ITHACA, NY – Confusing the stubborn still life thing with the dissociated splashes of color, liquid vertical drops and raw areas common to abstract expressionism, Jessica Warner is one of the most distinctive voices in local painting.
Thirteen of Warner’s oil paintings on canvas – mostly larger and more or less square – currently fill the South Hill Gallery. They make up most of “The Color of Distance” (September 18-October 17), his first solo show for several years. The exhibition juxtaposes canvases made during the pandemic with older paintings, as well as a collection of his original and inimitable drawings.
Meanwhile, Community Arts Partnership’s downtown ArtSpace – also known as Ithaca College Gallery – “Finding Integrity in Imperfection” (until September 26), displays paintings by the talented IC senior Julia Bertussi. In different but complementary ways, the adult painter and student investigate the slippery nature of perception, the emotional resonance of movement and distance, and the entrenchment of human interaction with the world.
It is rare to find a local artist who is not only well anchored in the history of painting, but able to engage in a constructive dialogue with the masters of the past. Warner’s approach to the world of household objects shows a clear connection with that of late 19th-century French innovator Paul Cézanne, whose oils and watercolors decomposed and recomposed pieces of outline and tone into compositions both disarming and quite appropriate.
In mid-20th-century American painting, his work was inspired by expressionists Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston. Warner’s objects add focus and depth to lively Mitchell-style skeins of paint. Boldly, she reinvents Guston’s late cartoon style from observation.
Drawing is the key to Warner’s radical painting. A wall of small unframed line art in blue ink is a good place to start here. The patterned drapery of “Movement, a series” marks a surprising new beginning. Repeating cartoon motifs – eyes and cable cars – reappear in his new paintings, adding texture and humor.
The most recent two (both in 2021) are particularly striking for their newly thinned and cleaned up palette and unusual play with format. Recalling the complex interior / exterior space of Matisse’s “Red Room”, “Sometimes” stands out from near and far in fragmented borders. “The Blue Distance” is a diptych with an unusual configuration, with a square canvas widened on the left and an upright on the right. A pretty light blue – the guiding metaphor of the exhibition – threatens to swallow up the pale pink objects which form a loop in the foreground.
His older paintings, dating from 2016, are just as good, if not always so immediately alluring. It’s remarkable how much Warner puts into these paintings; there is always something happening, even or especially in its origins. Sharp and menacing objects – gift wrap ribbons – attempt to dominate pieces like “Compress”, “Before Awakening” and “Hide and Seek”. Folds of fabric, placemats, pieces, blocks and assorted tubes, coagulate the image space, taking on their own life.
Like Cézanne, Warner wonders what it means to see common objects. What allows us to identify spots of color like a bowl of fruit on a table? By further defamiliarizing her own strange things, she is doing something new, if she is clearly in debt.
While this is an outlier, Warner’s work is also comparable to what critic and curator John Seed recently identified as Disturbed Realism – or in an earlier, more colorful formulation, “discombobulation.”
A hardcover anthology (a copy is available at the local public library) of the old title defines the movement. The painters represented in the book work from the human figure. They break – “disrupt” – recognizable shapes, dissolving them into faces, limbs, geometric facets and brushstrokes. They achieve a sense of incompleteness through considerable skill and effort.
Diverting its traditionalist training, the oils of Julia Bertussi at the CAP are more familiar as disturbed realism than those of Warner. Completed last summer as part of IC’s H&S Summer Fellowship program, his pieces incorporate fragmented faces and bodies. The areas made smooth – usually faces or part of the face – dissolve into sketchy outlines, often fine and cloudy color patches and pristine white space. Like much bewilderment, the effects are at times uncomfortably mannered but undeniably engaging.
Opting for a gothic disease à la Munch, “Indisputable” is a particularly striking piece. Loosely demarcated in reddish-brown outlines with dark gray and sepia washes, three figures doze off with palpable heaviness, barely supporting the other’s body.
Ithaca artists often seem both derivative and strangely disconnected: from art history, from vital contemporary directions – even from each other. Warner’s work, in particular, is a rich exception. It is heartwarming to see these two shows in the light they throw at each other.