Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Essay: Mary Gilkerson

Three Rivers Variation VII, 2008
19 x 15 in

By Wim Roefs

The vast majority of Mary Gilkerson’s works in the current exhibition are recent monotypes from her Three Rivers project. Still, one of the most telling pieces might be her one oil painting in the show, the large, recently completed Edisto River I. The painting shows the profound influence that Gilkerson’s exploration of the monotype medium in recent years has had on her approach as a painter.

In short, making monotypes has made Gilkerson a looser painter. Monotype is a painterly print medium in which the artist paints with printer’s ink on a glass or Plexiglass plate. The painted plate then is covered with a sheet of paper and both are run through a press, transferring the ink to the paper, creating one unique print. Among the characteristics of monotypes is the visibility of brush strokes or other marks in the print. They make the works look somewhat like paintings, albeit without much literal texture. 

But a crucial difference between painting and creating monotypes is the time it takes normally to complete a work. While paintings can take days, weeks, months, even years, monotypes have to be created in a few hours tops. They have to be completed before the ink dries on the plate, and many a monotype takes less than an hour. This circumstance creates a mindset geared toward deliberate but speedy execution rather than the contemplative, back-and-forth, layered approach of painting. It forces the artist to rely on talent and experience, diving into the work and getting out before too much second-guessing interferes with the process. 

The short execution time and resulting need for speed with monotypes usually prevents artists from getting too tight. It encourages artists who might typically have problems accepting a painting as finished to do more with less. That results in more loosely rendered imagery. In the case of precise, perfectionist, literal, hesitant or simply slow painters, the monotype mindset not seldom carries over in the way they paint, adding a new approach to their way of working. 

Since she began exploring monotypes in 2005, many of Gilkerson’s paintings have become decidedly looser. Edisto River I is a magnificent example of where her more liberated approach can lead. Gilkerson’s current Three Rivers monotypes also suggest that this liberation has allowed her to be less literal in her renderings. The recent monotypes are based on the three rivers running through her hometown, Columbia, S.C., which Gilkerson sketched, photographed and observed for on a weekly basis for months in preparation for the monotypes.

While renderings of nature, the new monotypes are at times highly abstracted, characterized by sweeping shapes, lines, the intersection of lines and the skewed grids the lines create. Some of the works have strong geometric qualities or juxtapose geometric and organic shapes. As a body, the work also explores the effect of light, atmosphere, weather and the passage of time on nature’s formal elements. The works are, Gilkerson says, “intuitive and abstracted responses to the intersection of the rivers with the urban environment.” 

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