Janenne Eaton

When Janenne Eaton exhibited a painting modeled on Gauguin’s Manao Tapapau, 1892, in the mid ’80s, it looked as if she was yet another painter recycling images under the loose pretext of a feminist revisioning of art history. In place of Gauguin’s Tahitian girl lying on a bed, Eaton substituted a bound and gagged woman, watched from suburban venetian blinds by “spirit figures” drawn from a newspaper photograph of a Russian solider in a gas mask. The memorable feature of this painting, which suggested an inversion of Eric Fischl’s Bad Boy, 1981, was neither its play with then-fashionable tropes of the viewer’s gaze nor its choice of quotation, but its stubborn, chalky facture. What appeared initially as enigmatic open-ended narrative proved, with the hindsight of her most recent works, to be motivated by a genuine infatuation with the spirits of the dead. For Eaton, irony was a passing phase.

Bridget Riley meets rough-hewn Agnes Martin is a reasonably accurate assessment of this artist’s current priorities. Sing the sailors, 1990, depicts rows of monochromatic, moody grays and suggests curtain folds. Backlit, and tonally graduated to white light, the forms suggest early Minimalist paintings gone Tantric. Stepping backward, Eaton has left behind the high self-consciousness that seems to inform her early works and moved toward the deceptive simplicity of iconic abstraction. In these works she refines a single metaphoric image that hovers between nonobjectivity and an austere open landscape. Her impulse, like Martin’s, is to pursue the transcendental. During the late ’70s, Eaton spent time as an archaeologist in the nowhere of Western Australia, and the psychological charge of the outback nightscape fueled the sense of monastic muteness in these works. To understand Eaton’s approach, the viewer must enter the mind of a believer, who finds the world inexplicable by any theory other than the psychic. This seems an unnecessarily perverse complication of painting, but Eaton is clearly compelled to explain the world to herself and is troubled by its disorder.

Much contemporary art seems to have designs on its audience and attending to it over long is like allowing a thief into one’s house. Eaton’s Breaker, 1989, is the reverse. Black-on-black rectangles, edged in white, frame a central image in which the artist’s transcendental folds fade upward into a white void. Breaker is saved from the dual extremes of pomposity and preciousness by the artist’s handmade geometry. Her irregular, broken lines and imperfect tonal shifts constantly return the viewer to the painting’s surface. Attention wanders across the picture plane and back into space rather like the warp and woof of woven fabric; the eye is never forced into the predictable straitjacket of architectonic form. Eaton is interested in the experience implied in the shallow pictorial space she creates in the same way a portraitist is interested in the character of a face. Her walls of light suggest that there is more to her paintings than simpleminded form or equally obvious metaphysics. Her abstraction scrupulously respects its limits, forgoing both expressive rhetoric and the knowing stance of style revisited.

Charles Green