Science, spirit combine in works by Carol Brown Goldberg
The dazzling appearance of what critic Donald Kuspit has called “aura” shimmers from the surfaces of new paintings by Carol Brown Goldberg in an exhibit at Osuna Gallery in Bethesda. The effect is nearly kinetic; a change of image seems imminent even though we’re looking at paintings, not video.
Brown has evolved in a dynamic trajectory during the past decade. Trained at the Corcoran School of Art, she credits her teacher, Color Field painter Gene Davis, with imbuing her with a love of color and abstract form. Still, her art has never been a mere re-statement of Color Field aims. In about 2005, she began to depart from two rather distinct styles that separately expressed tendencies toward both geometric and organic abstraction. The progress of her work since then describes a slow arc of perfecting an idea and bringing it to a stage where the disparate elements come together in a strongly compelling combination.
The new paintings feature both grids of circles and abstract expressionist free gesture. Among the effects that make these works so exciting are the thousands of iridescent, reflective, laser-cut or pulverized particles of crystal and glass — not visible in photographs — gleaming on their surfaces.
The glittering presence of the crystalline particles is revealed only while seeing the paintings under light. When the viewer’s eyes focus on the center of the canvas — which they will do because of the centralized compositions of most of the large paintings that fill the visual field — peripheral vision will attempt to make sense of the value changes that occur subtly from the center outward toward the edges. This results, as the artist herself has said, “in an image that seems to pulsate as the eye moves across the tightly focused luminous center of the painting” now pulling back toward the center, now pushing outward.
A painting like “After Valladolid” with four such fields around a central cross form, is a good example of this phenomenon. The sense that some force is operating through these images, something powerful, even cosmic in dimension, is where spirit seems to combine with the optics.
Brown’s work is not just about optical illusions. It’s content rich with allusions to memory and feeling on a level that brings to mind Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky’s passionate plea for abstract art. In his “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (1911), he claimed that only through abstraction could the advances of science and the spirit be expressed in an art of the future.
He could have been discussing Brown’s paintings when he wrote, “That which belongs to the spirit of the future can only be realized in feeling, and to this feeling the talent of the artist is the only road.”
Brown titles all her works; they are often poetic or allude to a memory or an experience. “After Valladolid” refers to Brown’s experience in Spain where she exhibited in October. (The truly prolific painter has another show in Spain, in tandem with the Osuna exhibit.) Seeing the stained glass windows of the cathedral of Valladolid, and others in Spain, rekindled Brown’s interest in colored glass, an interest that dates to her childhood when sunlight passing through the stained glass windows of her family’s synagogue was for her, the most spiritual aspect of the experience.
A painting like “Searching for Doctor Dean” begins with a layer of black on a canvas, which then is coated in quadrants with glue. Next, the pulverized crystal is shaken onto the glued areas. Then, working with a brush loaded with acrylic enamel, the artist begins flinging lines of white and other colors in a controlled rhythmic process. Following that, using a hand-cut template, she paints the grid of circles. From the outer edge toward the dark rectangle left in the middle, the circles get progressively lighter. Inside the rectangle, the effect is of deep pictorial space, moving away, as it were, behind the grid. The paint swags evoke electricity. You could see this as something like a computer chip, pulsing with energy, or as an opening to some other dimension — “Space Odyssey”-like (you can almost hear the music) — where things spiritual and scientific intersect. The effect is memorable.
Smaller pulp paintings, nonetheless remarkable for their visual appeal, accompany the large paintings. Brown creates them by applying pulp paint to artist-made paper while it is still wet, a technique used by Color Field artists to get the painting as flat as possible. But Brown uses it to opposite effect by adding pulverized glass and enamel layers to create thick textures.
Many of these pieces are fascinating, with an all-over gestural freedom not evident in the larger works. I loved “Kerouac Knocks,” full of color and pathways. “Lorca’s Sheep Crossing a Rainbow” is another reference to Spain, but, as with “Kerouac,” reflects the artist’s wide interest in literary metaphors.
Brown’s work is inspiring — unabashedly beautiful, and glorying in that. Using glass bits and glitter was a challenge for her as female artist. She accepted that challenge because it allowed her to create the visual effects she wanted. Brown wants her art to be a gateway to access something beyond the ordinary. And that it is.