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Art Review


Published December 14, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

EXHIBIT: Galen Cheney: "New Paintings," Vermont Supreme Court Lobby, Montpelier. Through December 30.

ARTWORK"A Daughter's Prayer" by Galen Cheney

Abstract Expressionism's allure is that the style creates infinite worlds without having to replicate or refer to everyday forms. Galen Cheney combines the power of subjective expressionism with the directness of nonobjective abstraction in her show of 21 paintings, entitled simply "New Works," in the lobby of the Vermont Supreme Court. In doing so, she courageously drags the venerable idiom of Abstract Expressionism into the 21st century.

There are no central themes to Cheney's show other than color and texture. The vertical 53-by-33-inch "Crimson Promise" is a thick, white field flooded by warm colors. Red, pink and crimson, smeared over heavily textured, frothy whiteness, emanates a rouge-y glow. Cheney has skillfully integrated red and white without accidentally conjuring "blood on snow." She also balanced the painting upon an invisible vertical axis. A soft-edged crimson rectangle floats in the stratosphere of "Crimson Promise" like a counterweight to the reds in the lower section of the canvas.

In "A Daughter's Prayer," seven wavy lines topped with "buds" collectively resemble a decaying bouquet, and reach toward three oblong shapes hovering at the upper edge of the 44-by-56-inch canvas. Viewers could invent narratives to explain Cheney's forms, or just observe the abstract activities blooming across each of her picture planes. Attempting to comprehend this artist's frenetic methods of applying paint is challenging enough.

Mysterious foreign substances also appear in Cheney's mixed-media works. Wax, sticks, twigs and perhaps dirt serve to heap mounds of color upon color. The 30-by-53-inch horizontal composition "Orange Crush" includes two long sticks, both about 3 feet long, buried horizontally in the painting's center. The sticks create a three-dimensional horizon line that anchors the yellow-orange composition. Viscous red and green sheets of color, spread with a palette knife, seem to hang beneath the sticks. But Cheney isn't satisfied with one variety of hue; she creates many, enlivening her works with finely calibrated chromatic distinctions.

Form and line often appear as mere byproducts of negative space in these paintings. In the roughly 3-foot-square "Red Rims, Rocks," translucent shapes are crowded into the center of the painting between umber, potato-shaped chambers in a dark field below and a misty, acidic-green atmosphere above. Rather than rival the painting's central shapes, the underground "potatoes" simply accentuate dark space. Likewise, lines are merely boundaries and not independent elements.

Sometimes form and line don't appear in Cheney's works at all. To view her somber masterpiece "Crater" is to confront a formless crater interior -- or, worse, the inner walls of a grave. The 50-by-60-inch oil is pure paint, without mixed-media additives; Cheney has engineered an oppressive environment with both warm and cool variations of black. A few strokes of white tumble from the upper rim of the image like crumbs of soil falling into a hole. Her statement is a nonobjective, nihilistic icon of dissolution.

In 1943, deans of Abstract Expressionism Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb published a collective manifesto in The New York Times, asserting: "To us, art is an adventure into an unknown world of the imagination which is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense. There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is critical."

And the subject in Abstract Expressionism -- in contrast to much contemporary modernism that includes extensive "statements" from the artists -- need not be explained in words. Cheney's paintings, for example, speak volumes all by themselves.