“Phyllis Bramson: Transgressions”

“Mindy Weisel: Touching Quiet”

“Patricia Tobacco Forrester: Recent Painting”

In the last decade, the old antagonism between representational and abstract painting has gradually been transformed into a concern shared by painters of both traditions for achieving both formal expressiveness and narrative significance. It is rare these days to find an abstract artist claiming absolute purity, and luckily, many representationalists are pushing beyond self-conscious cultural decoding. In the best contemporary art, narrative structure overcomes the decorative risks of abstraction, and formal sophistication informs the composition of narrative works. Examples of this synthetic practice can be found in the paintings of Phyllis Bramson, Patricia Tobacco Forrester, and Mindy Weisel, who are showing new work in Dupont Circle galleries this month.

Representational figures, objects, and whole image systems are being employed in Bramson’s work at Brody’s Gallery with the sort of compositional sensitivity that used to be found only in abstract painting. In the old abstraction, narrative grew from charged areas of color and from gesture, and in many of Bramson’s new paintings, the narrative components are displayed with the same formal consciousness that once applied to these abstract motifs alone.

In Bramson’s work, the representative components—figures or decorative devices—are either created by Bramson or borrowed from sentimental ’40s paintings of children and animals. These sections are then positioned adjacent to or over wallpaper fragments, fabrics, or pieces of decorative molding. The molding, as well as many of the image fragments in the paintings, has been appropriated from the Oriental kitsch knickknacks that filled the house where Bramson grew up. Among these kitsch motifs, she has inserted sections of other artists’ canvases that she has painted over, usually by intensifying the definition of garments and facial expressions. Over and around these larger components, she has collaged images of fruits, flowers, and jewels. And into this assortment of innocuous decoration, Bramson has inserted body fragments painted by her own hand. These complex surfaces are then bound together by color relationships and skillfully placed highlights. The result is a new variant derived from pattern paintings, new image paintings, and deconstructive narratives; the work retains the impact of all of those tendencies but provides something additional as well. Narrative impact derives from the use of the descriptive representational components as forms, not subjects. This roots the visual commentaries in the paintings’ structural logic and destroys the dreamy sweetness that clung to the borrowed images in their original incarnations.

It is from this formal complexity that the works derive much of their harrowing power. The allusions to such banal and ingratiating subject matter as birds kissing a child’s lips, frolicking lambs, and luscious trompe l’oeil fruit and roses are transformed from agents of charm to instigators of anxiety. The threatening world of adult sexuality, once mystified through such sentimental images, is unveiled as an arena of violence and violation. In such layered, sexually disturbing images as Eve, Adam, Good Companion, and Isolation atBrody’s, and in the three works by Bramson included in the current Corcoran Biennial, the prettified violence is readily visible. Here, the most meaningless motifs are transformed through association with the emotionally and/or physically threatening environment of childhood. The horror is most vividly invoked by Bramson’s own image of a hummingbird drinking from a human heart in Lure. Its sweetly violent loveliness reverberates through the exhibition, transforming what seem to be harmless images into an exploration of childhood nightmare.

Nightmare also lurks not too far in the background of Mindy Weisel’s exhibition “Touching Quiet” at Jones Troyer Fitzpatrick Gallery. Although these new paintings are ostensibly landscapes, they continue her exploration of growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust as the daughter of concentration camp survivors. As in her earlier work, Weisel explicitly employs the allusive power of abstraction to invoke experiences that defy even verbal representation.

The works at Jones Troyer Fitzpatrick were made, for the most part, in the summer of 1992 at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, where Weisel allowed the structuring metaphor of landscape to reconfigure the themes of suffering that have preoccupied her art. The product of time and silence, these paintings do frequently attain an atmospheric lyricism that places them firmly in the pastoral landscape tradition. Among them, however, are also images with more analytical structure that may point the artist toward new ways of expressing the intense emotions she has frequently subdued in thick layers of pigment and dramatic, elegiac color harmonies.

Weisel began these paintings by writing words on paper, then allowing color and gesture to take over and obscure the words. For the works in this exhibition, the artist explains, “the quiet became the subject. My reactions to the quiet became the paintings.” In the quiet, however, the artist uncovered—or rather constructed, given her working method—intense dramas in which darkness becomes the inevitable metaphor. Weisel by now is a connoisseur of this nuanced and articulate darkness, and her works are much more than mere “dark paintings.” She weaves her blacks and lavenders with threads of yellow, orange, greens, and magentas to create a new vocabulary of sentiment. This is not only the case with these ’92 and ’93 works, but with many of her ’80s works as well.

What’s new in these recent paintings is a confidence and an edge to the passion which is particularly visible in the smaller works. In Thoughts in Solitude, Venice, and Mediterranean, the marks take on more representational and analytical properties. Most of the works in the show are watercolor and oil pastel on paper, but Venice has a hard and textured turquoise acrylic surface scratched with a series of vertical slits through which a bloody gold smudges onto the surface. Here, abstract approaches the specificity of representation but retains the potential for universality characteristic of abstraction.

Thoughts on Solitude presents a yellow grid stretched across a field of mostly blues and greens with a touch of magenta to one side. The grid provides both formal and narrative order and turns what might otherwise have been a pleasing vista into confrontation with entrapment. This dread extends to the gestures with which the green/blue ground has been created as well. The repeated vertical gestures could be landscape motifs, but the yellow grid makes them read as something much more than that.

Patricia Tobacco Forrester’s work at Addison/Ripley Gallery occupies a middle ground between Bramson’s narrative precision and Weisel’s allusive invocations. These extraordinary watercolors defy believability on the level of skill alone, and with it Forrester has perfected a vision of flowers and landscape motifs that plays in a most sophisticated way with the tension between surface and illusion. In these new works, she departs from this satisfactory balance to explore more complex juxtapositions of illusion in ways that threaten to disrupt the finely poised elegance of her usual style. No longer confined to surface and foreground plane, the images now catapult the viewer between surface foreground and illusions of distant vistas. A corresponding broadening of brushwork accompanies this shift, particularly in Sonoma Scarlet and Under Stag’s Leap. An interesting conflict between ways of knowing and ways of seeing emerges in these more broadly conceived works, and this provides a new justification for such a talent for rendering.

This tension between seeing and knowing, between a knowledge built on emotional and physical experience and one derived from observation and tradition, is really the subtext in all three artists’ work. Sometimes mutually incomprehensible beyond the confines of art, these impulses seem to be struggling toward integration in the work of Bramson, Forrester, and Weisel. That such disparate visions can result from the struggle may be testimony to the vitality and promise of this developing tendency in contemporary painting.