One of my favorite sensations is the rush of fresh air against my face when I roll down the window after a long-distance drive, taking in the scent and temperature of my destination. That atmospheric pressure change is similarly captured in a recent series of paintings by Elizabeth Hazan, on view at Johannes Vogt Gallery in Manhattan. Heat Wave, the artist’s first exhibition with the gallery, is an ambitious exploration of the themes of landscape, memory, and anticipated loss.
The paintings (all 2019) evolved from Hazan’s previous considerations of how digital earth-mapping devices have impacted — indeed distorted — our perceptions. The exhibition title sounds a low-volume alarm at the increasingly severe effects of climate change while prompting us to consider the artist’s reconstructed experiences of atmosphere, weather, and geography.
Primarily vertical, Hazan’s abstract paintings are unified by a deceptively simple compositional strategy in which the canvas is divided into loose zones of color. Viewing the works conjures a feeling of being inside the cockpit of a small aircraft, descending for a landing. Close enough to see the roads and land parcels, you are too far away to make out buildings or people. Then you swoop upward, turning 180 degrees. There now is the horizon, compressing colored areas that could be pools in (Joni Mitchell’s) squinting sun, ball-fields, the Montauk Highway.
Her semi-abstract paintings are filled with loosely bounded shapes that sit still against or jump in front of one another. They evoke Janice Biala’s still lifes of the early 1950s or Jean Hélion’s abstract compositions of the 1930s. This is the case in “Field #86,” with its sophisticated mixtures of shell pink, ochre, and gray. Hazy shapes suggest areas of a map that we cannot see, or street grids that incrementally download as we await directions from our smartphones.
Hazan noted in an email conversation the influence of Arshile Gorky’s early 1940s landscapes, which encouraged her “to allow a ground plane in front of the picture to move to a vertical sky plane at back and let the lines explore the space without fixed separations.” Gorky is also evident in Hazan’s techniques for creating surface textures that range from transparent stains that reveal the weave of the canvas to silky, brushed lines of semi-opaque oils that reflect light with a lustrous glow.
“The Forest at 2 am” is a somber, frightening painting. The wildfires that devastated Northern California in 2018 — and become more frequent every year due to climate change — come to mind as I study the charred central mass of green-tinged black. Flame yellow, phosphorescent orange, and purple shoot through this forest or ash crater. “Superbloom” is a verdant foil to this work. A superbloom is a rare botanical phenomenon in which an unusually high proportion of desert wildflowers germinate and blossom simultaneously. This occurs after severe droughts, when the lack of moister kills invasive grasses that can suppress wildflowers. Hazan represents the yellows of brittlebush, bright orange of California poppies, and the purple of lupines.
The migraine-inducing florescent pink of the sky in “July” evokes the hissing heat of the summer lawns. Hazan employs wide swaths of color that might have, in previous decades, found their way into the paintings of Hazan’s mother, Jane Freilicher (1924–2014), but these would never be allowed so much real estate on Freilicher’s canvases.
“East of the Fields” introduces more radiant hues but is compositionally unresolved. A burnt orange dromedary shape that is handled with a scumbled surface creates a puzzling dissonance. Yet the meandering lines and switchbacks express a sense of nostalgia for running through secret fields as a child — a memory that becomes more poignant now that this landscape is so overpopulated with gigantic estates and exclusive wealth on Long Island’s East End, where Hazan’s parents (both artists) had a summer house.
As global warming intensifies, the loss of our wild, undeveloped lands and natural ecosystems has been represented literally and poetically in the works of many contemporary artists. In Heat Wave, Elizabeth Hazan responds to this crisis metaphorically by making paintings about temperature — the degree of heat present in a substance or the atmosphere — a phenomenon that we feel incrementally and dramatically in the body. Ultimately, Hazan’s paintings draw us back toward an intimacy with the physical world and restore the body’s capacity to remember the persistent freshness and fury of the earth.
Elizabeth Hazan: Heat Wave continues at Johannes Vogt Gallery (958 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 5.