- "Flow," by Catherine Hall
The influences of a few modern painters — Piet Mondrian and Helen Frankenthaler, for example — are readily evident in many of the individual works in Catherine Hall’s uneven show at the 215 College Gallery. But another of the artists she cites as influential, the great Gerhard Richter, resembles her not so much stylistically as in the versatility and virtuosity this Burlington artist has displayed throughout her four-decade career.
Like Richter, Hall creates both abstract and representational works of art. In recent years, she riffed on dolls and stuffed animals; now she’s taking inspiration from Byzantine icons to produce suites of paintings in which patches of brilliant colors surround a small but prominent appliqué of gold leaf. Four sets of these “Icon” panels dominate the 215 College show, entitled “Glimmer and Glow: Luminous New Paintings.”
Hall’s haul also includes a dozen altered photocopies of family photos and a couple of newspaper shots of race horses galloping into the stretch. She has coated these images in encaustic (colored beeswax) and dabbed paint here and there so that they no longer read as realistic records of people and events. The pictures, especially one in which a young Hall holds her two toddlers in a Burlington kitchen, have been infused with a nostalgic, spectral presence.
On display as well is a set of three encaustic-encrusted abstractions that have little in common with Hall’s 30 or so “Icon” oils. In fact, one of the encaustics, “Faux 1,” ranks as the best painting in the show.
Jackson Pollock’s ghost haunts this all-over composition, but Hall’s partially scraped-away layers of oozing wax give it a textured quality richer than drips alone can produce. “Faux 1” resembles something primordial that the Hubble telescope glimpsed in a chaotic corner of the universe. Streaks of light jag across gaseous, globular forms. Though small in scale, “Faux 1” suggests the endlessness of outer space.
More prosaically, Hall’s show demonstrates the effect of frames. They make some paintings in the show, including “Faux 1” and its two partner pieces, seem more important than everything that’s been left unframed. Viewers may not always be conscious of how frames shape perception, but a painting usually does appear more pulled together when it’s bordered with even a thin metal strip.
It’s not coincidental that two framed paintings, “Flow” and “Seep,” make a stronger impression than similarly composed unframed pieces hanging nearby. Viewers might especially go with “Flow.” Deep washes, reminiscent of Frankenthaler’s stains, form filigreed patterns as they, yes, flow over the patches of color found in all Hall’s icon-inspired abstractions. Here, too, a strand of silver leaf and a larger shard of gold leaf are partly obscured by quivers of paint. And that’s a good thing.
As the title of her show implies, Hall is fascinated by glittery reflections. The gold leaf she affixes near the center of almost every one of her “Icon” paintings sparkles in the gallery’s spotlights, and a more subtle shimmer is simultaneously produced by tiny glass beads embedded in each of these works. A child-like pleasure can indeed be gotten from most of the pieces that make up “Glimmer and Glow.”
If that’s to your taste, then you may be smitten by what Hall has done here. If it’s not, the gold leaf may appear gratuitous — even annoying. It deflects attention from the accompanying blocks of color in which wavy lines — thick and thin, vertical and horizontal — have been carved with a palette knife.
Gold leaf abounds in the icons that have enraptured Hall on the Greek island of Samos, where she has spent parts of the past five summers teaching art history to Castleton State College students. In many of those devotional works, however, gold leaf forms the background to a central image. In “Glimmer and Glow,” it’s not nearly as liberally applied, but it’s actually more conspicuous because it interferes with Hall’s otherwise suave color schemes. Gold leaf offers a cheap thrill in comparison with the iridescent blues, for example, that she paints on her panels in homage to what she describes as the “transparent turquoise” of the Aegean.
The distracting effect of her gold leaf can best be gauged by surveying the five paintings that compose the first “Icon” series a visitor sees on entering the gallery. In the most appealing of these pieces, Hall’s carved blocks of color can be fully admired because there’s no gold leaf glinting from the panel.
When an artist is as serious and as sophisticated as Catherine Hall, an infatuation with shiny surfaces should not be allowed to diminish aesthetic achievement.