Up close and far away… Bettina Nelson and Shawn Thornton

Cerulean Gallery

Through March 29


By Samantha Dylan Mitchell

Seeing through the eyes of an ant was how Astrid Bowlby perceived a link between the art of Bettina Nelson and Shawn Thornton, both featured in a show at Cerulean Gallery, Up close and far away…, which Bowlby curated. With their diametrically opposed styles – Nelson favoring work on paper and found object wall pieces, while Thornton makes meticulously complex oil on panel paintings – their works seem like relics from two different realities. But at an artist’s talk on March 15, Bowlby described musing on her own work, which frequently features densely gathered marks created with fine pen, and imagining herself as an ant crawling over the surface of the page, marveling at how crude the tiny lines would appear. By looking closely, Bowlby observed a similar language in the works of Nelson and Thornton: while working in different media and on different scales, there is a commonality in the artists’ usage of line, color, and shape that might evade a first viewing.

Sharing more than just visual vocabulary, the artists’ work is also connected by an implied sense of directive or necessity. In Thornton’s work, this manifests in the heavily developed paintings, some of which took him five years to complete. Layered and intricate, filled with signs and symbols, some familiar and some wholly alien, they can operate as maps of his experience that are ultimately only completely legible to him. The obsessive approach that their creation requires becomes palpable in the energy that seems to vibrate throughout the compositions, which are themselves reminiscent of circuit boards. Conversely, through her endless scavenging, Nelson’s work is made up of a seemingly endless array of material to create drawings, paintings, and wall-bound sculpture that all maintain a tangible sense of dimensionality. There is freedom inherent in Nelson’s choices, in the act of both creation and installation, that reflects not only open creativity but also careful consideration of line and form, allowing all elements of choice to enter into the compositional equation. Her materials are mostly found on trips through the city on recycling night, and at times they reveal themselves to her at pivotal moments in the creation of works, Nelson said. For example, The Dazzling Dark features a thin painted membrane surrounded by an ovoid rubber tube, which Nelson found a block from her home while searching for a “black line.”

Nelson’s work is connected to the contemporary styles of both liminal and provisional painting. Employing the engagement with tactile and sensational sensibility involved in liminal ideology, she keeps the freedom of spontaneous abstraction that the provisional embraces, without the implied lack of critical consideration in construction. The works that demand the most attention in their movement away from traditional aesthetic qualifiers are the three books she presents in one corner of the gallery. Composed as sketchbooks spanning a period (each is dated on the first page), they contain a beautiful assortment of mixed-media collages, paintings, and drawings that seem to trace time and experience. As Nelson’s most figuratively referential work, it evokes the strongest sense of narrative, with simple silhouettes of figures embracing captured like film stills and enhanced by brief statements and song lyrics. While running the risk of being overly sentimental, the ranging fluidity of style and composition within the books’ frees them from the weight of biographical baggage.

Nelson’s willingness to allow her work to employ an element of play in its interaction with its surroundings activates a similar dynamic within Thornton’s pieces, releasing them from what is, at times, a terrifying intensity. My first encounter with Thornton’s paintings was in a coffee shop, where one hung without description above a tray of creamer, like an unassuming portal into another dimension, a tear in the fabric of reality which immediately and unavoidably sucked me into its inexplicable, tendrillic bowels. Here, hanging with Nelson’s dynamic, irreverent pieces, which surround them like interplanetary detritus, the paintings have less dire implications, and the viewer can interact with them on a purely physical level, making narrative connections at will, moving close to and away from them without fear of being swallowed. This tongue-in-cheek element also allows the more representational, narrative pieces of Nelson’s to read as honest and poignant without being weighed down by sentimentality.

It is perhaps for this reason that Bowlby elected to install the show in phases, first establishing the placement for Thornton’s paintings and Nelson’s larger pieces, and then allowing Nelson to approach the spaces between as a free installation space for her smaller works. The northwest wall of the gallery maintains a series of groupings that engage circular shapes in a variety of ways, ovoids and rounded squares dissecting form or creating borders. Evenly spaced between these groupings are Thornton’s pieces The Seamstresses are Ceaselessly Seaming: The Seamstresses are Seemingly Sleeping and Witch Doctor at the Eye of the Solar Epoch, both of which draw on circular circuitry throughout their dissection of narrative elements. Seamstresses makes a direct connection to the cyclical nature of creating art and learning about it, including tiny duplications of DaVinci’s Lady with an Ermine as well as windows into what seems to be a studio space, filled with shelves of unlabeled vessels and walls marked with rectangular outlines where paintings once hung. These vignettes are connected through arching circular lines and surrounded by rounded blobs, hovering tensely in the ether between these moments of representation. Meanwhile, the titles of Nelson’s pieces cue the viewer into the narrative thread she envisions within her pieces. I Forget Everything I Learned, an abstract cardboard construction that hovers bulkily above the first grouping of Nelson’s pieces and next to Thornton’s Seamstresses creates an opening between a green shape and a blue line from which a tongue-like white shape emerges, setting up a facetious dynamic. You’re Gonna Learn to Fly describes an orange space lined with white windows, encircled with a vibrating blue line that becomes tense with the title’s implied threat of defenestration.

Thornton’s painting style, working in a realm of endless density, line, and color, calls to mind the work of Fred Tomaselli – both artists evoke elements of psychedelic spirituality through their hypnotic patterning and the imagistic merging of the cosmic and biological. Many of Thornton’s painted shapes look like the trademark pills Tomaselli uses to create his dense patterns, but where Tomaselli’s compositions are dictated largely by negative space, that concept is not an element in Thornton’s work. Instead they present the viewer with a completely unified space, at once flat on the surface and powerfully deep, implying a ceaseless system of subdivision in which shapes continue to fragment and break down. Within the strict structure he establishes for himself within the bounds of a relatively small panel, Thornton opens a window into infinite space.

Grade school science classes often show the movie Powers of Ten, which opens with a shot of a couple having a picnic near Lake Michigan. Slowly, the camera begins to zoom away from them, moving ten times as far every ten seconds: first we see the city of Chicago, then the entire country, the planet, the solar system, and ultimately galactic space. After returning to the original shot, the camera moves inward at the same rate, burrowing into the hand, exposing the texture of the skin, moving into cellular structure, coils of DNA, and finally ending at a single proton. The combination of Nelson and Thornton’s work in Up close and far away… allows for a similar experience of structured zooming. Both artists suggest and encourage internal investigation and a more global, distanced experience. The resulting dynamic gives the small environment of Cerulean Gallery an active energy, and the space seems limitless.

Samantha Dylan Mitchell is an artist, writer, and teacher living in Philadelphia.