Knoxville, Tennessee-based painter Eleanor Aldrich’s new exhibition at Channel to Channel Gallery in Nashville is one of the boldest and most intense painting exhibitions I’ve seen this year. These are spectacularly gooey works that revel in their own painted surfaces. Aldrich’s figures are revealed in thick, frosting-like curves and striated textures that imply abstract limbs and torsos. The overall effect is less fleshy and more abstract than Lucian Freud, but the obscured faces here remind me of Francis Bacon’s sense of mute existential agony. There’s even a hooded figure here that recalls Philip Guston. But Aldrich’s work is also full of vibrant colors, light, and shiny surfaces—Aldrich mixes her oil paints with caulk. These qualities and techniques bring a plastic artificiality to these works that makes them feel thoroughly contemporary.
Teen Angst, the show’s signature image, pictures a figure sitting on the ground. Similarly seated figures recur throughout the small exhibition of less than a dozen works in the cozy Channel to Channel space. The figure appears to be a man sitting cross-legged. It’s hard to make out too many details, but the figure almost appears to have his arms tied behind his back. The bright white that defines the figure’s chest and shoulders could easily be interpreted as a straitjacket. The face is obscured by long strands of blond hair and a meaty, red succession of striated curves that make it look as if the figure’s face is melting. It’s a little gross and disturbing, but the figure is floating in what looks like a magnificent cobalt sky. Rays of color radiate from behind it, and a design you might find in Eastern textiles takes shape in the lower corners of the canvas. It’s cosmic, psychedelic and visionary.
Red Poncho recalls Francis Bacon—the figure’s face is rendered in a rectangle of brown paint. The face is made even more strange by the fact that the rest of the figure is depicted more realistically than the figure in Teen Angst. It’s the background here that’s fully given over to abstraction: mark-making, layers of painting that are scraped away, and a colorful kind of chaos that ultimately doesn’t work as well as the more recognizable elements in the background of Teen Angst.
Some of the works here eschew figures for pure shapes or forms. Generally these are less successful than the eye-grabbing figurative works, but Painting Stack with God’s Eye is one of the most memorable pieces in the show. This aptly-titled work is literally a stack of small painted canvases topped by a God’s Eye-style handiwork rendered in paint and silicone instead of wooden sticks and yarn. It’s the most sculptural work in this show of textured surfaces, and the logical end of what appears to be Aldrich’s obsession with her viscous, shiny medium, regardless of her subject. The Ojo de Dios is usually created with wooden sticks tied together with multi-colored woven yarn. It finds its roots as an ancient contemplative object in the spiritual practices of may indigenous peoples of the Americas and may have originated in the complex religious rituals of the ancient Pueblo peoples. These objects may have been given to bless a household—a decorative object that symbolized the omniscient providence of God. The Ojo was also considered to be able to see the invisible and the unknowable, and the weaving process might take on a meditative or even divinatory context depending on the weaver and the ritual. In an art gallery an Ojo de Dios made out of gobs of paint seems like a painterly send-up of Lacan’s writings about “the gaze.” It’s an inside joke that finds Aldrich gazing back at her viewers with an all-seeing eye of her own.
“Eleanor Aldrich: The Denisovans” will be on view at Channel to Channel in Nashville, Tennessee, through September 22.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist, and intermedia artist in Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.