Last week I attended the exhibition opening party for “Always Like This,” Caroline Eleanor Absher’s second solo show. The young artist is 23 and has already been featured in fourteen group exhibitions, in addition to “Always Like This” and her first solo show “Home is a Green Dusk.” Absher’s work shows impressive skill and emotional depth for her age. With “Always Like This” she establishes herself strongly in the art world for her vibrant use of color and the way she fuses new spaces between reality and fantasy. Absher’s work is also referential, lending it an intellectual quality that does not go un-noticed by the viewer.
My favorite work is entitled Madonna (2017). Take a look:
What I notice first in this painting is the vivid blue hue of the protagonist’s skin. Different shades color the contours of her face and chest. Darker blue paint pools in the crevices of her eyelids and covers her plump limps. Dashes of baby blue streak across her collarbone and highlight the light dancing across her forehead. The attention paid to the effects of light on shadow suggests a realistic approach to painting, while the use of blue for human skin contradicts that notion. A wonderful, whimsical tension results.
When asked about her decision to color her figures in nontraditional colors, Absher first responded humorously. “Flesh tones are hard to get right with oil,” she remarked. “You have to really get into color theory and the science of light.” But Absher’s decision to paint her women blue was not a way to avoid a step in the art school syllabus. As she experimented with color during her years at the Pratt Institute, she discovered that “unnatural” coloring rendered her figures more powerful. “I do it because I want these women to be every woman,” she explained. Painted blue, Madonna cannot be identified as a particular ethnicity or identity.
I also asked Absher about her inspiration for these paintings. She cited art history references as an important part of her artistic mindset. “Obviously all painting is derivative,” she said, “so I feel empowered by the knowledge of exactly who I am drawing from and why.”
I was particularly moved by this comment. As human beings, we spend our lives reinventing ourselves and forming our identities through the things we do, the things we like…and the art we choose to surround ourselves with. Absher emotes a strong sense of self. She knows her references- Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, and James Ensor, to name a few- and has learned to incorporate what she learned from them into her unique practice.
I instinctively felt the connection to Gaugin in the expressive use of vibrant colors to depict surreal landscapes. Compare Madonna to Gauguin’s Mahana No Atua (Day of the God) (1894). Both works exhibit a manipulation of landscape through color and line. Strange, curving lines divide the water in Gauguin’s painting into yellow and blue shapes resembling puzzle pieces. The trees in Madonna look like giant leaves- their trunks and branches take the form of leaf veins on large, cylindrical plants. Both paintings also have an air of spirituality. Gauguin’s paintings reference polytheistic religions, as he spent time in Tahiti observing (and appropriating, but that is another rant) local cultures. Although Absher and I did not directly discuss religion, it is hard to ignore the pink halos surrounding the orange figures’ heads in Madonna. I would not interpret this as overtly religious, but their presence suggests the supernatural. If that is a stretch, then perhaps it points to the existence of the other. Madonna is neither heaven nor earth, not a reality or a dream. It is a version of now, but somewhere else.
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This brings me to the next point I’d like to make about Absher’s work- the spaces the artist “creates” are really the illustration of something already in existence: our thoughts.
To explain this, I’ll turn to another painting, Peripheries (2017)
Note the ambiguous relationship between the figure in the foreground and the landscape scene behind her. As in Madonna, it is not clear whether she physically inhabits the world of the painting or not. This is because she both does, and doesn’t. The world behind her is very much real, but inside her own head.
“When you think about the act of thinking,” Absher explains, “there’s this sort of plane your words and ideas exist in, a space of some kind… it has a sense of gravity where things can rest on the ground.” It’s fascinating to see an artist’s interpretation of what our minds look like. It’s a topic that has been popularized recently thanks to the Disney movie “Inside Out,” which made human emotions into characters. In Absher’s version of the thought-plane, there is a much darker concept at play. She imagines the cartoonish manipulation of familiar motifs, like people and trees, as a tactic utilized by the brain to “prevent shell shock.” Think for a moment: what would it be like to inhabit our own minds, and realize that their physical worlds don’t follow the laws of physics. What if the space in our minds has no time or gravity? It could be incomprehensible, overwhelming, and self-destructive. And so, motifs that are earth-like root this strange space in a reality similar to our every-day life. “Maybe it makes it easier for us to consider something so abstract as consciousness to give it a physical space to roam,” Absher says. I most definitely agree.
In Peripheries, these earth-like motifs abound. Orange figures are recognized as human only due to an outstretched arm and the division of two lines into legs. A tree is a tree because a brown line with lines extending from it is outlined in lime green paint. The presence of green beneath the feet of these “people” is reassuring, because we subconsciously recognize swaths of green as grass. But this is not a place that you or I will ever visit. It is this particular woman’s internal landscape; the space her brain has created to help her comprehend her own mind.
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Absher’s paintings lend themselves to extensive art historical and theoretical conversation. I could have written pages on the artist’s use of color, her wealth of art history knowledge and its effect on her artistic production, and the manifestations of an internal landscape. Instead, I have tried to express in one post what Absher herself attempted to explain to me. It isn’t easy, after all, to translate something so theoretical into words. Take a moment to gaze at these two paintings and see how they make you feel. Do you sense the other in these works? Does this reverberate in some way in your own thought-plane? Let me know in the comments- I’d love to hear your ideas.
Below is another one of Absher’s paintings- they’re too beautiful to leave you with just two:
Until next time!