to control nature.
Finally, turning around, viewers process across the room, passing through the natural light entering the gallery windows, toward the towering 94 × 57-inch canvas Aegis (2019) as if approaching a throne. Up until this point in the exhibition, the viewers had projected themselves in the 4 × 6-inch painted worlds, such as Quiver, and imagined being immersed in them, but now the distance to safely observe the sublime collapses as the painting’s scale rivals the beholders’ and nature’s agency triumphs. Below, an enchanted pool of blue-green light surrounded by marshy, muddy forms invites them to enter through the picture plane, but it is also an abyss. However, stepping into the pond one does not sink, but rises, preternaturally, raptured diagonally across the canvas into a vertical stretch of pale yellow and green ether, while witnessing on the other side of the canvas mysteries veiled in brooding clouds. At the top of the canvas, feathery white streaks and dark cool splotches of paint coalesce into a monument in a state of dissolution. A dramatic conclusion, Aegis is a final demonstration of the ineffable and formidable forces of nature flowing throughout the exhibition.
- Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (New York: Vintage, 1996), pp. 6-7.