New York

Helen Marden

Thomas Healy

While Helen Marden’s watercolors are primarily abstract, they also contain tantalizing suggestions of the hues and forms of nature. In them we can glimpse a fluid, breathing menagerie of hummingbird, jellyfish, devilfish, butterfly, mantis, orchids, kelp, and reeds. The thirty small works, all 10 3/4 by 7 3/4, inches, are so delicate as to suggest that fidelity to their subjects (imaginative or otherwise) requires vulnerability, that to know something is to be at risk.

If Marden’s watercolors articulate a sense of life’s fragility, her oil paintings hark to its fractious, dissonant aspects. Still carefully monitoring the portentous middle ground between abstraction and naturalism (various paisley-shaped splashes suggest Venus flytraps, sea horses, or dragonfly wings), she negotiates the equally revealing line between pleasure and disgust. A number of the eight large vertical diptychs in the front gallery, for example, have backgrounds that are variations on the color of aluminum. As if their metallic sheen wasn’t difficult enough to adjust to, they also feature clashes between pastels (cerulean, fuchsia, and cream) and darker colors (scarlet, green, purple, and indigo); between graceful gestures and the translucent, brothy varnish that sometimes obscures them; between harsh brushstrokes, splatters, drips, and smears; between intention and chance. While these conflicts are characteristics of some Abstract Expressionist painting, the chromatic combinations in these works are entirely peculiar to Marden. Her palette maintains an almost garish intensity,combining naturalistic and artificial colors—the hues and textures of blood, say, with those of eye shadow.

And it’s not just the colors in her paintings that don’t seem to mind putting us off, it’s the forms as well. As often as some are fluid and relaxed (as in River; all works 1997), others are chockablock, awkward and gangly, featuring furious back-and-forth scribbles (as in the frenzied Tungabhadra) or squiggly, halting geometries (like those in Streb). Some of these paintings suggest anthropomorphic forms, such as Gorge 2, in which a cyclopean stick-person dangles in the foreground. While these figures often seem more insectlike than human, the works’ titles lead us to consider such entities geologically as well. By depicting the human form in every other (and vice versa), Marden partakes in a mystical tradition with antecedents, for example, in German Romanticism. However, her highly original manipulations of such precedents, and the severity of these paintings generally, don’t allow for much complacence in recognizing this aspect of her work.

One doesn’t get the feeling that Marden is having fun at our expense, or that she assumes the role of provocateur from some inability to paint pretty. There is enough variety here to prove otherwise. (Summer Table, for example, amply conveys the breezy friendliness its title suggests.) Yet as passionately strenuous as these paintings can seem, a short imaginative leap allows us to see their cacophony as festive. It is as though, art being difficult enough in the first place, Marden makes the unlikely choice of upping the ante and doing the most awkward things she can think of. The gambit turns out not to be a bluff. The works that result reflect a temperament that is unsatisfied, in the end, even with the wild infantilism that is one of the strongest sources of its liberty.

Tom Breidenbach