ITHACA, NY — Though hard to see from afar, longtime New York painter Ellen Weider seems to have carved out a special, albeit modest and surely niche, place for herself in the crowded landscape of the contemporary abstraction. Working mainly on linen and using pronounced graphite lines as well as areas of acrylic, and sometimes gouache, Weider constructs small, unstable toy architectures. Conceived as allegories of the human condition – in particular our emotional and strained relationship to space and confinement – the artist approaches these potentially weighty questions with a welcoming lightness.
For his new solo exhibition at Corners Gallery, “Psychic Geometry” (April 19 – May 28), Weider is displaying 13 modestly sized paintings on linen boards framed behind glass. (Except for one smaller piece, all of which are 16″ x 20″.) This is the first, and hopefully not the last, local presentation of his work.
All but one or two of his paintings stick here to a certain basic structure. On beige and raw linen backgrounds, the artist interposes one or two larger zones, painted unevenly in iridescent pale pink or turquoise which shift according to the angle from which they are approached. Like the “panels” in a comic, these frame a narrative scene – although the narration here is more implicit. Inside these enclosures, vaguely drawn geometric and iconic shapes seem to float, as if in a dreamlike reverie.
As in some pieces by Paul Klee (the perennial source of work in this vein), Weider most often combines the flat, frontal forms characteristic of geometric abstraction with a whimsical and deceptively naïve approach to drawn perspective.
There’s considerable range here just below the surface of Weider’s deceptively consistent “look”. While most of his pieces here deploy a profusion of Crayola-box colors, I was stuck by a handful using a more restrained approach.
Made in acrylic without gouache, “Partial Recall” is a particularly striking example. Drawn in crimson chalk or pencil, two adjoining geometric shapes (a triangle and a parallelogram) form a kind of upturned roof shape that wants but doesn’t quite collide at the lower left corner. This “roof” has been colored with a slightly shimmering pale turquoise that fades to white. There are no other colors. Outlined in the same dark red, three iconic shapes – a wide, thin ladder and a staircase – appear as holes in the geometric slab, revealing the linen beige background behind.
Beyond a tedious description, “Recall” can be interpreted as a meditation on the relationship between presence and absence; seeing and experiencing something directly as opposed to imagining it or recalling it, so to speak, in one’s mind. But neither rote description nor armchair interpretation really gets to the heart of what Weider’s art is. Rather, like any fully realized body of work, they embody a way of speaking – here in its most concise and poetic form.
More characteristic of his work, at least as seen here, is a piece like “Exhibitionist”. A wobbly pale blue-green staircase serves as a container for an array of colorful floating shapes in a variety of hues and intensities: triangles, circles, rectangles, cubes, a crescent, a ladder, a ribbon, an obelisk . The “top” sides of this ghostly structure – the part you might try to climb – bear other shapes in the raw linen of negative/positive space.
“Made in May”, unlike everything else here, is entirely flat and frontal, with no drawn perspective. Although reductive and abstract, the piece comically suggests flowers in a flowerpot. Surreal, these bloom in both the cloud-shaped pink area above and the lower vessel-shaped area filled with the same color. These “flowers” (there are other ways to interpret the piece) are an irregular procession of circle-dots: each in repeating or unique colors that sing loudly.
Weider is joyful and invigorating work. His paintings here are both playful and introspective, of their time without slavishly following trends or trying too hard to be hip. “Geometry” is a tight and rewarding spectacle: a spectacle that might delight a newcomer to abstract painting while teasing connoisseurs with its pictorial and art-historical expertise.
These metaphorical geometries are also usefully seen in the context of painters from the Ithaca region working in abstract, and particularly “geometric” modes. The paintings of Domenica Brockman, who has previously exhibited at Corners, are particularly noteworthy in this regard. (His art, like that of Weider, can be viewed and followed online.) Working primarily with encaustic and acrylic on wood panels, Brockman’s work also plays on the contrasts between austere and the exuberant, the linear geometry and the painterly touch, the modernist tradition and the contemporary insouciance. .