Elizabeth Osborne: Art As Experience

Locks Gallery
Nov 7, 2017 9:32PM

           Excerpt from the exhibition catalog Reflections: Painting Memory

Maine Portrait, 2016 oil on canvas 54 x 54 inches

Audrey with Navajo Blanket, 1976 watercolor on paper 18 3/4 x 20 5/8 inches

In Maine Portrait, 2017 an imperturbable tabby, with folded paws and closed eyes, pays us no mind. But the supine model is wary, alert to the unseen artist who brings her into being. The woman on the couch is Liz’s adult daughter, Audrey Cooper, who’s been posing for her mother since she was a young girl. In Audrey with Navajo Blanket, 1976 two small clay figures stand hands on hips near the solemn child. During the seventies, when women—and a few men—reveled in color and design with impunity, Liz found imaginative ways to stay rooted in the real while indulging her joy in pattern and decoration. Here she defines the background plane with a classic Native American eye-dazzler textile.

Color captivates in Maine Portrait. While a nearly bleached-out blue defines the pillow under Audrey’s head, a darker version pools on her chest and sheets down like water beyond her shirt’s boundaries. Darker still is the azure swatch of wall between the windows. Liz commands a family of browns to signal upholstery and wood texture. As in several of her recent paintings, she calls on a sun-hot yellow— here fringed with orange—to block views of whatever exists on the other side of the glass. On the right, skinny branches with pink and yellow flowers press into the picture from a hidden source, emissaries from the world outside. Liz enjoys this visual strategy, which was popularized by artists like Whistler, who in turn learned it from Japanese printmakers.

Elizabeth Osborne
Audrey Seated, 2014
Locks Gallery

Yellow Window, 2015 oil on canvas 48 x 48 inches

Yellow window panes, a favored device, reappear in Audrey Seated, 2014. Her daughter’s inner life, evident yet barriered, rivets our gaze, as does the bloodred pillar of her torso. Like most mothers, Liz is as attuned to the nuances of her daughter’s feelings as she is to her own. Here she documents Audrey’s resolute expression. Although the history of art has innumerable portraits of women painted by the men in their lives, depictions of the intricate bonds between mother and daughter are rare. Audrey resembles Liz, and the painter knows her child’s features “like the back of her hand.” At the composition’s center, a grey causeway of paint begins at the top edge but halts before reaching its expected end, letting slip a few 15 ambiguous streaks of light against a blacked-out pane. This central stripe is both frame and abstract shape, present as two things at once, a characteristic of Liz’s practice.

In Window Tea Hill, 2017 Audrey’s positioned in near profil perdu, or “lost profile,” her head turned away almost to the point of eliminating her features. She looks out at a seeming tornado of green that fills the top pane, becoming a narrowing cone of color below it. In Audrey in Profile, 2014 we see her from the side, standing like a sentinel, her backbone positioned to coincide with the composition’s central axis. A frieze of vessels of uncertain scale punctuate a loosely-defined background of shelves that alternate with wide, wavery bands of color. The ceramic pots are Audrey’s own, here present as design components and her daughter’s self-portraits. Liz takes family portraiture one generation further in Imogen, 2015 a playful painting of her granddaughter half-hidden by a vase of blossoms that sits—against the “rules”—just about smack in the middle of the composition. Imogen cocks her head, studying Liz as closely as the painter studies her

Portrait of J.L. , 2014 oil on canvas 60 x 72 inches

Elizabeth Osborne
The Poets , 2016
Locks Gallery

In 2014, two decades after her Academy colleague Jimmy Leuders passed away, Liz painted Portrait of J.L., a masterful homage to the man who was one of her dearest friends. After Louis Flaccus, he was the most important mentor of her life. Liz had known Jimmy, who was ten years older than she, since her student days at the Academy, and continued to treasure his friendship after joining the faculty. Jimmy was a major presence in the lives of generations of students. “Painting came first; recognition didn’t drive him,” she remembers. A gregarious yet highlydisciplined artist, he was her role model. Jimmy loved to laugh, to cook and to entertain, but primarily he worked in his studio. Like many of Liz’s closest friends, he was an outsider/insider, in his case a gay man who was out to a select few, but ostensibly straight to the larger world.

Portrait of J.L. calls to mind aspects of Velasquez’s Las Meninas: its use of anchoring figures at the right front corner; dynamic diagonal linking of foreground to background; and a man visible in the far distance. Velasquez included himself in his composition, tantalizingly shown working on a painting we cannot see. In Portrait of J.L., perhaps the woman we see from behind (as in Liz’s early self portrait) is the artist herself, conjuring her late friend across time and space. In another portrait of Leuders, he’s much closer to us, seated at an angle to the picture plane. A table top still life—a genre both artists were masters of—commands the lower quarter, and our eyes shift back and forth from the sitter’s head to the family of vase shapes nearby. An intelligent, thoughtful and responsive man, Leuders is intensely present in this painted remembrance, a potent mix of seeing and feeling.

