Text by Natasha Chaykowski
It’s strange to look at a high definition photograph of red blood cells. They appear otherworldly and supple, formal and punctuated: so different in shape than the contours of typical materials perceivable by the human eye. And yet, to us blood is typically very formless and ordinary, a simple necessity of mammalian life. There’s a similar strangeness in looking at microscopic images of skin—they are by turns rugged, bleak landscapes and expanses of whirling, layered tides that could easily pass for satellite images of the ocean’s undulating movements. The visual disorientation experienced when looking at such images of these tiny worlds is perhaps caused by the dissolution of abstraction that occurs when the microscopic is made macro, when the abstract is suddenly transformed into the figurative. Such a tensile metamorphosis between abstraction and figuration is at work in Judith Berry’s precise yet whimsical paintings.
Berry’s practice is engendered by a surrealist impulse that transforms landscapes and tableaux into otherworldly topographies. In earlier works, natural vistas are folded and unfurled in unusual arrangements; in these paintings, idyllic hills are comprised of upright rolls of sod, unravelling at the ends, and lush shrubbery is transformed into bushy figures, whose gaits mimic the innumerable lounging nudes of canonical art history. In some instances these figures dance and brawl, bacchanalian-like, in a field or vomit red fire in strict, angular trajectories. In other works still, the calculated
and precise landscaping of human-made gardens is made dreamlike through Berry’s imaginative interpretations: hedges become tunnels leading to some unknown destination outside of the frame and classical architectural adornments are precise grassy structures here. In all of these, there is the quintessentially surrealist oscillation between the familiar feeling strange, and inversely, the strange feeling familiar.
Berry’s most recent series of works, a selection of which will be shown in Excursions, follows this trajectory. In palettes of vibrant yellows and greens, the paintings in this series reside somewhere in a murky fissure between abstraction and figuration. In Insomnia, complex tubular backdrops create a shallow, yet complex landscape. Amorphous, geometric forms pepper its surface. In Sleep Triptych, a similar pipe-like backdrop contorts into what might be perceived as a singularity, a black hole. Crouched figures populate this sinewy plateau, and tiny non-descript circular windows float above it. A play on the diverse meanings of the word excursion, the paintings evoke at once an adventure, an adhered-to route, or a divergence from a pathway—all definitions that suit their compositional nature. While Berry describes this series as more mechanical than organic, I would argue that the works herein expose an imagined mechanics of the organic—like the strange contours of blood cells or the rough precipices of our perceived-as-smooth skin, when respectively imaged microscopically. Somewhere in the twilight.