Painting Abstractly in the Midst of Unending Crises

“A Quieter Battle” measures 78 by 202 inches, or 6 1/2 by nearly 17 feet. Dated 2021, the work was done on raw canvas during the pandemic. Its layers and clusters of parallel lines, in yellow, white, violet, and dark crimson, both straight and swirling — like streamers and ribbons — rising, descending, and traversing the canvas, against a stained ground of salmon and pale purple, convey a maelstrom. Its panoramic scale becomes a world, at once abstract and yet suggestive of something real in our life. 

I saw “A Quieter Battle” in the exhibition Alyse Rosner: Trusting the River at Rick Wester Fine Art (May 6–July 2, 2021). It was only later that I understood that I was not completely off track. After looking at this and other works, I read the artist’s statement, which included this paragraph: 

When I began these paintings, the wildfires raged in California and I spoke frequently with my sister who lives there and dealt with the toxic air quality daily. Like the coronavirus, wildfires don’t choose their victims. They attack indiscriminately and present an unpredictable threat. 

Alyse Rosner, “Moment (lashes III)” (2006), acrylic and ink on raw pine, signed and dated on the verso, 5 7/8 x 5 1/4 inches (courtesy Rick Wester Fine Art)

Since COVID-19 began spreading across the world, necessitating a lockdown in March 2020, many of us have lived in a state of isolation, witnessing daily scenes of grief, social upheaval, and natural calamities on the news. During this time, as Rosner states, she was given “a large vacant retail space in the Stamford Town Center Mall […] as part of the Clementina Arts Foundation Residency.” It was in this space that she worked on “A Quieter Battle” and the equally expansive “Trusting the River” (conte crayon and acrylic on raw canvas, 77 by 202 inches, 2021). According to Rosner, “Rubbings from the tile floor and brick walls of the studio space make that place an integral part of these works.”

One reason I have quoted Rosner so extensively is because of the main issue that she is grappling with: how do you make an abstract painting, composed with non-expressionistic marks, reflect the personal and collective? It is an issue that Clare Grill, whose recent show at Derek Eller I reviewed, also deals with. 

In these polarized times, to make paintings that face the extreme, inchoate feelings repeatedly flooding through us, especially without resorting to the commonplace responses of irony and cynicism, and other manifestations of disenchantment, takes a certain amount of faith that art has the capacity to heal one’s damaged psyche, even if only intermittently.  

Alyse Rosner, “Trusting the River” (2021), conte and acrylic on raw canvas, signed and dated in graphite on the verso, 77 x 202 inches (photo credit: Tom Powel Imaging, courtesy Rick Wester Fine Art)

In “Trusting the River,” which is denser and busier than “A Quieter Battle,” one sees ghostly traces of where the artist laid the canvas against a tile floor to make a rubbing. The crosses or X’s can be read in different ways, which is part of Rosner’s strength as an artist: she is able to imbue her marks with a range of meanings, all of which invite the viewer’s engagement. 

Overlaying an unevenly stained purple ground, Rosner’s linear lexicon suggests, to this viewer at least, a river’s currents, a strong wind, or a spreading fire — a state of constant turbulence. 

Judging by this show alone, and the span it covers (16 works dated between 2007 and 2021), “A Quieter Battle” and “Trusting the River” represent a breakthrough for Rosner, as they show her ability to work on a large surface. While continuities are apparent between these large paintings and the other works done since 2013, the eight small works arranged in a vitrine in the back gallery, all in acrylic and ink on raw pine, really made my head spin. The largest measured 5 1/2 by 6 inches, while the others were 5 7/8 by 5 1/4 inches. Titles such as “Moment (with tiny white dots)” (2006) and “Moment (dark)” (2007) point to Rosner’s longstanding focus on time.

Installation view, Alyse Rosner: Trusting the River, 2021, Rick Wester Fine Art, New York (courtesy Rick Wester Fine Art)

In these compressed paintings, some made of myriad dots suggesting blossoms in a vase, as in “Moment (with tiny white dots),” my sense is that her underlying concerns have been driven by an awareness of time passing and the infinity that awaits us all. You cannot stop time, but you can preserve a moment, no matter how unsettling it might be, which certainly is one current of feeling running through “A Quieter Battle” and “Trusting the River.”

I was struck by how far she has traveled in her work. As riveting and distinct as these earlier works are, Rosner did not stay there, even though she could have easily established a recognizable niche if she had kept working in this way. The fact that she did not is a testament to her painterly ambition and the desire to see what different marks and traces she can get into an abstract painting. 

I was further struck by what changes she has made in her paintings and processes in order to work on a larger scale — the ways in which she has expanded her pared-down vocabulary by moving from dots to lines and stylized, linear shapes, while always maintaining the directness of her approach, which is an obvious hallmark of the earlier work. 

Alyse Rosner, “Untitled (red 2)” (2009), acrylic and ink on raw pine, signed in pencil on the verso, 5 1/2 x 6 inches (courtesy Rick Wester Fine Art)

In the panoramic paintings, her approach becomes incremental, starting with the rubbing and staining, and then moving to the layers of marks. There is no turning back, no sense that she scrapes away and begins again. Rosner seems to discover each painting in the making. Jackson Pollock famously said about his poured, incremental paintings: “I am nature.” Rosner knows that position is no longer possible. The rubbing of the floor tiles is a sign that nature and civilization are inseparable and that the seam between the two must be healed, something we have clearly failed to do in so many ways, with the news of these failures delivered to us on a daily basis. 

Alyse Rosner: Trusting the River continues at Rick Wester Fine Art (526 West 26th Street, Suite 417, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 2.

Alyse Rosner is grappling with the question of how to make an abstract painting reflect both the personal and collective.Read MoreArt, Abstract Painting, Alyse Rosner, Featured, New York, Reviews, Rick Wester Fine Art, WeekendHyperallergicRead More

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