REVIEW / CRITIQUE Heather McAlpine 2003

Michèle LaRose’s “Improvisations

Elgin Painter dismisses the subject to revel in shapes, colours

by Heather McAlpine, The Reporter, Gananoque, July 16, 2003

Works of artist Michèle LaRose, currently on view at the Gallery at the Playhouse, are a wake-up call to stop clinging, white-knuckled, to realism (if only for a moment) and embrace the pure joy of colour and form.

Yes, these works are “abstract” or “non-representational” — designations that have now become needlessly scary. We are nervous when faced with a work of art that, though executed with immense skill, purports to represent nothing: our visual culture expects images to show us unambiguous, recognizable figures and objects. What’s more, after television, we expect images to shout loud and clear, requiring a bare minimum of interpretation — or thought of any kind — from us. This is telling: the Oxford Dictionary defines “abstract” as: “to take out, to separate, to remove;” and “abstract art” as “art which does not represent things pictorially but expresses the artist’s ideas or sensations”. The two entries after “abstract” are “abstruse: hard to understand, profound;” and “absurd: not in accordance with common sense.”

It’s important to pause, open the mind and consider all the possibilities inherent in “abstract art” before giving up and moving down the alphabet. Ms. LaRose’s work, rich in colour, significant form and suggestion, is the perfect opportunity to do just that.

Abstraction is said to occur when an artist turns from imitating nature to exploring the forms and processes of art. “I started like most people start, painting pictures of specific things, ” Ms. LaRose said. “But I find it much more intriguing and challenging to make something out of nothing.” The artist explained she will often start with a “glimmer” of something that catches her eye and, like a jazz musician, “riff” off that image, playing with colour and shape — hence the title of her show, “Improvisations”.

“What I mean by the term abstract or non-representational is that while there may be some starting point in the world I see — a shape, a colour, an angle — I’ve basically dispensed with the subject. My works have no specific subject matter.” So while Ms. LaRose’s works are non-representational in that sense, they retain their connection to and fascination with the observable world. “If I try to paint a certain object, like a house or a tree, after a while I get aggravated,” she said. “I want to immerse myself in the colours and shapes rather than try to copy what I see exactly.” This is apparent in the oustanding Improvisation #159, which, in a mix of soft and sharp shapes of red, green, black and blue, suggest a human form — perhaps a knee or the soft curve of a thigh. Though it flirts tantalizingly with the human form, the fragmented composition still manages to stave off the viewer’s tendency toward patern recognition and admirably thwarts any simple interpretation. The colour fields, pierced by angled lines criss-crossing the canvas, are smashed to reveal a potentially infinite array of new shades and tones.

Ms. LaRose is determined to show us the unlimited possibilities of colour and its limitless permutations with form. The palette of this exhibition — vibrant, vast, careful and thoughtful, is perhaps the most outstanding of the Gallery’s season to date. “I am just infatuated with colour, ” said the artist, who has a photograhic memory for colour stretching back into her childhood. “I like strong, saturated colour. I like the nice clean crispness of colours that are close to the pure colour wheel”. Her mastery of colour transform it into a nuanced language of its own, with a power and an eloquence that subvert pictorial representation. Indeed, her compositions are more like music than visual art in the traditional sense: using pitch, tone, rythm and volume, they represent something above and beyond visible reality.

Abstruse and absurd? Well, come to think of it , maybe — but only in the most positive of connotations. French poet Guillaume Apollinaire’s description of abstract art in general is an apt description of Ms. LaRose’s art in particular: “a poetic kind of painting which stands outside the world of observation.”