Contributed by Sharon Butler / In her second solo show at Freight + Volume, Jennifer Coates presents a series of seemingly playful landscapes that conjure three early abstractionists: Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, and Wassily Kandinsky. The subject matter is a departure from her last exhibitions, which featured expanded images of junk food, painted with exuberant humor and good cheer. According to a recent essay Coates wrote for Bomb, she began painting landscapes while on the rural Pennsylvania property where she spends Thoreauvian summers. She would sit by a pond, listen to nature, observe flora and fauna, and record the absorbing experience in delicate colored-pencil drawings. The drawings became the basis for the paintings, which, like a suite of lullabies, seems intended to calm and comfort in this epoch of overwhelming anxiety.
The paintings capture pastoral scenes, often with a grotto or glowing cleaning at the center of each composition. Like Kandinsky, Coates, who is a musician, is attuned to the relationships between music and visual art, especially the linkage between color harmonies and musical scales. In comparing the paintings to lullabies, then, I am likening Coates’s pastel palette with a genre of music in which a simple melody is repeated in an effort to soothe the weary. Throughout the paintings, such as Spring Trees (2018) and Broken Woods(2018), abstract forms that suggest fragmented tree limbs float on the surface, reminiscent of Mondrian’s early paintings of his favorite flowering apple tree. His tree studies were the foundation for the abstract language he eventually developed in later non-objective paintings. In Coates’ work, however, the floating tree-limb forms, like musical notes, recapitulate her attention to the sounds she hears as she eavesdrops on nature while drawing in the landscape.
At first glance, the paintings convey a sense of joy, in the same way that Paul Klee’s idiosyncratic visual language does. Yet in some, like Bull Spirit(2018) and Small Rabbit Spirit(2018), globs of slathered paint, milky transparencies, and textured underpainting from earlier iterations reveal the psychological depth and complexity of Coates’s endeavor. At the outset, she may have intended to present the carefree absorption she feels while in the country and captures in the small drawings, but to her credit she can’t seem to escape reality. Struggle and worry are evident in the barely hidden missteps and redactions. This is the paradox that makes Coates’s new work so vulnerable and so compelling.
“Jennifer Coates: Correspondences,” Freight + Volume, Lower East Side, New York, NY. Through April 15, 2018.