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As much as Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s paintings are about the trees she sees from her studio window in Washingtonville, New York, they are also, just as importantly, not about them. Let’s begin with that paradox, because what I think gets neglected in our estimations of this wonderful painter is the artifice she incorporates into her work. In fact, she incorporates artifice so seamlessly we are apt not notice it, and that is one of the many joys of these understated paintings.
I thought again about this paradox when Emma, who works behind Alexander and Bonin’s front desk, said that she could tell by the faces of visitors as they entered the gallery, that Plimack Mangold’s work induced in them a feeling of serenity. In this age of turmoil, something that can calm us down and allow us to reflect on an experience as simple and plain as maples leaves or bare branches in gray winter light is to be treasured.
Maple leaves and rising branches continue to be artist’s focus in her exhibition of paintings, watercolors, and drawings, Sylvia Plimack Mangold: Summer and Winter, (May 2 – June 24, 2017) at Alexander and Bonin’s new, spacious digs in Tribeca. One could say the leaves are irregular forms or planar shapes that crowd the painting’s picture plane. Each maple leaf is a distinctive hue, adding up to a profusion of similar but individual forms that nearly blanket the surface. Their relationship to the picture plane is always specific: some are parallel to it, while others are at a sharp angle. Nothing seems to be repeated, meaning each thing had to have been seen for itself, without schematizing or generalization. Moreover, each leaf defines its own space. Their constantly changing orientation activates the painting’s surface.
Sunlight falls on some of the leaves, while others are in the shade. The artist seems to move back and forth between delineated shapes and smears of paint, with some leaves incorporating both pictorial possibilities. This perceptual disjunction forces us never to lose sight of the fact that we are scrutinizing a painting, which takes as its subject something that we are not likely ever to stop and look at in our daily lives: layers of leaves midway up a maple tree on a summer day. This is where the artifice comes in. We have been given a direct, if cropped, view of the midsection of a tree from an unspecified height. In some profound sense, we cannot get closer to the subject, because to do so would transform it into something more generalized and abstract; nor can we step back and see the whole thing, due to the cropping, a view that is deliberately not picturesque.
I cannot think of another artist devoted to nature who chooses such unlikely, decidedly plain, almost unsightly views, but never makes that act the point of the painting. This is another one of the paintings’ paradoxes: we are looking at leaves, but not innocently. There is nothing seductive about the colors, the shapes, or the view, but I stand before each work, entranced. Maybe it is because I have lived in cities all my life, but I believe that I have looked longer at one of Plimack Mangold’s paintings of maple leaves than I have spent time contemplating the real thing.
In “Summer Maple Detail” (2014), Plimack Mangold brings us even closer to the tree, clustering together many different but related hues of green. In some places, you see where she has scraped the surface. We are in a zone where the difference between representation and abstraction is beside the point: we might as well be figuring out how many angels have gathered on the head of a pin. The painting is simultaneously calm and agitated. She has brought us to that phase of intense, concentrated looking, where forms appear to be changing before our eyes, where seeing loses contact with the verbal. The artist gives us a way to lose ourselves in something all of us know. This is what Emma meant by serenity.
So far, I have written only about the works in the front room of the gallery, as I was in no hurry to leave them. In the second room, beyond the desk, we find the artist’s winter views: bare branches rising from the bottom edge to touch the top: another cropped view. The bare branches closest to the picture plane in “Winter Maple 2017” (2017) are painted in different hues of gray. The ones further back are faint lines of paint on the cusp of dissolving into the wintry blue-gray sky. Form giving way to light, not as a comment about the transcendent, but as a fact of observation; we cannot see it all. The views are cropped, not panoramic. We do not own the earth.
In each of Plimack Mangold’s winter paintings, the sky is a distinct hue. Her blues are ones that Brice Marden would devote whole panels to, as in his nine panel, “Ru Ware Project” (2007-2012). Perhaps we should be paying more attention to Plimack Mangold as a colorist whose sensitivity to tonality and hue is always at the service of observation and the possibilities of paint.
Nearby, the three graphite and watercolors of the same pin oak were all done in August 2015. In each of them, the artist returns to the same view at that point in the season when the leaves are turning yellow and many have fallen. By returning to the same motif and rendering what she is looking at — the ever-changing leaves — she marks time without calling attention to it. The plainness of her subject, the interest in observation that is inseparable from artifice (as evidenced by the framing of her subject) is about attention, a kind of devotion to the ordinary that we rarely encounter in this world.
I don’t think it is too much to say there is something extraordinary about what Plimack Mangold does, and has been doing throughout her career. Her celebrations of the immediate, sensuous world are always directed towards the elemental: leaves, branches, sky, light and air. Her clarity of purpose and singular, quiet insistence on dealing with such mundane things call to mind the plainspoken directness of the great American poet William Carlos Williams. Her unadorned and humble subjects possess a rare grace in this world of expensive overproduction and self-declaimed greatness.
Sylvia Plimack Mangold: Summer and Winter continues at Alexander and Bonin (47 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through June 24.