Cynthia Knott
Blue Charm
at DC Moore Gallery

The radiant serenity of this exhibition belies the tension it maintains between the Luminist tradition and Color-field abstraction. Mark Rothko informs this work no less than Martin Johnson Heade and Frederic Edwin Church.

Knott filters the characteristic features of Luminism—emphatic horizontality, glowing effects of light and atmosphere, muted brush work consonant with transparent distances—of all specificities. Paintings are grounded in the natural world but focused on precisely that point at which our perceptions yield to an abstraction: the horizon, that visual line formed by an imaginary plane tangent to the earth’s surface. The receding planes of landscape convention are replaced by two clearly defined geometries, the crystalline rectangle of sky and the more opaque stretch of flat sea.

Simplicity is the gravaman of Knott’s painting. The horizon is a spare motif with barely enough there to make a painting. Sea and sky are distinguished from each other less by color or texture than by a primal, indivisible line. The pleasure of the work hinges on the generosity of Knott’s gift for finding features in deserted space. The exalted, almost savage isolation of her motif abstains from scenery, proffering instead meditations on the void. Or on that sign of it we grasp at land’s end. Here is the horizon transfigured, a visual mantra inviting withdrawal to an oasis of silence beyond the racket of the world. Beyond the racket of the mind as well.

Blue Charm is the Irish name for the particular reflected light of the early dawns and prolonged twilights of the northwest coast of Mayo, the extreme western edge of Northern Europe. It describes the cool luminosity of the Celtic periphery, a variegated clarity enveloping bleak land where it confronts the vast Atlantic. The Irish Finisterre is wild and barren, peat bogs imitating tundra on land as treeless as any above the timberline in the northern hemisphere. Only the light lends a sense of grandeur and expansion, of expansiveness, to harsh country that drops, unrelieved, into vast sea.

The fourteen paintings in this exhibition originated during Knott’s recent summer as a resident fellow of the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in Ballycastle, County Mayo. Since its inception in 1992, Ballinglen has been a motive force behind sophisticated contemporary landscape painting here and abroad. This is some of the loveliest of it, recording an accomplished painter’s responses to the view from a rim of the world.

From a remote cottage facing seaward, Knott was presented with the daily play of extraordinary weather conditions. With nothing northward except the Arctic polar regions, the view draws the imagination back into prehistory, beyond the myths of Cúchulainn to the Iron Age. From whatever vantage point, the curve of the earth parallels the field of vision. Few painters are as suited as Knott to so empty a view.

Her work is remarkable for the combined delicacy and energy with which she suggests the shifting tonalities of atmospheric exchanges and their visual impact across the far surface of water. Her technique is appropriate to the migrating effects she sets out to suggest. Brush marks are virtually absent. No stroke should disturb the mensuration of values. Her surfaces, whether on panel or fine-grained linen, are not so much painted as wiped and scored. Softened tonal distortions result from manipulations that are largely subtractive. Pigments suspended in oil or wax are scraped, abraded, reapplied and worked again. Thin veils of color accumulate, soft and light as an exhalation —sibilius aurae tenuis, in the phrase of the ancient psalmist.

Each painting maintains the same ratio of sea to sky, with firmament commanding a greater stage to showcase its larger expressive opportunities. Landscape details—cloud forms, waves—are omitted in their particularities, making drawing unnecessary. Instead, meteorological changes and the movement of water are suggested by accidents of abrasion that occur in the process of working. Because nothing is fixed and motion is the only constant, their ephemeral qualities are all the more pronounced. Fluidity of the elements contrasts keenly with a static horizon line, making its severity more startling.

Whispers of metallic pigment—here golden, there roseate or bronze—are beautifully handled. Metallics are dangerous to use. Too much and they become tinsel shortcuts to luminosity. Not so here. Knott applies them with great restraint, achieving specular hints of sunlight refracted and held in dispersion.

Mercy, 1999, is stunning, its lateral proportions and dynamic sky recalling Heade’s views of turbulence off Narragansett Bay or Newport Beach. Dawn begins at the right edge, a leftward thrust of white light marking the horizon. A burst of pale yellows and pinks, fringed with a murmur of the inevitable cerulean, push dusky reds and ultramarines to the edges of the canvas. The horizon line itself changes color — from white to blue-grey to earth red—in response to movement in the upper atmosphere. Mercy earns its place as the keystone of the exhibition.

Eminence, 1999, derives its expressive force from the dramatic contrast between a darkened sea hugging the bottom of the picture plane and the broad, incandescent afterglow of daylight retreating westward. Night encroaches from the east, drenched in belladonna and nightshade, suggesting twilight as it has been glimpsed off these coasts since the the Druid past. Looking at it bought to mind the lesson of Song of Jonah. Like Jonah on the waves, every man lives above the abyss. The abyss, the Song warns, is not a vacancy but an active force that follows us as inexorably as the night.

The painting that comes closest to the all-over pictorial space of abstraction is Fog, 1999. It is also, for me, the single not-quite successful piece. The refinement of Knott’s handling is overwhelmed by an airless expanse of pale puritan grey. Certainly, there is color here to allay monotony: a swell of warm pinks, touches of pale blue. But the chromatic variations on such a closely-knit surface are almost too subtle to be seen. What could have been Whistlerian succeeds mainly in becoming claustrophobic. A vigorously applied or impastoed underlayer, yielding more edges to inflect the glazes above it, might have breathed more life into it.

Knott’s smaller paintings gain in immediacy what they surrender in monumentality. Mor, 1999, is an enchanted medley of blues, from the sweetest azure to muted indigo, that separate to reveal carmine beneath and pale lemon. Lacken Strand and Reckoning, each painted this year, maintain the still mood and economy of design that both record the material world and simultaneously pay homage to Luminist sublimity.

My heart stopped at one of the small (11 x 22 inches) panels, Golden Strand, 1999. A deep blue cord divides two resplendent fields of ocher and gold. One is dense and tangible below the prominent horizon-stripe. The other disperses above into impalpable yellows and pale blue-greens. An exquisite invention, unbound by expectations of realism, it has the feel of life to it. This gem of a panel extracts the infinite from the shifting obscurities of a passing moment. It stands in lustrous testament to the uses of imagination.

A contemporary of Church’s, on viewing his work, exclaimed: "Here there is room to breathe. Here the soul expands." It could be said of this exhibition as well.


Review NY
January 2000

HOME        CONTENTS                 RSS logo RSS FEED