at Lyons-Wier + Ginsberg Gallery, through March 18
Of the eight new paintings by Linda Vredeveld at Lyons-Wier, six are profiles of women's heads set against muddy backgrounds and sparsely outlined in sometimes intermittent brown or gray lines--yet somehow these figures have a presence beyond the physical. In the untitled smallest of these small works, none bigger than a foot square, the head almost fills the frame, the brown and tan lines of the face and back of the head sweeping upward into an extravagant bouffant hairdo. The lines have a wonderful rhythmic unity, the curves of the face echoed in the curves of the hair, as if the 'do were really an extension of the barely delineated visage. Just to the left of the face, paralleling the forehead's curve, is a single cometlike line, a bulb of paint with a wispy tail above. Passing sets a profile formed of red and brown brush strokes against a similarly muddy background, and again the lines of the face sweep up into a tall hairdo. Arcs that often fade out just as they begin to loop around the neck are too large and airborne to be necklaces--they hint at planetary rings. And like the cometlike mark in the untitled work, they are not normally part of the physiognomy.
These dark brush strokes, similar to the face lines emerging from and vanishing into the muddy ground, suggest an idea made more explicit in some of the other pictures: that people have a presence, a kind of aura, extending beyond the limits of the body. One need not accept this as a literal truth. Any careful observer is familiar with the way the movements or simple presence of a strong personality seem to project into the surrounding space, just as Vredeveld's figures seem to fill the rectangles that contain them. Her intermittently visible aura lines suggest the illusory nature of the phenomenon.
Another element adds to the mystery of these paintings. Each is flecked with paint, generally of a light tan or gray or gold, that sometimes extend from the face to the area just outside the head. These bumps and ridges--applied with a palette knife--reflect light differently as one moves slowly around the painting. Too bright to be freckles, they create a luminous, jewel-like presence: shifting light patterns seem to rise off the pictures' linen surfaces.
Though sometimes the speckles match the direction of some of the lines of the face, more often the two types of marks seem to be operating on different levels; while the brush strokes seem to absorb light, the flecks appear to glow. It's almost as if one picture were superimposed on another. The effect is a bit like hearing two separate but related conversations in the same room: each has its own rhythm, timbre, spatial origin. Furthermore many of these marks are different from one another, especially in luminosity and color, as are many of the brush strokes. Vredeveld builds up each of her paintings in layers, making a few marks, covering them with glaze, then making more marks and adding another layer of glaze. Thus each line or speck has more or less glaze than its neighbors, creating a complex luminosity and implied depth in each face.
Part of the power of these paintings lies in the way they evoke--no, make the viewer see each woman's spiritual dimension. And indeed Vredeveld told me that she considers her heads "symbols of the soul or spirit," and that as she works on them they take on "a life of their own."
Vredeveld, 33, was born and raised in Ann Arbor and now divides her time between a home in Grand Rapids and a teaching job at Trinity Christian College, just outside Chicago. A key early influence was Louise Bourgeois, with her sculptural forms often based on the female body; Vredeveld's present direction can be traced to her grad-school experience at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she was encouraged to draw. There she abandoned the idea of "thinking of an image in advance of putting it down," preferring to let each work "evolve over time": making some marks, returning days or a week later and making a few more, allowing each image to "speak back" to her. She now compares her working method to various life processes--giving birth to a child, for example.
Before making any mark, she forms each picture's ground out of multiple layers of paint, applying them roughly, leaving gaps in the color surfaces. The background of Passing has what seem tiny abrasions through which a brighter red and a slightly lighter tan are visible. These random "blemishes" at first seem the exact opposite of the elegantly unified, rhythmic lines of the heads.
Yet Float, another profile-with-hairdo, reveals a close relationship between the figure and the ground. The raised specks on the face are light, almost like gilt; just outside the face are a number of short brush strokes, some curving in lines parallel to the face but a few short enough to seem mere dots. Further away are dark patches that recall the dots but also seem part of the ground's random irregularities. At one point Vredeveld directly links these dark patches to the face: just above the top lip are two dark, rough bands whose texture is similar to the ground's smudgy discolorations but that meet at an angle almost matching the shape of the nose.
Vredeveld has said that weaving, embroidery, and quilting--traditionally female arts--have influenced her work, and indeed the lines of her faces are organized into rhythmic parallel and perpendicular patterns. But if her unified face marks evoke an invisible human spirit, the random glitches in the background at first look exactly that--they suggest a dirty sidewalk or stained floor, discolored or chipped paint, patterns that result from aging and weathering.
The noselike lines of Float are only one of many links in these paintings between figure and ground, for what's really amazing and even profound about these works is the way Vredeveld not only connects two apparent opposites but makes one seem to grow out of the other. The viewer is encouraged to see the "glitches" as powerful presences in themselves; each little irregularity comes to seem the less luminous cousin of the brush marks and raised specks of the faces. The heads and their curves are children of their chaotic grounds, emerging from those smears and abrasions, their intermittent lines forming fragile nets against a muddy darkness. The faces are tenuous presences woven out of disorder, to which they may eventually return.
In several of the strongest works, lines extending far beyond the heads make the aura more explicit. Balance gives us a head-on view of a cadaverous, androgynous face. Long, curved lines not only extend sideways from the head toward the bottom of the picture but also grow out of the curved top of the head. Since the light gray and tan specks on the face are almost all horizontal, they also lead to the lines, as do the sideways movements of the light reflected from the specks. In Self, lines arcing back from the head and covered with rows of gold specks could be long hair except for the way they stand out from the head--it would take more than mousse to hold this hair up. Again the aura grows out of the physical, the woman's head. Again the rich, complex interactions between these marks and the patchy, discolored ground link these ethereal human presences to their opposites: disorder, vacancy. Vredeveld may be thinking of human birth, but I found myself thinking of primordial life forms emerging from the chaos of preorganic matter.
End has the darkest background of all, an almost-black gray, and there's another difference as well: the head is near the bottom and on its side--this is the profile of a sleeping woman, or a dead one. The background, the simply delineated face, and the title made me think of death, and Vredeveld confirms that this picture was inspired by seeing her aunt only a few hours after her passing. The face is flecked with light gray, and just above the forehead a few such specks seem to rise in a cluster, petering out into a dark sea of bumps, abrasions, ridges, cracks, and nicks. One guesses these are fragments of the soul, shining out through the body and also leaving it, vanishing into formless darkness.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Reproduction of "Passing" by Linda Vredeveld.