Walking Between Worlds: Susan Wahlrab’s Varnished Watercolors

West Branch Gallery
Aug 14, 2015 4:00AM

An exhibition of Susan Wahlrab's varnished watercolors on archival clayboard, entitled Seasons, is on view in the North Gallery through August 31st.

“The careful study of edgeless layers brings to my process of painting a quality of abstraction that still maintains a sense of place. This space reflects an external landscape that is initiated from a deep internal experience.” – Susan Wahlrab

This is the essence of Wahlrab’s work – the edgeless layering of wash upon wash upon wash, giving her paintings an underwater quality that is yet somehow earthly and substantial. That is no mean feat. For Wahlrab, it meant years of trial and error ever since her days at Rhode Island School of Design searching to find a technique that spoke to her vision. “With each new painting I am attempting to describe what is essentially indescribable – the intricacies of color, texture, and shape on the physical level with the pulse and spirit of the energetic. This means, over many years, I essentially notice more and more and maybe get crazier and crazier!”

What artist is not crazed to perfect the imperfectable? Art is elusive, morphing before your eyes according to the light, our mood, preconceived ideas. Coming to art fresh, without the hype of the art world intruding upon your awareness, you can be open to receive the gift of an artist – their work, the culmination of years of training, experimentation, many failures and any number of insecurities.

A long-time practitioner and teacher of yoga, Wahlrab’s paintings describe what she says is spanda, the Sanskrit word meaning pulsation. These works exemplify how she lives in a deep state of attentiveness to what is within and in nature. “When I was a little girl,” she said, “I told my mother I could see air.”

Indeed. Standing at a distance from her Seasons paintings, one has impressions of landscapes. Do you see a curving river, a forest on the banks of a river, tiny pools of water above and below? Is this winter or could it be the creamy light of dusk? But move in closer and they are no longer landscapes. Everything melts into hazy, tiny cubistic pools; inked scribbles of indescribable forms. You could be seeing frequency in the air, tiny pulsations of light and color, fractals of a leaf.

Wahlrab’s technique is complex, formulated over years of experimentation. She has a MFA from RISD in printmaking, and uses the science of printmaking and experimentation to continually push and support her work. When process got in her way, she traveled around the world collecting images, sketching on paper in watercolored layers everywhere she went.

Eventually Wahlrab arrived at her present way of working, evidenced in these newSeasons paintings. After mixing colors on a palette, she suspends her brush over a board surfaced with clay. Never touching the smooth clayboard with the brush, she allows the paint to fall off her brush, pooling onto the board. She lets the surface dry, and manipulates the paint with a wet cotton cloth. Layer by layer she adds washes of paint following the same process until, as she says, “the painting breathes.” At the end, she adds a clear gloss varnish that is UV-blocking and archival. The finished painting looks and feels like it is wet but does not require glass for protection. Wahlarb said that as far as she knows, no other artist is working in this way.

The resulting paintings look waxed, almost encaustic. “I wanted to take all my years of process and experience and come up with something new,” Wahlrab said. “I want to remind people that we are nature.” At a distance, her paintings elude to landscapes. Up close, that sense of place breaks apart.

From afar, one can certainly see sensuous expressions of the four seasons in these paintings. In Stick Season, one sees forests and hills in the month of November, when all is soft and in transition. Green Grass, Right Here expresses full summer, a field drenched with the color of green, bathed in light. Color of Winter shows a tree-lined country road dancing with white, yet filled with many subtle and vibrant colors. Spring is glowing with sunlight. Stand close, and all the sculptural forms of trees and paths dissolve into tiny glyphs of color and light.

Inspired by the British Romantic Landscape artist, J.M.W. Turner, as well as Rembrandt and Monet, Wahlrab’s paintings clearly show their influence, yet her work is uniquely her own. Drawing her deepest inspiration from nature, she said, “I essentially live my life deep in the woods. I love going to Boston and New York City for contrast and creative stimulation, but being in nature is what connects my spirit and passion.”

West Branch Gallery

Viewing Susan Wahlrab’s paintings first from afar and then up close, you will be surprised. The experience is like walking between worlds. It is Wahlrab’s spanda, the expansion and contraction of creation. And as she said, “What is beautiful and right with the world; the beauty of spirit within and around us – I want this in my paintings. I want this for the viewer.”

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