San Francisco

Nell Sinton

Braunstein/Quay Gallery

Nell Sinton is a sensibility painter, meaning that her feelings about a specific motif are peculiar to the way she shows what she sees of it, to the paint strokes she uses; that is, she discovers what she feels by painting it. At76, she has a well-founded local reputation for painting in various modes and for making box constructions and large, intricate collages. (One of the latter—Gough Street from Fort Mason, 1985, in the present show—features an actual bite-size paint chip from the Golden Gate Bridge in its center.) That her sensibility once overreached her motifs is manifest in the fantastic whorls and striations that in earlier paintings spell vitality adrift or a subjective caprice. Only for the past three years has she used, as she says, “the landscape as a focus.” She is less sure of what that focus implies, of its sufficiency, than the East Coast counterparts her new pictures call to mind—Jane Freilicher and Nell Blaine, among others—but she is more sure of its possibilities than any of the erstwhile or continuing “Bay Area figuratives” with whom she has sometimes been linked.

Very little else in art makes sense as much as taking something real and painting it. But one of the oddities of the Bay Area is how few good painters there do just that and keep on doing it, as realists, and especially in terms of the local landscape. Put too briefly, the reasons for this involve an inherent overeamestress about meanings (making sense is different from preparing a digestible meaning) and a contrary tendency toward interiorizing whimsy. Neither approach says much for the nature of appearances. And then there is the daunting appearance of the coastal environment itself, with its regular dosage of stupefying picturesqueness (including color riots in the acid range), and its relative geologic infancy and dramatic crosscurrents of weather, all amounting to a Pacific-rim vernacular that won’t stay put.

In this regard, Sinton’s new landscapes and interiors are unusual and brave. They rock with a healthy duality. They go, as John Marin once recommended, “to the elemental big forms and the relatively little things that grow on the mountain’s back, which if you don’t recognize, you don’t recognize the mountain.” Sinton now uses her sensibility to augment and connect, not to overwhelm or typecast, what’s in front of her. There’s the sensation of having taken a plunge into each view and reemerged with an order previously only half-suspected. The firmest connections are those made in low horizontal formats—in Alta Plaza, Six Flights with Figures, 1984, for instance, where a stretch of ebullient blue lawn throws two trees like scarves about its shoulders, and a white-shined figure near the top appears to be taking final steps toward assumption into sempiternal fog. Sinton also manages to catch the tricky San Francisco light, its milky obdurateness—buttermilk in the “Alta Plaza” images, charred lactose in Bay View, Storm, 1986. In Embarcadero, Four Columns, 1985, distinctions of street and sky in haze are neatly scoured, a wet cobalt wraith of the San Francisco—Oakland Bay Bridge bisecting the whole. The interiors, with plays of dark wood furniture against blasts of picture-window daylight, are more large scale and moody, and a bit suspect in their felicities: do shadows actually mottle a room’s walls and chairs into perfectly blended orange and blue fields, or is that a decorator’s fancy? On the other hand, the inside/outside arrangement of Bay View, 1986, is a honeycomb of succulence and precision. It is as if by casting a harder look at appearances Sinton has defined what her sensibility contains, which is something sharper than her previous glissando attacks allowed. The pleasures she takes in her hometown’s nature are delectable, candid, and markedly unhedged.

Bill Berkson