Art Review — Melinda Stickney-Gibson: Laughing, Growling, and Chirping in Paint by Diane Thodos

Melinda Stickney-Gibson: Laughing, Growling, and Chirping in Paint
Thomas Masters Gallery
November 5 – 29, 2010

The Modernist inventions of Abstract Expressionism have gradually faded from the contemporary art mainstream, ever since the ascendency of Pop art, Minimalism and conceptual art in the 1960’s. For nearly half a century Postmodernism, with its subversion of subjectivity and its endless thirst for irony, has become like watching clothes tumbling around in a washing machine. Postmodernism has spun, rewashed and endlessly recycled appropriations of past art, especially neo-Dadaist art, while emphasizing a fascination with technological media. Very little outside of these spectacles has made its way onto the pages of Artforum magazine.

Yet occasionally one can find artists who have somehow kept parts of Abstract Expressionist language alive and invented a vocabulary for themselves from it. Melinda Stickney-Gibson’s works appeal and surprise with a kind of sincerity that does not harden into ironic betrayal. Her brush strokes and painterliness are refreshingly frank and unapologetic in a time when expressionism has not made an appearance since artists like Georg Baselitz and Susan Rothenberg were exhibiting in the 1980’s.

This artistic lexicon that enraptures her work comes from many sources. Sometimes she scribbles a large bundle of lines that twang across the surfaces of her canvases in a seeming homage to the works of Joan Mitchell. There is something inspired by Susan Rothenberg and Philip Guston in the painting Growl which presents an awkwardly scumbled cinder-grey rectangle backed by a threatening patch of red on a white field. There are shades of Cy Twombly in the painting Giggle, with its spontaneous graffiti scrawled into a thick custard of white paint. Then there is a shadow of Franz Klein’s sumi-e ink brushwork in the grand and loopy automatist gesture that skirts the bottom of Gibson’s large painting Dreaming, Listening. The many “weathers” of texture in these fields of off white paint (and bare canvas) are more free and spontaneous than those of Robert Ryman’s minimalist painted “zones.” Yet the centerpiece of Gibson’s purpose remains the expression of mood, not Abstract Expressionism as a “style.”. The groundwork of each painting is rich and multi layered in unpredictable ways. A rusty dirt brown is besieged by a field of clotted white gestures in the painting SSSSSHHH while in My Silences a red grid peeps out from behind a yellow-white fog with a kind of mute austerity. Canvases which evoke darker moods overshadow the white fields in deep, muddy tones, while more lighthearted feelings become playful gestures that dance and glow on the sea of white paint. Gibson’s layers of paint add up to a diary of feelings that settle on some engagement or battle within the field of white. Each stakes out its unique emotional instincts with unpredictability in an abstract shorthand of her own invention.

Gibson’s titles also occasionally allude to differences between male and female consciousness – as with the title of her large painting For The Girls. Sexual tension vibrates in the painting Boy Story where the eggshell white surface is almost completely covered in a curtain of four angular red brushstrokes that seem to signal both seductive power and danger. There is a distinct whimsy in many of the painting titles which are as poetic and surprising as the brushwork. There is laughter lurking behind a giant brown cloud of woven brushstrokes humorously titled The Crashing Maybes. Gibson also understands how to create space not only through value and color differences, but also through the subtle play of texture. The painting Falling Down masterfully plays shiny surfaces off of flat, and heavily painted areas against thin. There is a richness to these textures that cannot be photographed and which gives an uncanny physical satisfaction in the presence of the work.

Rothko, Guston, Klein, Rothenberg, Mitchell and Twombly are all artists whose work offers traditions which were meant to be built on – and build from these Gibson certainly does well, fusing influence into unique subjective invention. Barnett Newman had once commented that here was never really such a thing as an Abstract Expressionist “style” and the art writer E.C. Goossen had once said the movement might well have been called “Abstract Individualism”(1)– a description which fits Melinda Stickney-Gibson’s work very well. It is a good time to reconsider the tradition of abstraction which Kandinsky had instigated – how improvisation is directed by “inner necessity” – a practice which Gibson keeps alive and well through the many surprising poetic moods of her painted surfaces.

1. E.C. Goossen, “Rothko: The Omnibus Image,” Art News, January 1961, p. 38

Diane Thodos is and artist and art critic who lives in Evanston, IL. She will be exhibiting at the Kouros Gallery in New York City in 2011 and is represented by the Paule Friedman & Alex Rivault Gallery in Paris, the Traeger/Pinto Gallery in Mexico City, and the Thomas Masters Gallery in Chicago.

Growl, 45″ x 49″, Oil on Canvas

Falling Down, 45″ x 49″. Oil on Canvas

Giggle, 26″ x 24″. Oil on Canvas

My Silences, 45″ x 49″, Oil on Canvas

SSSSSHHH, 45″ x 49″, Oil on Canvas

Top image: Dreaming, Listening, 73″ x 91″, Oil on Canvas