A chance finding in 2016 of a decades-old snapshot prompted Liz to paint C.K. WilliamsThe Poets, 2016 a remembrance of a trio of friends who by then had all passed on. In 1972 in Philadelphia, Jeff [S.J.] Marks, Steven Berg and CK Williams co-founded The American Poetry Review, a publication that soon became the most widely circulated poetry magazine in the U.S. Its acronym APR leans against the painting’s front plane as if it were made of glass; a ghostly gray “BERG” hovers uncertainly above and behind it, tangent to the irregular blue edge of his sweater; and letters that spell “Williams” tumble around CK like gravity-free astronauts. Williams is the only one who doesn’t make eye contact, engrossed as he is with something he’s holding.

Elizabeth Osborne
Curtis House Library, 2012
Locks Gallery
Elizabeth Osborne
Ex Libris II, 2015
Locks Gallery

Liz’s favored yellow tints Jeff Marks’ vest, visually weighting the painting’s lower left corner. A yellow band, perhaps a wall, runs from top to bottom right of center, one of several color compartments that complicate a straight-forward reading of the space as one plane. One thing seems clear—slender horizontals proclaim themselves as books, differentiated not by title but by color and shape. A versatile visual conceit, these sticks of color here stand upright or lie on their side, as in RPW Reading, 2015 as well as in Yellow Window, 2015. They take center stage in Ex- Libris II, 2015 where they’re caged within the grid of floor-to-ceiling cubbies. In Studio, 2014 Liz plays with the related image of tall verticals, distilling a dignified 18 procession of canvases stacked sideways in storage. In Curtis House Library, 2005 a stack of books engages our attention inside the room, as the competing fall landscape tugs at us to step outside.

Elizabeth Osborne
Park, 2015
Locks Gallery

Field, 2016 oil on canvas 36 x 36 inches

At times Liz paints landscape qua landscape, as in Field, 2016 and Park, 2015. Yet in Hop House Studio 2011, and Charles Hopkinson’s Studio, 2016 it’s not clear if the luscious seascape is a view through a window or an art work hanging on the wall or propped up on an easel. She unambiguously sites viewers outside in Dawn Slide, 2010 and Currents, 2017 where sensuous, scalloped horizontals convey the allure of water in motion. Short, darting passages of paint embody the behavior of light on water in Reflection I, 2015. Like the bleeding edges in Ikat textiles, irregular threads of color shoot across the surface in Heat, 2015 and float up vertically in Under the Pond, 2015.

City Hall II, 2007 oil on canvas 30 x 30 inches

City View 1, 2004 oil on panel 24 x 24 1/2 inches

The urban landscape has long engaged the artist, especially what she can see from her studio window, as in City View 1, 2004 and City Hall Tower, 2006. Intriguingly, there’s an unintended resemblance between the jagged outline of buildings in City 2, 2007, and the kindred silhouette of the Ship Rock landform, a sacred Navajo peak in New Mexico. Her eye ever scouting for provocative form and color, Liz sometimes finds it close to home. On a walk in her neighborhood she found the ingredients she transformed into Car, 2017, a work that balances the natural and the manmade, curved shapes and those with right angles.

Doggie Daycare, 2017 was inspired by a surreal enterprise near the artist’s home, where, for hefty fees, a variety of purebreds and mutts daily sniff, pace and lounge in an otherwise empty storefront, a window onto a world with far more variety than a pet store. Sidewalk passersby can peer in, and if they so wish, dogs can look out. In Liz’s hands, the attendant and pets take no notice of onlookers. A tour de force composition, it relegates the dogs to a shallow, yellow-green stage between a blue outer wall and an interior of complementary orange that heats to a glowing yellow ball near the ceiling.

Liz’s mentor Louis Flaccus didn’t live to see the world he envisioned for young Liz come to pass, a world attained by her unfaltering hand and unaltering aim to be an artist. Experience shaped her resolve, and nourished her art. The work she’s created over the course of her long and distinguished career embodies contradictions. The late Philadelphia Inquirer art critic Edward J. Sozanski, a keen and admiring observer of her art, praised Liz for her “Dionysian commitment to vibrant, saturated color” as well as her “superb Apollonian sense of order and placement.” Within one painting’s frame we might encounter inside/outside, open/closed, implicit/explicit, the world abstracted and not.

Judith E. Stein is a Philadelphia-based writer and curator, author of the Eye of the Sixties: Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016).

Locks Gallery