Saturday, December 4, 2010

REVIEW: Carolyn Enz Hack at Vermont Supreme Court in Montpelier

By Theodore A. Hoppe

Art can be as exciting as young love when first viewed. What is fresh and new holds a mystery that needs to be understood. But appreciators of art can be as fickle as Romeo, pining over Rosaline one minute, until his eyes behold Juliet in the next. Art is the means of evoking deep emotional responses within us, and Carolyn Enz Hack's current exhibition, More Shocking Art, which opened back in November at the gallery-space in the Vermont Supreme Court, creates both of these effects. One easily falls in love with a painting until the next one is viewed. But there is also the desire to have a more lasting relationship to them. Either way, there is much to love about these paintings.

"This exhibition contains representational paintings, but the subjects are just excuses for me to experiment with what I learned from the last painting," Hack says. Evidence of her process is demonstrated in six large paintings that use a water lily theme. Pond Ripple, from 2009, uses a shimmering impressionistic interpretation of pond lilies, and the reflected sky and clouds on water. Beginning in the lower left corner of the painting, a large yellow-green lily pad echos across the canvas, repeating the shape that become less and less defined. The vibrating shape dissolves upward toward the right corner of the painting and into a space where white and light blue of reflected sky alternates with the water elements. Clearly, Pond Ripple lays down the ground work for the newly completed series of water lily paintings, Fabricated Landscape #s 1- 4. These paintings are beautifully developed, more representational and richer in many ways. These four paintings share the same motif, but vary in their composition and balance. The pond water is blue-black, murky and dark, providing the perfect tension for the a brightly lighted reflections on the surface. The focus is on the broad thick circular lily pads that float on the canvas. Some lily pads are rendered in tender green colors, but most are bathed in a white light. A scratching technique etches out the veins of the broad leaves, creating attractive details. The bright reflections of the sky and clouds, and a surrounding landscape of trees cut the paintings in half, making a rich interplay of dark pond and light blue sky that dance together on the water’s surface.

Carolyn experiments with numerous techniques, but finds ways to integrate them into the work: brick red paint drips and runs in places forming the stems of the pads, in places the paint appears sponged on, thin and watery. There is never a sense that the techniques are a device meant to attract attention, they are in fact only noticeable when examining the paintings up close. Step back and the paintings display their magic. "That's the trick, and we don't really know what makes it happen; especially in two dimensions," said Hack.

"Part of my process is certainly just about the physical application of the medium on the canvas, and my most effective work time is when I'm not really ‘thinking’ about it, just doing it. (I like) to work quickly and just let the intuitive take over, or you will end up in the land of cerebral dead ends - as far as art goes. Working in the theater made me consider everything from a distance..., but my natural inclination from a scientific perspective tells me that we need to look at systems on many scales. That quick action of painting does not entirely satisfy my urge for control, so therefore all of the scratching, line work and just general messing with the paint on a small scale.”

The scratching is a painting technique called sgraffito (see image above right), in which lines are incised into the still-wet paint. It's traditionally been used for decorating ornaments and earthenware, but it's also used in oil paintings to suggest movement and energy, as well as to produce texture. Hack uses sgraffito to explore the science of nature.

She explains, "There is so much to talk about in art and science, one reflecting the other, and this is something that I think about all the time. Patterns in the natural world are replicated at all sizes. I have had a long-standing fascination with fractals and know that whatever we are focusing on at the moment is both surrounded by and contains detail at the edge of our field of vision."

Fiddlehead Fern, a 2007 painting included in the show along with the more recent work, is an example of how her sensitivity to a “scientific perspective” informs Hack's process. The painting depicts dried grass, leaves and branches of a dormant riverbank sketched out in earth tones on a thinly painted background. There, emerging green coils of fiddleheads sprout into life. Sgraffito delineates the vibrations of an awaking earth in springtime. The artist retraces the overlapping and intersecting patterns, layer upon layer. Geometric shapes and designs emerge, patterns in the natural world. Magically, the details fold themselves into the representational images of the painting. Among the recent paintings, Queen Anne’s Lace similarly combines sensitive observation of nature with attention to detail.

Pond Grass, the last of the water lily paintings included in the exhibition, demonstrates yet another evolution of the artist’s style, representing a maturity in understanding the subject matter. There is an unexplainable appeal found in the complicated wealth of details in this painting. Perhaps it is the variety of the elements in the composition, and the lush use of color and paint that makes it stand out above all Hack’s other paintings.

"I expect that my work will continue to evolve at a rapid pace now that it has my full attention." Hack says, adding that she looks forward to immersing herself in a studio experience, perhaps at the Vermont Studio School, "to pull the different strands of the work together and get them moving in the same direction." One could argue that the paintings described here achieve this already, but we look forward to more fine art from her soon.

More Shocking Art will be on display at the Supreme Court until the new year. You can also visit her work online at

Images: Fabricated Landscape #3, scrafitto detail, Queen Anne's Lace, Pond Grass