Ebon Flow

Exquisite Cataclysm

essay by Mark Brosseau
Assistant Director Gross McCleaf Gallery
Independent Curator
October 2009

When the American Abstract Expressionists began their seminal bodies of work, they were less interested in the idea of narrative amongst the shapes and marks in their paintings. Instead, early purveyors of this movement sought a sort of resonance or stillness that did not translate to an event. Not only did they eliminate the image from their canvases, but they also managed to suspend the sense of passing time in the pieces. The rectangles in Mark Rothko’s paintings are not going to be somewhere else in a few seconds – they are suspended and shimmering, static. The same can be said for Barnett Newman’s zips, Jackson Pollock’s layered webs, and Philip Guston’s congealed shapes. The same can even be said of Willem de Kooning’s women; in Two Women in the Country there’s no story taking place despite the presence of two distinct figures. The goal of these artists was to create pictorial energy by having a space that could vibrate and be still at the same time, not by alluding to a possible series of events.
While Jenny Hager shares the concerns of these painting giants, in her work you feel as if you are watching a course of action. The language that Hager uses is born from de Kooning, Kline, Rothko, etc., and she creates a space using relationships in ways similar to those artists, but the elements in her paintings are parts of an episode. The gestures, shapes, and lines relate to each other formally, but they do so in such a way as to imply a course of movement. It is fascinating to watch as two elliptical forms move towards one another to strangle a purple swath of color, while the linear lattice struggles to hold the purple in place. It is not a narrative in the sense that there’s a distinct story being told, but there is a course of events in progress. It relates more to the interaction between subatomic particles or celestial bodies than it does to standard human dealings. The elements exist suspended in space – there is no nameable environment – and affect or impede each other’s movements. The forces at work in the paintings are palpable; at times it feels as if the lines are actually indicating the impending movement. While the bodies, space, and forces remain ambiguous, there is no lack of specificity; each decision is a carefully felt out move, adding drama to the looming activity. The achieved balance between image and activity is simultaneously astounding and ominous.
Hager’s paintings are romantic in their exuberance of gesture, references to landscape, and boldness of palette. There are referential elements – a sun (or two), horizons, clouds – and you could see how these spaces were at one time picturesque. This romance, however, is interrupted by a grave sense of foreboding. Most of her paintings contain the intimation of a cataclysmic event – whether it is a warning of something that is imminent, or evidence of a deterioration that is already underway. The spaces in the paintings seem as though they are on the verge of a monumental and violent implosion. Her horizons rarely depict the meeting of sky and land; usually it is the meeting of two different layers of atmosphere. The atmosphere is not a breathable one: the air feels toxic and some elements in the painting feel as though they are composed of crusted, dry air molecules. Jagged lines look as though they may have been eroded by a corrosive element in the air. The decline seems both painfully slow and incomprehensibly fast.
The decay of memory and sensory experience is present to various degrees, as well. Parts of Aberrant and Infatuate are blocked out; the evidence of what occurred there has been erased from view. Other paintings, like Detritus or Envoi, present shrouds that obscure areas. In Recluse, the feeling of your understanding of the place slipping away is physically presented. The image appears to be melting with the details, becoming increasingly less distinguishable. You are left to try and put the pieces together from the few clues that are available to you, wondering if you forgot what happened in the painting, or if you never saw the events that brought you to the current state. The desire to decipher beckons, but the prospect of not being able to piece things together is discomforting.
Yet, despite the portentous tenor and apocalyptic undertones, Hager’s paintings are considered, delicate, and beautiful. That these paintings remain inviting in the face of the vehement upheaval of the imagery is the testament to Hager’s true ability as a painter. The paint handling imbues the images with their entropic energy while remaining sumptuous and seductive. Her color, while tinged with menace, is complex and surprising, with relationships that are unique to her. The colors are slowly layered, creating a profile specific to each painting. Her drawing hand, which has a gorgeous natural flow, remains present throughout, building up the dilapidated forms that inhabit these spaces. The rhythms in the compositions allow you to move through the spaces fluidly, and at times you are not aware of the looming implosion of the space until you are completely wrapped up in it. The vigor and certainty of Hager’s decisions enhance the power of the imagery. Each piece is a singular exquisite experience.