Friday, November 11, 2011

Chance Falls - Pat Steir at Locks Gallery

I first became aware of Pat Steir when I assigned an Art in America article about her work to a student years ago. I can't remember what the student did with it, but Steir's graceful, mesmerizing work really stuck with me. I was happy, therefore, to find it close to home, in a fine exhibit currently at the Locks Gallery in Center City Philadelphia. The large color drenched canvases seem somehow made for this particular setting with its dark ceiling and columns; the fit of space and content has an organic, inevitable feeling that adds satisfaction to the experience of the show. Any description of Steir's painting includes the word 'waterfall' - the pictures make the description self-explanatory. She treasures the happenstance of art-making, a value she credits in part to her friendship with John Cage, who introduced her to its potential. Steir's work testifies to her chronology - her Action Painting approach connects her not only to the ideas of Cage but also to older, but not distant contemporaries Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler. Color pours down her canvases in watery, nuanced sheets of layered hue, shade, and value: the action of the making continues in the finished work. At a distance the canvases give off a rich, soothing rhythm, but up close the general blur defines into fine trails that mingle, divide, and pool together. There is also a strong link to Chinese landscape painting, mentioned in the press release for the show, manifested in a feeling of ethereal grandeur as well as the fine layering of organic strokes. Most of the works in the show are named for the pigments she used in creating them: naples yellow, paynes grey, indigo, a particular green or blue. Several include gold pigments. A good part of the pleasure of the work, for me, was inspecting the surfaces at close range, finding the happy accidents that arise from Steir's process - rivulets of gold coursing through, over, and behind sheets of white, blue, green, leaving little nuggets at a crossroad where she made a divide, a buried color suddenly peeping through to make a quietly assertive statement.
Pat Steir: Water and Sand is at the Locks Gallery through November 26.