Patricia Satterlee | ATOMIC, the new exhibition at Frosch&Portmann on the Lower East Side, is the painter’s first solo outing in Manhattan since an installation at the Kitchen in 1996.
I have written about two of Satterlee’s prior exhibitions, a 2014 three-artist show at Valentine in Ridgewood, Queens, where she shared the space with the sculptors David Henderson and Jude Tallichet, and Already Gone, a 2017 solo at the Martin Art Gallery of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which was later featured at Gold/scopophilia in Montclair, New Jersey.
Compared to the symphonic dimensions of her larger-scaled series, in particular the five- and six-foot-tall paintings of Already Gone, the 17 works comprising ATOMIC (which measure 14.25 by 10 inches and 12.5 by 11.75 inches) make up a kind of chamber suite, but with no less rigor, invention, or breadth of ambition.
The central motif is a wing-like shape connected via a narrow conduit, or neck, to a larger, blunter form that could be read as a mountain or a torso. In every picture, this configuration is isolated, like a cutout, against a milky, monochromatic, greenish-gray field. Within these constraints, just about anything can happen.
Satterlee has been painting exclusively with the water-soluble, vinyl-based medium Flashe for years, achieving an unmatched mastery over its matte surfaces, lush textures, and densely pigmented pentimenti. Often she works up an image over the course of the day only to wash it off at night, leaving ghostly shapes and tattered ribbons of color behind. The next day she starts again, riffing and changing until something fresh emerges.
It is also worth mentioning that Satterlee’s series are all distinctly different from each other despite some consistent family traits: painted lines; flat planes; simplified shapes; mottled, jewel-like colors. The ATOMIC paintings’ character is marked by the prominence given to the eroded layers of color, which played secondary roles in previous series (filling minor shapes or surrounding fields), but here saturate the majority of the motifs.
The suite is composed of three sections, or movements, individuated predominantly through color: the acid-raked reds, greens, blacks, and ochers of “atomic 01” to “atomic 04” (all works are dated 2019, titled in lowercase and numbered), followed by the liquid blue swipes and mossy stains of numbers 05 to 09, and the verdant greens that spread across 10 though 17, forcing out lingering remnants of contrasting hues.
The pigments of the third movement feel thicker and drier, more landscape-like, and the configurations of shapes become much more varied, as if the deeper the artist ventured into the series, the more multifarious her vision became.
While I’ve described one of the series’ central elements as resembling a wing (which is sometimes doubled), it also mimics a volcanic eruption or, apropos the title, a stylized mushroom cloud. This latter reference vibrates with resonances both peculiar and dire — a once-and-future existential threat embodying the absurdity of global calamity — absurd because it is human-made, preventable, and, without constant vigilance, inevitable.
It is always problematic to extract extra-visual meanings from abstract art, and it is especially so with Satterlee’s fundamentally intuitive and improvisational work. Yet it can also be argued that the gut-level response demanded by her shapes, colors, and textures opens the door, through feeling alone, to multiple interpretations that speak to our moment, without any one association overwhelming the rest.
The three discrete parts that make up ATOMIC can be read — again like movements in music — as an emotional journey of conflict and resolution, one that embraces the duality of “atomic,” the ultimate destroyer and life-giver.
The first movement is the most dissonant, with greens, ochers, and bloody reds clanging against each other as chain-link patterns emerge from soot-black fissures, evoking news images of Guantanamo Bay and children in cages on the border.
The second section is perhaps even more disquieting, despite the sublimity of its colors; scarred with biomorphic forms evocative of sandstone fossils (a chain-link fence makes an appearance as well), it could be read as intimating the ecological collapse of the ocean, a view made more convincing by “atomic 07,” with its right side seeming to dissipate or petrify, followed by “atomic 08,” moss-streaked, devoid of blue, and bone-dry.
But in “atomic 08,” another transformation also takes place: the faintly delineated fossils of the preceding images are suddenly presented as fully drawn organisms, which migrate into “atomic 09” and metamorphose into spores floating amid atmospheric swaths of delicate greens and sunset rusts. The rough scarification of the surface is gone, and a sensation of deliverance suffuses the image.
This feeling of liberation continues into the third group, where stippled patches of red, ocher, blue, gray, and ivory give way to earthy greens, a progression that attains a sense of resolution in “atomic 15” — a flat, forest-green plane adorned with a meandering yellow-green line — before 16 and 17 usher in new forms of complexity. Moreover, the shapes themselves mutate and warp, with the mushroom cloud cleaved in half in some, and expanding, mountain-like, in others.
In the section’s first two panels, “atomic 10” and “atomic 11,” an additional shape appears in the monochrome sky, unsettling the composition in 10 but stabilizing it in 11. This small variation underscores Satterlee’s willingness to abandon previously set terms of engagement, and surrender to the freedom of her imagination.
With its disciplined inclusiveness, Satterlee’s practice plays across the realm of “both/and” rather than “either/or” — an intellectually focused, materials-based abstraction rooted in observation, emotion, and experience — in which her images achieve a feeling a rightness that transcends closed systems and linear logic.
The exquisitely ravaged expanses of ATOMIC can be received as more than a warning siren, but as a metaphor of the irreparable damage already done. They place us on a knife’s edge, yet it is exhilarating to be there. The formal dynamics of the images, embedded in the mutating colors, shapes, and textures, pitch us to and fro between painterly apparitions of heaven and hell, until the final movement, a topography in green, pulls us back to earth, where we will have to find a way out.
Patricia Satterlee | ATOMIC continues at Frosch&Portmann (53 Stanton Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 12, 2020.