After painting with acrylic pigment and binders for the past few years, I recently returned to oil, mostly because I like the way oils darken and age over time. Working with oil paints involves forethought about layering, drying, and mixing mediums—even the brand of paint can make a difference in the stability of the surface over time. Centuries ago, artists were a bit like chemists, mixing secret recipes for binders and varnishes that least would affect the lightfast quality of their pigments and the surfaces of their canvases. Joan Waltemath, who has a handsome show of abstract paintings on view at Hionas this month, is something of a throwback to those times, grinding her own pigments, experimenting with minerals, concocting mediums, and undertaking other painting-related investigations. The resulting paintings are elegant and spare in terms of imagery, which is based on mathematically-generated harmonic grids, but rich and complex with respect to surface and color. I wonder how the subtle relationships she coaxes from her materials will change over time.
The biggest surprise of the exhibition is the inclusion of several small
pieces, made of canvas and black fabric rectangles, roughly sewn in
When I asked Waltemath about these curious canvases, she told me that they were made from remnants of The Treaty of 1868, a project that involves a series of 16-foot sewn canvases that she has been working on in Nebraska since 2009. Through the project, which was funded by a 2012 Creative Capital grant, Waltemath hopes to reconcile her intellectual approach to abstract painting with her involvement in the sacred ceremonies of the Plains Indian tribes.
I asked if the small sewn pieces might be studies for new paintings. “I see them as autonomous works,” she wrote in an email. “Because all the harmonic proportions are being cut from these large rolls of canvas, the left-overs have this interesting random set of relationships that I find in keeping with my other work. Obviously it’s fun to make something quick and easy that comes together more or less effortlessly. While I am sewing the big pieces, which each take about two weeks to make, I keep all the left-over pieces laid out and when two dimensions coincide, I sew them together. That way they come together in a totally random way.”
For Waltemath, whose paintings and graphite drawings (on view at Schema in 2013) can take days, months, or even years to complete, the new pieces seem to signal a less fastidious approach in which speed and chance might take precedence over deliberation and order. Looking closely at the paintings in the exhibition, I spotted a few drips and rough edges in Waltemath’s otherwise immaculate surfaces. Perhaps the sewn pieces are already affecting her pristine aesthetic.
The future? On Waltemath’s website I found “Forays” (above) a 2014 series of work-on-paper that has a loose, lively feel. According to Waltemath, the series is part of The Treaty of 1868 project. Like maps of a skirmish, the drawings result when “distinct and different orders/systems begin to engage.” Details for image above: Joan Waltemath, Foray, 2014, pencil, egg tempera, casein, gouache, flasche, metallic gouache, colored pencil, oil pastel, conté crayon on handmade linen paper, 25 x 29 inches.
“Joan Waltemath: one does not negate the other,” Hionas, LES, New York, NY. Through March 14, 2015.
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