George Lawson
Oct 3, 2015 12:05AM

by Maria Porges 

Sunlight, 2015
George Lawson Gallery
Echo II, 2015
George Lawson Gallery
Upstream, 2015
George Lawson Gallery


No ideas but in things. –William Carlos Williams


Into silky matte surfaces that are both delicate and enduring, strokes of pure color sink, fading out at their edges like distant sound, absorbing light even as they reflect it back at us.  Intimate in scale, Sara Bright’s portable fresco paintings invite close examination, suggesting poems that can be seen/ ‘read’ in a succession of moments. Yet, we want to read them over and over again, finding different nuances of visual experience each time we return.


Fresco is an old technique for making images—so old, in fact, that many of us don’t know what it involves, or have only a partial understanding. Successive layers of lime plaster are applied to a prepared surface; onto the final, exquisitely smooth coat, pigment mixed only with water is brushed while the plaster is still damp enough to bond with the color. (Fresco means “fresh” in Italian; the painting must be performed within a window of a few hours.)


Few American art schools offer classes in fresco. Among them, though, is Skowhegan-- the famous summer institute for emerging artists- where, as a student in 2010, Bright spent time in the so-called Fresco Barn, experimenting. In 2014, still curious about the possibilities of the medium, she took a continuing education class at Otis with fresco expert iLia Anossov.  Soon afterwards, she began to make the works presented in this catalogue.


Bright’s fresco paintings are hand-shaped rectangles of plaster, top and sides layered onto burlap stretched over a wooden panel. They look heavy, but their weight is metaphorical as much as it is actual-- the kind of substance that history itself confers. Slab-like, they protrude from the wall, clearly not ‘windows,’ as paintings have been described since the 14th century, but something else: things that we can hold, like tablets of clay or, maybe, books.  We look at them, not through them.


verso of Bright's Dive, 2015


The light touch is often the strongest gesture of all. Helen Frankenthaler, 1962


The confident clarity of Bright’s brushwork comes in part out of her study of Chinese calligraphy and Japanese ink painting. In addition, her practice was originally rooted in traditional Western techniques, focused on hyper-real representational subject matter. Over many years, each body of work has become more expressive and personal, moving towards abstraction-- until brushstroke and gesture have become the characters or places once pictured in her paintings. 


Much of Bright’s work is in water-based media on paper; even when she works in oils, she will make gouache or watercolor studies first. Like a poet (she holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature), she has developed a vocabulary of distilled, chromatically-inflected gestures related to places— an inner world that has been described as “imagined landscape that is rooted in color.” Her gentle repetition of motifs: successive lines of looping strokes, like handwriting in a private language; large bold brush strokes, often doubled, as if in a dialogue with each other, or delicate, slightly irregular grids evoking landscape--   isn’t practiced as much as it is virtuosic.  Working in this way puts Bright in the company of artists who take an intuitive process and internalize it until it becomes part of a dialogue, from painting to painting.  Strategically, Bright works on several pieces at once; others, recently completed, hang on the wall nearby, part of the ongoing conversation.


Some of the works here evoke the transparent luminosity of watercolor, like Rainbow Roll (2015), a stack of gorgeous pastel hues of pink and gold, blue and minty green. In Sunlight (2015), a handful of fat horizontal strokes of glowing yellow all but fill the rectangle, otherwise punctuated only by a dot of pure blue, seemingly serving as shorthand for ‘sky,’ and a single slim line of red anchoring the bottom like a horizon.


In other works, like Upstream (2015), Bright’s palette shifts-- becoming more eccentric, as if challenging us to enter it and try to understand the world that it describes. Against a dry, reddish background that suggests the scoured permanence of geological formations, a plush tongue of mineral pink arcs emphatically, echoed by a second stroke of creamy white. The slanted blue grid brushed edge to edge in a strip along the painting’s lower edge invokes the idea of fences or maps more than it does Agnes Martin. Grids recur in a number of works, like Echo II (2015), with its stacked, doubled strokes of pink and green, or the delicate blue lines that frame the haunting waves of orange in Woven into Waters (2015).


Bright’s poetic repetition of forms and marks demonstrates a combination of spontaneity and systematic investigation, placing her within a particular lineage of artists that reaches back well into the last century. Through a chemical reaction that takes place as the plaster dries, the pigments in these paintings literally become part of the surface-- much in the way that fields of diluted color soaked into the canvas in Helen Frankenthaler’s pioneering works more than sixty years ago. Recently, Frankenthaler has become a lens, more or less, through which Modernist painting has been reexamined, particularly in light of the current resurgence of abstraction. In the recent exhibition ‘Pretty Raw,[1]’ curator Katy Siegel brought together works by 45 artists, ranging from Frankenthaler’s time up to the present, to examine how the invention of stain painting has reverberated through the decades. The brushed veils of color sinking deep into Bright’s plaster surfaces suggest that her work is part of that complex net of influence, going not only back towards Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea, but connected laterally to Mary Weatherford’s neon-limned fields of dark and light, or Laura Owens’ layers of grids and gestural marks.

[1] ‘Pretty Raw: After and Around Helen Frankenthaler,’ at the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, 2/15-7/15

Mary Weatherford

"North Chester Avenue", 2012 

flashe and neon on linen

Laura Owens 

untitled, 2013

flashe and oil on canvas

In The Shape of Time[1], art historian George Kubler suggests that some forms of art are still full of possibilities: open sequences, as it were, to which additional artists can keep adding. Others, seemingly, are closed: Greek vase painting, for example—or drip painting a la Jackson Pollock. Fresco, with its roots in antiquity and a practice most lively in the Renaissance, might be regarded as a dead end. Yet Bright’s small frescoes, portable, immediate, and poetic, take the substance of time and turn it on its head. They are contemporary, alive, and vigorous.

[1] The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, George Kubler, Yale University Press 1962

Installation view, Sara Bright: frescoes, George Lawson Gallery, September, 2015

George Lawson