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Nashville abstract painter draws on Western landscapes in her latest works

Nashville abstract painter draws on Western landscapes in her latest works

By Angela Wibking

New Paintings by Carol Mode and Stanley Boxer

Through Feb. 26

Cumberland Gallery, 4107 Hillsboro Circle

For information, call 297-0296

The American West and Southwest have inspired artists for well over a century. Georgia O’Keeffe’s bleached animal skulls against a blindingly blue New Mexico sky, Albert Bierstadt’s epic landscapes of the snow-capped Rockies, and Frederick Remington’s heroic portraits of cowboys and Native American warriors spring immediately to mind. The dramatic mountain and desert vistas and the incredible light that suffuses them, however, are generally associated with representational artists rather than with those who create in the abstract style. Nashville artist Carol Mode is a new exception to that rule.

In her latest works, currently on view at Cumberland Gallery, Mode draws on her experiences at recent artist residencies in New Mexico and Wyoming. ”The power of place was overwhelming,“ she recalls. ”I’m rarely influenced by just the exterior world of a landscape, but the brilliant sky and stark spaces [of the West] and the bigness, the openness of it had this power over me.“

This is not to say, however, that the visual power of the Western landscape has been literally translated onto canvas by Mode. Though certain colors, patterns, and textures may reference Western or Southwestern imagery, the connection is a subtle one. ”I constantly reference natural objects and earth and sky formations, interweaving all the elements together as abstract topographies,“ Mode says. ”In the painting titled åGrasslands,’ for example, I began with the relationship of earth and sky, in particular the horizon line.“

Taking off from that long, low horizontal feature of the Western landscape, the artist then shifted the ”grass“—a densely layered and textured area of green filled with elliptical shapes—above the horizon line. Mode’s interpretation of the earth is a bluish-gray field filled with a batik-like design of tiny vessels and lines floating among white ellipses. Finally, Mode says, the ”energy of the piece dictated that it be hung vertically.“ As a result, the piece becomes a completely personal abstraction of the wide-open grasslands that inspired the artist.

”When I think about the main influence for me as an artist, it is the effect of my surroundings that is most significant,“ Mode says. ”The titles of some of my new works make them sound as if the landscape alone was more influential than it was. I was also influenced by the largeness of the space and of the air and by repeated patterns, which have always interested me. My work represents these layers of thought, sound, and visual information.“

Mode’s newest works were inspired just as much by the creative fellowship that existed among the participants in the Wyoming residency. ”There were three poets, plus fiction writers, composers, and two other visual artists besides myself,“ she says. ”We would see each other to talk at breakfast and then go off to work in our own spaces until 5 or 5:30. After dinner together, some of us would walk and talk, and then we’d all go back to our studios to work some more.“

One of the writers at the Wyoming residency was Karen Kevorkian, whose poetry Mode found very influential—so much so that she named one of the largest pieces in the Cumberland Gallery show after a line in a Kevorkian poem, itself inspired by the music of contemporary composer John Cage. The work, titled ”Absence is Presence,“ also has roots in Mode’s show at Cheekwood last October. That show, titled ”Blue,“ featured 60 small works on paper that were inspired by Mode’s experiences at a New Mexico artist residency in 1998.

”Some of those works were building blocks for subsequent ones,“ says Mode. ”It was a change for me to refine an earlier work and make it more dramatic and bigger in scale. åAbsence is Presence’ was definitely begun from a work that was in the åBlue’ show. The blueness in the painting refers to that earlier work, but the sense of being lost in space comes from my experiences in Wyoming.“ The painting does seem to reference the expansive Western night sky in its advancing and receding shades, its shapes of deep blue, and the luminescent creamy ovals floating among a sea of solid black orbs. The occasional meeting of a white oval with a small black disc also creates an eye-like image that suggests that even while alone, we are being watched.

Abstract paintings by the venerable New York artist Stanley Boxer complement those of Mode in the exhibition. Boxer, now in his 70s, has been creating art for over 50 years, and his latest oil and acrylic works on canvas indicate that he shows no signs of slowing down. While Mode explores the repeated patterns of her surroundings, Boxer explores the repeated effects of natural light in abstract works that have an Impressionist sensibility.

In ”Andthegreenforest,“ whose run-on title reinforces the continuous visual experience of the painting, myriad tones of soft green paint are built up on the canvas in a variety of textures to evoke a verdant natural space; a free-fall of gold brush strokes hovers in the upper corner. The title aside, the natural world Boxer is conveying might be a forest or an ocean reef, depending on the viewer’s interpretation. Boxer also uses other media, including glitter and tiny pebbles, to enrich the surface textures of his works. His improvisational, almost sculptural paintings provide a perfect counterpoint to Mode’s more structured, but no less emotionally charged, abstracts.

In ”Andthegreenforest,“ whose run-on title reinforces the continuous visual experience of the painting, myriad tones of soft green paint are built up on the canvas in a variety of textures to evoke a verdant natural space; a free-fall of gold brush strokes hovers in the upper corner. The title aside, the natural world Boxer is conveying might be a forest or an ocean reef, depending on the viewer’s interpretation. Boxer also uses other media, including glitter and tiny pebbles, to enrich the surface textures of his works. His improvisational, almost sculptural paintings provide a perfect counterpoint to Mode’s more structured, but no less emotionally charged, abstracts.

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