ALLENTOWN, Pennsylvania — Patricia Satterlee is a superb painter whose work hasn’t quite achieved the level of visibility it deserves. And so it was worth a trip to Allentown to catch her five large paintings now on display at the Martin Art Gallery of Muhlenberg College.
The exhibition space, housed inside the college’s Philip Johnson-designed Center for the Arts, is configured for maximum public exposure, spread across angled white brick walls facing a wide, skylit corridor. But the arrangement also requires that the artwork be hung fairly high, which prevents a close reading of Satterlee’s beguiling painterly details and lushly matte surfaces.
This is an obstacle, but it hardly detracts from the paintings’ magnetism. Satterlee uses Flashe, a water-based vinyl paint, with virtuosic skill — soaking, scraping, and sanding it through multiple applications on panel-backed linen. Despite the labor that goes into these paintings, their imagery remains clean, simple, and fresh, with clearly articulated forms against shimmering fields of stains and abrasions.
For the categorically minded, Satterlee’s canvases are an unbroken string of contradictions: abstract and representational; painterly and linear; graphic and colorist; biomorphic and geometric; formalist and Pop. The exhibition is called Already Gone, and each of the five paintings bear that title along with a number. In “Already Gone 04” (2016), which opens the exhibition, the composition is divided into three horizontal sections. The top tier consists of a pair of identical silhouettes in the shape of an urn against a pink field. The middle is a slate-gray band covered in off-white curves evocative of churning waves, and beneath them, smeared black forms poke their heads up from the bottom edge like stylized snakes.
If anything, Satterlee’s art rewards slow looking. The silhouettes at the top of the painting, like the horizontal band behind the black snakes, appear to be raw linen, but after a while you realize that the urns are tinted green: the one on the left is fully pigmented while on the right, the color rises only about two-thirds of the way up, where it gives way to a more canvas-like ecru. The full/not full pairing is an intuitive leap, one of many throughout the show (the artist’s decisions governing the choice and hierarchy of forms can seem all but inscrutable), but it is also a compositional masterstroke, subtly wrecking the symmetry of the two shapes and unbalancing an otherwise too-stable structure.
Soon you’ll notice two short, wriggling black lines adjoining the base of the urns and the upper border of the slate-gray field. An inch or so beneath them, a long, wriggling white line traverses nearly the breadth of the canvas. The inclusion of the lines is curious but not whimsical, an injection of the absurd that helps unlock the hidden-in-plain-sight illogic of the composition, in which a straightforward, three-part construction is assembled not as a vehicle for cohesion, but as a cluster of antagonists in forced detente.
The top portion, with its pink field and green tints, is painted with a flat, poster-like rigidity, while the undulating curves in the middle increase in size as they reach the band’s bottom edge, creating a pictorially dissonant, perspectival illusion of receding space. Beneath them, denatured shapes squirm across the narrow, blackened linen like minimalist reductions of damned souls in hell.
The composition, therefore, quickly slips from the grandeur of the impassive, Apollonian urns into a stylized, rippling sea before its charred descent into the irrational. And yet, at first glance, everything looks poised and formal, if a little off-kilter. The disruption is in the details.
“Already Gone 04” is the only painting of the five that is demarcated so schematically. In the others, figures float across the ground as if they were underwater or in outer space. In the three odd-numbered canvases (“Already Gone 01,” 2014; “Already Gone 03,” 2015; “Already Gone 05,” 2016), the action takes place against a turquoise field. “Already Gone 01” features another urn, or perhaps more precisely a stele, with a rounded, four-thumbed top, a motif that belongs to a group of works Satterlee made in 2012 under the collective title Gloria. A second Gloria, lacking a base and tipped on its side, rests on a rotated kettle-like shape on the left.
Gloria is one of the many recurrent elements that make their way from painting to painting, transferred from dozens of drawings the artist keeps for that purpose. These forms — a love knot; a humanoid blob; a circle divided into facets of black, white, and gray — create continuity across Satterlee’s body of work, but they also undermine precious Western notions of painting as a unique object. And yet they depart from Andy Warhol’s adoption of silkscreen techniques, which had similar motives, in that her repetitions are entirely hand-wrought, a small but crucial distinction that shifts their agency from the mechanical to the tactile. They are less signs or symbols than characters returning to the stage, or snatches of melody woven through the movements of a string quartet.
These forms are limitlessly varied and undeniably strange: the stylized trunk and branches of a black, white, red, and brown tree dematerialize into a network of ghostly white strokes barely grazing the canvas (“Already Gone 03”); another tree, this time green and leafy, rising above a patch of grass (“Already Gone 02,” 2014), floats across a mottled turquoise-and-ochre expanse like the island in the last scene of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972); elsewhere, two stacked composites jam together an incompatible mix of linear, painterly, and solidly colored shapes, with the one on the left resembling a cartoonish water-bearer, and the one on the right sprouting a set of mutated Glorias in orange and pink (“Already Gone 05”).
Satterlee puts these motifs through their formal paces — rotating and mirroring them; reducing them to line; casting them into shadows; locking them into patterns and then clouding them over with mists of color — and in the process convinces us of their efficacy. Shapes that might have initially appeared to be simultaneously incongruous and anomalous, the phrasings of a private, hermetic vocabulary, are in fact adaptable and resilient combinatory forms transferable across new painterly contexts and new strings of ideas.
Satterlee’s paintings, having eluded the categorical distributions of abstract art, are ultimately couched in their own terms, a syntax that can feel a step outside the precincts of language. Their domains of pigment, shape, line, and support, with a common currency and open borders, are stubbornly “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself” — to cite the title of one of Wallace Stevens’ most famous poems — with the purity, complexity, and silence that “the Thing itself” suggests.
Patricia Satterlee: Already Gone continues at the Martin Art Gallery of Muhlenberg College (2400 Chew Street, Allentown, Pennsylvania) through May 26.