Contributed by Sharon Butler / Cathy Quinlan, whose terrific new paintings and drawings are on view at Centotto in Bushwick, is old-fashioned. Instead of snapping images of paintings at galleries, she takes out her sketchbook and draws them, then posts them in “The Pencil Review,” a column at Talking Pictures, her blog that “explores, comments, and critiques” (usually about painting). Sometimes she writes casual responses to shows she sees around town. I particularly enjoyed her recent take on “A Time Before We Were Born: Visions of Arcadia in Contemporary Painting,” a big group show Raphael Rubinstein curated at the Sylvia Wald and Po Kim Gallery, in part because it explains how she arrived at her new work. In the piece, Quinlan meditates on the idea of Arcadia:
Do we still dream of Arcadia? A secluded pastoral idyll, idly herding goats and playing the pipes invented by Pan—and Arcadia invented Pan (really). We could frolic with the fauns and the nymphs in an unspoiled mountain forest. In Arcadia, life is so delightful that greed and jealousy simply fall away.
I seem to hear you asking if there is cell phone service, Wi-Fi, healthcare and whether a faun and a nymph can afford college for offspring. And say we gaily went, a band of poor dreamers willing to give up all that, how long would it last these days? One of two things would happen. Either some essential mineral would be found and the mountains strip-mined, or the elite would helicopter in and find it “authentic and unspoiled” and that would be the end of that.
She writes about several individual paintings in the show that depict suburban landscapes and so forth, assessing them in terms of their visons of Arcadia, and concludes:
Perhaps the best thing, until some grander solution to some or all of the problems of modern life can be found, is to muddle along finding and savoring Arcadian joys where we can.
For Quinlan, one of the finest Arcadian joys has been perceptual painting. For several years, after seeing Morandi’s etchings in his 2008 retrospective at the Met, Quinlan began painting in a distinctive crosshatch style. Traditionally, in black and white ink drawings, cross-hatching is used to build value – the denser the marks, the darker the area appears. Quinlan, however, rendered the crossed lines in values, and later in color, effectively liberating the lines from the heavy lifting of value definition. Using the traditional crosshatching technique in a way that was completely contrary from its original purpose was kind of an inside joke for painters. Quinlan hatched still lifes, clouds, and, for quite a while, she focused on one particular tree in her Bed-Stuy backyard, documenting its changing foliage throughout the seasons.
In conversations with her about painting, I’ve learned that Quinlan values a specific kind of focus – what painter Anne Harris, in a recent lecture at Cuttyhunk Island Artists’ Residency, called finding the zone during the process of painting. No matter how accomplished a painter may be, sometimes the paintings aren’t successful because the painter has failed to find that elusive zone in which she, as Quinlan has said, paints like an angel. When Quinlan doesn’t think her paintings fall into that category, when she doesn’t think they ring true or emanated from this deep place of focus, she throws them away. In fact, the handful on view at Centotto are the only ones Quinlan kept from a larger body of work.
In this series, Quinlan continues to build the paintings through an accumulation of marks, but she begins to let go of crosshatching, adding other types of marks and ultimately embracing a layering strategy comprising shorter, less linear brushstrokes. The images – which range impressively from abstract to landscape to still life to human and animal figures – are not painted from life but rather developed in Quinlan’s imagination, as the marks slowly accumulate on the canvas and suggest subject matter. The strokes are not as small or as precisely placed as Seurat’s pointillist marks, nor as large as the slabs laid down by Monet or Van Gogh, but lie somewhere in between. Longer strokes provide variation, and the new diversity of mark-making adds visual interest and allows for more adventurous color experimentation.
The slow deliberateness of the process seems to suit Quinlan, who has time to think and meditate on each image as the surfaces and colors build. Her sly sense of humor remains evident in the images that emerge, and the process, especially in the final piece Quinlan completed, is more forgiving. This liberating new approach, which shifts focus from the external world to Quinlan’s rich imagination, full of references from years of perceptual drawing both from life and from other paintings, sparks a dose of Arcadian joy.
“Portfolio x Appunti 16: In the Slow, featuring Cathy Quinlan” Centotto, Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY. Opened September 16, 2018. The gallery is open during events and by appointment only, so make sure to check the gallery website before visiting.