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Paintings That Shouldn’t Work: Elisabeth Condon

Artcritical, July 19, 2011 (read there)

Imagine if you could speak several languages, switching from one to another to suit your thoughts, inside of a single sentence. You might begin in English for the sake of clarity, then change to Chinese for an apt metaphor, then over to French for color and texture, then to Italian for a bit of structure. Elisabeth Condon can do this, in paint.

Hello, Yellow (2010), a four-foot-wide canvas built around pourings of lemon, gold, and umber, evokes the history of stained abstraction, Frankenthaler and Louis especially. But certain passages look tie-dyed. They upset the reference and move it into psychedelic territory. Upon them she has painted a stack of gray shapes, outlined in darker gray, through which a white ribbon runs. It is as if she took mountains from a Giotto, paved them, and divided them with a cubist roadway, going nowhere except into itself. The scene is dotted with precise squiggles. Neil Welliver might have doodled such shapes as he recalled a long day spent tracing.

This painting shouldn’t work. It’s a pastiche of four styles. The colors are weird. The abstract portions won’t settle into their abstractness, and the figurative portions don’t amount to anything recognizable. It looks like it was painted by committee. And yet the painting is working. If there’s a committee, it must be made up of gifted artists, each the product of a different training, living together as an integrated whole inside of Condon. Hello, Yellow rolls over my objections like a tractor.

Condon’s work takes in the landscape – whatever form it takes, real or imagined. Paintings hide beneath paintings in each painting. The surfaces build from stain to film to opacity. The imagery crosses from east to west coast, and east to west hemisphere, with the ease and speed of ideas.

The artist is a voyager. Schooled in Los Angeles and Chicago, based in Brooklyn, her itinerary has included China, Spain, Miami, Tampa, and Saratoga Springs in the last two years. It seems that everywhere she stopped, a local influence took up residence in her psyche. By the time she returns to the studio, they all want to come out at once. Thus Autumn Sprinkles (2010) looks at first blush like a straightforward forest scene from upstate New York, until one notices the fan shapes and axe-cut strokes that typify Chinese landscapes. And then there are rose, rust and peach oblongs sprinkled on the surface. They’re not attached to the tree. They’re not attached to anything. They have escaped from the early Op paintings of Larry Poons and are now fluttering all over the sky to remind us that this is art after all.

Contemporary art comes with a promise of freedom. The old narratives are dead, say its spokesperson-philosophers. The categories are as blended as the breeds of street dogs. All things are possible, and few are impermissible. But it is hard to use all of that freedom. Constraints are helpful because they narrow the infinitude of choices an artist has to make. This is what I admire most about Woke Up to Find it Missing (2011). If it has constraints, it’s hard to say what they are apart from the six-foot rectangle. Over a luscious background of pastel stains, Condon has painted mountains. These mountains are striped orange and white like traffic barrels. She allows darker stains, indigo and violet, to come into the foreground. At the bottom edge the shapes flatten out into opaque areas of black, purple, and brown. It is a surrealism and Pop sandwich between two slices of lyrical abstraction, served on a hard-edge plate. The complexity ought to result in a disastrous mélange, but it’s lovely. The colors are pleasing. The composition holds. It makes no sense, it may even be silly, but the defiance of explanations only adds to the magic.

No less surprising is Yaddo Trees, Autumn (2010). From a hill of blue splashes, spattering the white canvas of the lower right corner, a tree grows. Its last leaves of the season are cranberry red, each with a blobby outline of cotton-candy pink. The sky is teal behind a mountain of stained green. The sky is a more substantial layer of paint than the mountain, which tells us something about the poetic nature of this world. While in residence at Yaddo in 2010, Condon met Jane Hirshfield. “They lie / under stars in a field,” Hirshfield once wrote about green-striped melons. “They lie under rain in a field. / Under sun. / Some people / are like this as well – / like a painting / hidden beneath another painting.”

Word count: 767

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