New York

Mary Hambleton

Pamela Auchincloss Gallery

Over the last five years, as Mary Hambleton’s paintings have appeared in numerous group shows around town, she has emerged as an artist worthy of our closer attention. Her highly emotive forms have never seemed contrived; instead, they spoke of and for the intellectual integrity underlying her approach to abstraction. In this exhibition of 12 works from 1987—her first solo show—Hambleton displayed the full expressive range of her compelling plastic vision: her powers of composition and graphic descriptiveness, and her ability to charge surfaces—using the texture and weight of oil pigment—with a meaning beyond lively interplays of shape and color. A tremendous energy arises from these objects, an energy physical and sensual in origin, yet imbued with an idealism that places them in the realm of the purely symbolic.

Tiller, for example, is a horizontal work divided into two unequal sections which, like two waves of energy, carry an array of associations and references to our relationship with the elements. A human presence is suggested by three slender, vertical lines punctuating the chalky white expanse of the right portion of the painting; throughout that white expanse, traces of underpainting suggest a deeper space, and the possibility that some inner mystery is in the process of rising to the surface. The left portion of the painting, much narrower than the right, is dominated by a dark wedge shape; from the wedge’s curving left edge radiate a series of densely clotted strokes of yellow, ivory, blue, and charcoal—like a sunburst viewed sideways. Echoing this, at the upper right side of the canvas, a slender wedge of similar strokes is sandwiched between the white expanse and the top boundary. This sunburst motif, a recurrent one in the artist’s work, suggests a dynamic cosmos as the proper context in which to contemplate human mysteries.

In several of the paintings, Hambleton sensitively handles what has become a most difficult subject, particularly for abstract painters: the burden of art history. Her division of these rectangular canvases into two symmetrical panels flanking a central area recalls Renaissance religious works. In Symbebekon/The Underlying, as in most of these, two dark panels frame a luminous white field, here bearing traces of what might be a classical architectural rendering of an arched doorway. In After Paradise, however, the flanking panels are gold-toned and the central area is a predominantly black field inflected by gestural underflashes of blue, yellow, and red, reminding us that faith is born out of a darkness as complex as the one that Adam and Eve brought on through their transgresssions.

For Hambleton, abstraction is a way of “looking at the nature of things.” Intuition seems to guide the artist as she integrates widely disparate elements and references into an all-encompassing expressive statement. The result is a universe of forms that appear to us simultaneously familiar and unknown.

Ronny Cohen