July 2014

Seager Gray Gallery, Mill Valley, presents Figures in Abstract, an exhibition of five figurative artists including Melinda Cootsona, Chris Gwaltney, Dennis Hare, Henry Jackson and Waldemar Mitrowski.

Nearly 60 years ago, the Bay Area Figurative movement freed the figure from the constraints of portraiture and illustration. The figure became a form to hold paint and the artist could use color, gesture, atmosphere and composition to explore new expressions. The paintings in this exhibition engage us in both the rich language of abstraction and in the mysteries of the human condition. The freshness of the work makes us hesitate to file it under any catch-all genre that has been around for so long, and yet the best qualities of that very valid movement in art history prevail.

Melinda Cootsona might be considered the Intimiste of figurative abstraction. Her paintings are reminiscent of Bonnard and Vuillard in their depiction of private intimate moments in a personal life and world. They are abstracted portraits of everyday life. Her colors are soft and creamy with pleasing contrasts. Though her paintings often contain a single figure, the exhibition presents a new large work, Same Coin, with twin figures seated in a garden landscape merging contours of the land with the shapes of a human form.

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Depth Of The Surface

By Marianne Rogoff

Painter Melinda Cootsona chose the title “A Sense of Place” for her September 2013 show at [NAME OF GALLERY] long before “Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years” opened at San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum and art historians launched a series of lectures on his sense of place, though perhaps this is no coincidence. Cootsona expresses a clear love for the work of Diebenkorn and shares his figurative/abstract aesthetic and love of color. The paintings in Cootsona’s newest body of works offer similarly sensuous appreciation for the particular pleasures of California sunlight, but the “sense of place” she depicts may reflect a more psychological definition of the concept. Her figures appear in varying poses of contemplation, reflection, relaxation, and repose, and fill most of the space. The distinction between “place” and “space” is found when the vastness of space is delineated as a particular place, when a marked-off space assumes an identity, whether due to its geography, geology, culture, demographics, or history. Cootsona’s compositions invite viewers to discover their own delineations within the psychic territory she outlines. Through generous applications of paint and numerous layers of shapes, colors, and shadows that move around on the canvas as she works, the artist provides ample room for us to enter the mind-states of her deep-in-thought figures.

“Hissing of Summer Lawns” is one of these paintings, and this is also the title of a 1975 album of songs by Joni Mitchell. Though Mitchell is a Canadian songwriter, she is as associated with California culture as members of the Bay Area Figurative Movement such as Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Nathan Oliveira, and Joan Brown. Cootsona’s soft/bright color palette evokes the mood of what is so achingly sweet about summertime and summer lawns, and perhaps a bit of nostalgia for Diebenkorn’s Berkeley years (1953-1966), Joni Mitchell’s ‘70s, or the artist’s own years studying fine art at California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC, now CCA) in Oakland (BFA 1981). Nostalgia may be defined as a longing for something that never existed, however, and Mitchell’s song keeps repeating the word darkness, “with a joyful mask,” “no color no contrast.” In Cootsona’s painting, the “hissing” in the title, the dark geometries of corners, and the way the figure leans into whatever is on her mind push us toward our own depths of thought and a spectrum of memories as well. The longest days, hot summer nights, and entire eras pass, at times not fast enough, at others all too quickly. “Hissing of Summer Lawns” invites a moment of pause and observation that is reminiscent of Degas’ seated women and Rodin’s thinking sculptures, not so much in style of execution as in psychological tone.

The vaguely drawn twin faces in Cootsona’s “Mirror” and “Same Coin” ask us to consider what we see (and fail to see) when we look at (or think about) our self, in relation to itself, and in relation to another. Same coin? Two sides? Only two? Hermann Hesse’s mid-20th-century psychological novel Steppenwolf uses repeating images of mirrors to suggest there are many aspects to this place called self. Apparently, we are only able to “individuate” (Jung’s term) in relationship with others, who also carry mirrors reflecting shifting images, their own and ours. Like most of the figures in Cootsona’s large canvases here, the Steppenwolf character is a loner. His preoccupation with his own psyche fills up most of the space in the book just as the figures do in these compositions. A mirror might be used as an image of infinite space, but in “Mirror” the frame cuts this possibility off. Instead of looking into the clarity of what we might see when we look into our own eyes in a mirror, the figure’s back is against it, not looking into it, lost in thought, looking at what, we do not know.

Steppenwolf finds his way to renewal through a series of interactions: with a male jazz musician, a female guide, and “the Immortals,” great artists from the past like Mozart and Goethe. Cootsona describes her painting process as building up layers then scraping away paint. “These layers of color, shape, and line become both hidden and revealed as they evolve into the final image,” she says. In much the same way, aspects of who we are get built up over time then scraped away; are hidden, then revealed again as we encounter new people, landscapes, and experiences that add up to define our psychic sense of place. The artist’s process is intentional, to leave us “always with underlying layers and depth to be discovered.” The surface is not the whole story of what’s there.


Marianne Rogoff, PhD, teaches Writing & Literature at California College of the Arts.


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