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In nautical terminology, to “sound” is to measure the deep sea. Sounding, which dates back to the 19th century, was the first method of reaching beyond what the sun allowed us to see, in order to study the ocean floor. Today, echo sounding allows researchers to visualize vast bodies of water with corresponding colors — warm shades of red, orange, and yellow for shallows, and dark greens, blues, and purples to connote the depths.
Ragna Bley, a Swedish painter based in Norway, works entirely on her studio floor, pouring gallons of thinned paint onto primed sailcloth. Much like the late Helen Frankenthaler, who treated the seas of Cape Cod as her muses, Bley uses vibrant hues of the natural world to measure emotional depths. Her latest exhibition at Downs & Ross, appropriately titled Soundings, finds Bley affixing these studies to the Lower East Side gallery’s walls.
In “Čir-čir, Audra” (2020), a wave rises from a dark green base to a royal-blue crest, a throughline of orange paint defining its arc. The artist’s subtle gestures intersect with sprawling stains, imitating the sea’s fluid motion. Between the gallery’s two rooms, the blood-red “Circadian” (2020) is displayed on a partition, meaning viewers must encounter it in close proximity. Like stages of growth, three figures expand across the long frame, feeling almost life-size, with each stage becoming thinner and brighter.
Stylistically, these paintings are all very consistent, but each work plays different tricks on the eye. Thin pastels foreground a glorious curved rainbow in “Pile” (2020), which appears to sparkle due to the folds of paint left by Bley’s scraper. “Whole Current” (2020), a deep cavern in purple and red exerts a sense of dominance, menacing like molten rock. Its darkness seems to have a logic, though, with very thin linework bringing out dimensions in the layers.
In the exhibition’s press release, Norwegian art critic Maria Horvei emphasizes Bley’s “considerations on the deepest foundations of all living things, as well as on phenomena on the very outskirts of human reach.” Science and science fiction both inform her practice. Equally intuitive and cerebral, Bley’s paintings redirect a time-honored form of abstraction away from an auteur mentality and into a more communal, cosmic unknowing.
Ragna Bley: Soundings continues through March 6 at Downs & Ross (96 Bowery, 2nd Fl, Chinatown, Manhattan).