Teresa Cullen

James Baird Gallery

Teresa Cullen’s painterly surfaces seem simultaneously to explode and engulf the objects she depicts. Cullen uses color to intoxicating effect: rich browns, smoldering oranges, whites as pale as translucent skin.

Color in her paintings exceeds the boundaries of objects—or the objects’ like solar cells, absorb and intensify ambient color. In Time’s Backyard, 1992, for example, white forms hover on an earthy grayish surface grazed with flame-colored yellows and sky-blues. The objects seem dematerialized—both time-worn and ethereal—but the surface that engenders them remains tactile and sensual.

In the earliest work in this exhibition, Remnants and Traces, 1990, the objects are massive and have an appealing awkwardness. A huge, gawky white pitcher and bowl, smudged with red, loom on the palest of gray grounds. Since that piece, Cullen has increasingly purified her forms, honed their edges and intensified their colors. Orbis, 1993, the last work completed before this show, is a saturated blue space in which a lighter blue amphora shape floats above a shadowy brown bowl and ground. In many of Cullen’s paintings, the purification of forms brings with it a segregation of the unearthly from the profane, creating a space for a rarefied kind of contemplation.

In between the warm awkwardness of her older work and the sleek intensity of a painting like Orbis exist works that exude an agreeable tension. Across the vast, scumbled space of Trulla Suspendere (To hang up the ladle, 1992) lie a number of objects which seem to absorb the surface’s quirky lavender and lemony yellow, rendered with the same sharp pleasure as a lone turquoise form. The graceful breadth of this surface almost overwhelms the delicate’ black-limned figures, which call to mind the tentative objects of a Giorgio Morandi still life. Their struggle is emotionally charged, whereas the hieratic, eerily glowing objects of others of Cullen’s works seem more cerebral.

As the titles suggest, all these works play with a sense of the distant past, a past approached through a fearsome, but never nostalgic, longing. Their appeal to the past depends upon its being just beyond one’s grasp, rather than hopelessly remote. At their best, the Latin titles and votive iconography that Cullen likes to use underscore the dignity of the more enigmatic of these paintings. At times, though, the lotuses and amphorae seem a bit precious, especially when they form part of a symmetrical composition. They are more effective when unstable, abstracted rather than totemic, their borders obscured and suggestive: their hues glow, but also blur into the ground. This ambiguity intensifies the viewer’s investment in the seductive games of the paintings’ surfaces. The works’ evocation of temporal distance is most provocative when it is almost overwhelmed by their tactile presence in space.

Laura U. Marks