New York

Therese Oulton

Thérèse Oulton’s paintings never quite relinquish representation. Several works shown here, all from 1988, suggest landscapes, while others feature figurative and nonfigurative passages within the same image. But whatever the references of the images, the essential vehicle of meaning in Oulton’s work remains the syntax of paint. The whipped, lathery surfaces of her pictures suggest the thickly applied paint of such other English painters as Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach; in Oulton’s work, though, the swirls of color are built up, not from gobs of paint heaped on heavily, but from distinct, quickly applied dabs of colors, which accrete into icinglike peaks. This measured technique seems to reflect a process based on considered emotions rather than bursts of passion, and suggests a controlled and intricate sort of performance before the canvas.

Using this signature microstructural brushstroke, Oulton achieves a kind of texture that remains articulated on even the closest examination. There is in Oulton’s work a sense of the spiritual importance of detail and of the animating qualities of light. At the same time, her paintings suggest scientific investigations into the minute structure of things.

The seeming freedom and even randomness of Oulton’s figures, too, in fact belies a deeper order. Building up forms out of her luminous, refractive brushstrokes, Oulton combines abstract and figurative elements freely. An organic, cell-like structure appears frequently in these paintings, recalling not the discrete organisms of Terry Winters’ work, but more the grid of a honeycomb or the flesh of citrus fruit, or even folded laundry. This association recalls the problem in old master paintings of rendering drapery or lace, a task that for many artists provided an excuse for a kind of sensuous, painterly play with color and light. At times Oulton anchors her abstract play in familiar Romantic landscape motifs; for example, Three-Part Invention suggests a pool of water surrounded by a rocky cliff face, Song of Deceit a forest of spiky trees. In other works, she includes specifically representational forms—the small jar in the corner of Sea Garden 1, or the rope that pulls back the draped cloth in Second Skin. But the link between form and image is never a strictly illustrational one. Oulton combines representational forms and abstract improvisations according to their own formal, rather than narrative, demands.

The uneasy connection between abstraction and representation in Oulton’s work parallels the familiar Romantic opposition between nature and culture—a connection made explicit in Wishbone, in which a classical column collapses in an explosion of color and texture. In psychological terms, this opposition can be expressed as the struggle between the civilized, controlling conscious mind and the anarchic unconscious. Oulton’s paintings, teetering as they do between provocative image and luscious form, reiterate a central question of any art after the great formal discoveries of Modernism: how can style or story, inherently conventional but by the same token linked to societal concerns, be united with the freedom and riskiness of formal play?

Charles Hagen