REVIEW / CRITIQUE Gary Michael Dault 2018

SHAPES FROM THE AIR: New Paintings by Michèle LaRose

a review by Gary Michael Dault in Vie des Arts, No.249, Winter 2017-2018,
of Shapes From the Air, Verb Gallery, Kingston, Ontario (Nov 18 – Dec 24, 2017)

Michèle LaRose insists that the title of her exhibition of recent paintings, Shapes from the Air (at the Verb Gallery in Kingston, Ontario, from November 18 until December 24) does not in any way derive from the idea of an aerial viewing of the landscape below—as if she’d somehow tagged along on a topographic survey or a bombing run.

The phrase, she says, comes from the title of the late American poet John Ashbery’s 2008 collection of his later poems, Notes from the Air. As she writes in her Verb Gallery artist’s statement, “When Ashbery was asked about the title, he said his ideas came from the air….” LaRose says she liked this idea very much, as it “seemed to describe the way paintings develop for me.”

“Develop” is surely the correct word here. Both titles, “Notes from the Air” and “Shapes from the Air,” are phrases speaking more to the graceful idea of an aesthetic and procedural gift, than they are descriptions of a painstaking search. It was clear to me, however, in the course of a recent studio visit with LaRose, that her harvesting of “shapes from the air” is, in fact, the natural result of her first having carefully prepared the conditions from which such a productive harvesting might then occur.

LaRose is a very deliberate painter. This is not to say her paintings lack passion or fervor (the distaff pictures she makes in the course of her ministrations—she calls them “palette-catchers”—are, for example, spontaneous, robust and invigoratingly wild). It’s just that she seems to prefer working the paintings through the fullness of time, coming gradually and, one feels, irrevocably, to what she considers a work’s final form.

The Verb exhibition is made up of a number of small paintings, most of them 12 inches square (though there is a series of blue paintings that are only 8 inches square), painted in oils on wood panels. The paintings are offered in several suites, ordered by the colours with which they are painted: blue, violet, green, red, orange and yellow—three primaries and three secondaries.

These hues are employed in the smooth, even tincturing of the highly defined, very flat, compositional elements that seem to have at one time jostled for their locations and have now somehow found their resting places. Whatever possible pictures her aggregates of compositional elements may once have potentially offered, they seem to have come, in the end, to what LaRose appears to accept as a final and desirable closure.

The ways in which LaRose employs her compositional elements is absorbing. Her shapes—which are biomorphic and hard-edged (sometimes seasoned with swatches of dry-brushed “texturing”), inevitably abut more than they interlock. And when sometimes they overlap—often at their extremities—the colours of the two principal shapes will then form a smaller shape which is assigned another colour entirely. It’s as if all the shapes were cut from coloured gels and, when placed “atop” another, then formed new, smaller elements.

This chromatic bleed-through business was a procedural trope common to the machinations of earlier modes of abstract painting: you can see it, for example, in Kandinsky, Arp, Miro, Andre Masson, Bradley Walker Tomlin (about whom LaRose knows a considerable amount) and even in a painting like Jackson Pollock’s Out of the Web from 1949. In fact, LaRose possesses a solid and employable understanding of the history of abstraction at large; anything she does that looks initially unschooled is certain to have been pondered in the course of its appearance in the Great Modernist Tradition.

Apparently put off by the unsubtle and therefore off-putting self-promotion inherent in most “explanatory” artist statements, LaRose wrote herself a poem instead. There’s a lot in it to admire. Such as her embracing of “a slow release” in her art, a release of “association, intimation, recognition”…that leads her to “A gentle curve, a corner discovered / A shadow sensed [I love “a shadow sensed”], a space allowed [that’s good too], a “planar vision.”

Her text, she writes, is “No illustration of pondered theory / Or statement of the condition of the world” but is, rather, “a meandering reflection of an obsession / With colour and shape, and how they slink together [“slink” is great] / And give each other support.” Support and,” she adds in the next line, “energy.”

In her paintings, LaRose writes, she seeks “no meaning for myself”, and evinces “no desire to guide your view.” The pictures, best left alone to encounter as you wish, might, she hopes, provide “Counterpoint, satisfying curve, / Grating shade [a brilliant phrase!], buoyant lightness, / Uneasy texture [yes, here and there, just where it’s needed], or solid feel.”

Solid feel? Absolutely. The exhibition is like a wall of coloured bricks. The work is transfixed with care, suffused with “spaces allowed.” Given its relative openness in LaRose’s canon, her Violet Suite #1, for example, ought to look unresolved and needful. It doesn’t. It looks as tight as a bank vault. Given the robustness and high organization of her Orange Suite #8, the painting ought to seem overprotected. It doesn’t. It just looks exuberant and playful.

All this performative grandeur (in such little paintings!) is clearly a function of the immense if ostensibly offhand administering to her works of lavish amounts of aesthetic attention. The paintings, in other words, are bedrock works with options: options to float, fly, groan, clash, simmer, bristle and, if you get them alone, sing like Java Temple Birds.

Here’s what LaRose says about them: “Seeing is the point / Intrigue is the goal / Simply that.”

Gary Michael Dault is a painter, poet, para-novelist, playwright, former art critic (begettor of a million  words of the stuff over the past few decades) and somebody who struggles daily to keep from despairing at the joyless, repressed, greedy, arid, cynical, unresponsive culture in which he finds himself so alarmingly moored.

⇒ “Shapes From the Air”: Installation – Photos & Artist Statement / Photos & Énoncé de l’artiste