Disturbances in the Field: Art by Sara Risley
“The self―terrible and constant―is for me the subject matter of painting.“ Barnett Newman
Disturbances in the Field is an apt title for this show. Sara Risley’s paintings demonstrate a particular interest in the power of art to cause disruption in the “field” of normal patterns of thinking. She presents in this exhibition two bodies of work from 2014 – 2015, which offer different, but related, interpretations of this premise. The exhibition opens at the May 1 First Friday Art Walk between 5 pm to 8 pm. The exhibition runs through June 13 and is open Tuesday through Friday 12 – 5 pm and Saturday 11 am – 2 pm.
The series of acrylic paintings on canvas carries the overall title My Disturbance. These were inspired by a friend who asked Risley if she had ever worked with the reduced palette of black and white and one color. The answer was no – up to that point she had consistently used a wide range of saturated hues. This question was posed at a time of significant and distressing loss in Risley’s personal life. Taking on a new direction and challenge in the form of painting seemed the way forward. The resulting canvases are large, looming, energy-charged vehicles for conveying a range of intense emotions.
Risley’s photographs connect her new direction in acrylic painting with her work done in previous years via the common theme of disturbance. The photographs are at first glance quite different from the paintings. They are smaller with square, rather than rectangular, formats. The paintings are spacious and airy, the photographs are packed with biomorphic shapes in a wide variety of brilliant colors. The paintings are done directly; the brush strokes are records of the artist’s gesture. The photographs happen in stages, with final pieces that have the uninflected surfaces of computer prints. The first decision is what to photograph. The subject might be a scene from nature or it might be one of Risley’s own paintings (many of which appear to be based on landscape). As the photograph is taken, camera manipulations in the shooting process move the image toward abstraction. Then comes work with the image on the computer before it is digitally printed. Photoshop alterations add linear textures that both emphasize and offer counterpoint to the now non-objective forms that comprise the composition.
Risley speaks of “disturbing the pixels” until what is created causes a parallel disruption in the viewer’s mind. As in the work of the Abstract Surrealists of the 1930’s, her work overall seems to present that which is familiar and should be recognizable. Yet it eludes specific narrative.
Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue? Barnett Newman asked this iconic question in the title of a series of four monumental paintings done between 1966 and 1970. One might wonder how vertical bands of saturated color in the form of paint on canvas could be threatening. Yet, two of these paintings were badly damaged by vandalism while being displayed in public museums. In each case, the paintings were specifically targeted by the attackers.
Sara Risley seems abundantly aware of the power of color and gesture in painting to put before us big questions about the aspects of our very selves that we fear facing. What are we struggling toward, and what are the obstacles? Yet, she also suggests that the disturbances thus generated, when embraced, can inform who we are and what we create. Sara Risley knows we should all be afraid of red, yellow and blue, but also that such fear can be bracing, celebratory and ultimately liberating.