Los Angeles

Margaret Nielsen

Asher/Faure

Margaret Nielsen’s small obsessive panels suggest the stuff that dreams are made of. These 4-by-5-inch, densely painted views of forests, lakes, and campgrounds might have described some idyllic world of carefree leisure. But no, nature has taken a dramatically sinister turn. Four men in a canoe paddle through the waves and flames of a lake caught on fire. A child’s swing is suspended over a swirling pool of water filled with writhing snakes. Two trees fight for footing in an angry vortex, tethered together by a stout rope. A group of campers enjoy the evening glow of a warm fire while a burning comet plummets toward them through the treetops. This is an inverted world, familiar in its individual elements but obeying unfamiliar rules hostile to man and ultimately to nature itself.

Nielsen’s tightly focused narratives establish an emotional climate of tension, fear, and wonder even as her slender, fibrous brushstrokes intertwine to sustain the image in a dense undergrowth of pigment. Reds, oranges, blacks, and blue purples predominate, giving an unearthly glow to her otherworldly scenes. These straight-forward, modestly scaled paintings are more than just another permutation on the infinitely extended Surrealist idiom. Nielsen’s work has the cardinal virtues of clarity and directness. Her paintings are closer to the dark yet earthbound visions of Edgar Allan Poe or to the mystic grandeur of Albert Pinkham Ryder than they are to the complex, multilayered syntax of late-20th-century surrealism. Lurking beneath her earth gone awry, in which commonplace activities and processes fail to fulfill their generally benign role, is the grim shadow of a post-nuclear age.

Nielsen’s work rests that shadow in the realm of poetry, a poetry enhanced by the scale of her postcard-sized panels, which allow us to look, remember, then look away. As this group of 25 pieces reiterates its central theme, images occur again and again in startling recombination, their muffled voices rising to a crescendo. What has Nielsen seen, and why are these little paintings so potent and unforgettable?

Susan C. Larsen