The Jeannie Motherwell paintings now on view at the Schoolhouse Gallery through Aug. 31 are a dramatic exploration of three-dimensional space in two dimensions. Experiencing them is like weighing anchor and sailing over the horizon, out of sight of land. Even the smallest hint of a structure, figure, or landscape that would give us a sense of earthbound security is missing from her work. We are situated somewhere between bottomless water below and unlimited sky above.
“I like what happens with depth and space when paint is poured on a flat surface,” Motherwell says. “What’s important to me are the edges, because I want the picture to feel like it’s expanding, that there is no real definition.”
Motherwell goes beyond playing with the space on the surface. Her paintings embrace the space between the viewer and the surface, expanding and contracting the viewer’s experience. In a world of digital files and flat screens, it’s especially revealing to view Motherwell’s work in person. From a distance, both her paintings, large and small, convey a sense of beauty and intensity. The closer one approaches, the more detail and depth are revealed on the painted surfaces.
Motherwell works on both smooth and porous surfaces. At one point in her career, she would pour, push, and spread acrylic paint around on a smooth surface. Now she has expanded her work to include other materials and processes.
“I like different kinds of surfaces for what they do,” she says. About her new work, she says, “I have some paintings on canvas board, and I like the way the paint moves and the textures you get. As fun as it was doing the pouring, I enjoyed the surprises, how something would happen because I mixed the paint with a medium. But I missed using a paintbrush, so I began incorporating paintbrushes back in my work.”
You can see Motherwell’s brushwork in Anamnesis, a large, mostly black and brown painting on cradled panel on which she used a brush to paint the white area at the bottom. “The painting didn’t feel right to me,” she says. “It felt too polished from the poured paint, so I added some white with the brush to give it some light.”
Motherwell compares painting to modern dance, where she’s the dancer and the material does all the heavy lifting while she responds to it. “I don’t have a preconceived idea of what I’m going to do,” she says. “I start with certain colors. I then get in a zone and I start dealing with the composition. I’m making formal decisions. If something happens and I don’t know what’s going on, I have to sit back and pause.”
Bayou differs from much of Motherwell’s other work in that it’s primarily one color. “I have fond memories of the water off Provincetown and every so often a painting comes out that expresses that,” she says. “Bayou came out all blue. It’s very abstract, and I hope people can relate to that.”
Motherwell’s father was the painter Robert Motherwell and her stepmother was the painter Helen Frankenthaler, both titans in the American abstract expressionism movement. Jeannie studied painting at Bard College and, like any artist, she had to find her own voice. The challenge included breaking free from the Motherwell name.
“In my third year in college my father purchased a loft for me in SoHo before it was chichi,” she says. “It was raw and happening and I loved it, but I probably was too young and felt intimidated by my parents. The real thing is finding who you are in your work. I feel Dad’s generation and his art was more depressing because it was coming out of war. It was very palpable and real. His movement gave America a voice in modern art for the first time, putting it on the map, trumping Europe.”
Motherwell’s influences come from two loves: a former studio she had for years in Provincetown with a view of Cape Cod Bay, and images from the Hubble telescope that provided confirmation for her work and what she was trying to achieve with it.
“I had a studio on the water in Provincetown for over 30 years,” she says, “and when Dad died I lost that and that was difficult. And when my brother-in-law gave me a 10th-anniversary edition of prints from the Hubble telescope, I was just floored by the pictures. I haven’t felt that since I left Provincetown. I’ve been trying to combine the two in my pictures ever since.”
Playing With Space
The event: An exhibition of works by Elise Ansel, Han Feng, Adrian Fernandez, Jefferson Hayman, and Jeannie Motherwell
The time: Through Aug. 31
The place: The Schoolhouse Gallery, 494 Commercial St., Provincetown
The cost: Free