MARGARET NOMENTANA: SIGNS, TRACES, FIELDS
By Peter Frank
As it has in the work of so many American artists over the last half century, gesture has played a central role in the work of Margaret Nomentana. But in Nomentana’s case the gesture of the hand or brush figures only secondarily; it is the gestural formation itself that has always functioned as the building block of her painting. As such, that formation displays the compositional trappings of the gesture without in fact being gestural.
Nomentana does not just paint gesturally; she composes with gesture. The gesture’s presence as a linear figure, and the enveloping context of the ground on which it lies, or on which it acts comprise the retinal dynamic of her art, particularly her paintings and drawing-collages of the last several years. The linear figure thus manages to be at once geometrical and gestural.
Nomentana professes an abiding interest in calligraphy, and the formalization of gesture upon which calligraphic traditions by definition depend now undergirds her own “gestures.” Indeed, without reaching legibility, Nomentana’s linear citations have taken on some of the resonance of encoded marks. The marks never become truly alphabetical; by retaining something of the gestural quality from which they arose — including their seemingly random distribution across the painting, a distribution often far more cartographic than calligraphic — these spindly images rebuff the viewers temptation to “read” them (except perhaps as islands in oceans of color). But their construction, each and severally, cements their relationship to script, or at least to some sort of notational approximation. Are they fragments of an urban map? Shards of ancient tablets, scattered across a burial site or the ruins of a civiliz 24” x 24”ation? Even morsels of dna floating beneath a microscope, promising the renewal, metamorphosis, and/or destruction of life itself?
This is the kind of painting that invites such extravagant metaphor-forging, non-objective painting that does not simply fill the eye, but agitates it with information that the artist has cunningly refused to codify. The painting ultimately “means” only itself, but effervesces with enough constructed and contrasted form to tease the mind into its habitual search for narrative coherence. On one level we can be entirely satisfied simply to look at these paintings and works on paper and come away with an optical buzz. But the components of the paintings and drawing-collages are themselves too heterogeneous and too restive to stay in any sort of self-contained paern or poised array. In their balance of openness and busyness, fixity and fluidity, pure painterliness and notational reference, Nomentana’s works on canvas and paper gratify the eye but provide subtle, insistent stimulation to the mind behind it. The buzz is not just optical, but cerebral.
Raised in Baltimore and Washington, and a painting student in the latter city’s Corcoran School of Art in the early 1970’s, Nomentana is historically a product of American east-coast color-field painting , and it could be said that her work in effect resolves the polarities of that movement. To date she cites Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis as influences, along with that of their harder-edged contemporary Ellsworth Kelly (not to mention their own inspirations, such as Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still). But right there we begin to see the dialectic at work: the gestural flow of Frankenthaler and Louis posed against the crisp contours and unmodulated color Kelly proposes. In Nomentana’s consideration here, flow is tempered by edge, and vice versa, which is why her forms, which she always describes with emphatic definition, still seem in flux — as much soup as noodle, if you would (at least if the noodle is alphabet).
Other experiences as an artist and a student (notably the perpetual student that a true artist always is) have necessarily modified Nomentana’s comprehension of the color-field aesthetic. Her participation in the Feminist Studio Workshop in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, and her exposure to that city’s large and varied art community refocused her attention on several feminist models (she mentions Eva Hesse) and thence to the expanded conception of artistic practice that has characterized southern California art since the `60s. Before she moved to Maine in 1995 Nomentana experimented with several formats, including unstretched canvas and installation, and also underwent training as an interior designer. She honed her interest in architecture at this time (as well as in the architecturally related modernism of the Russian avant garde and the Bauhaus), and attributes some of her art’s formal dynamics to her understanding of contemporary architectural practice. (In fact she often, and quite reasonably, finds such practice often more visually compelling than contemporary fine art.)
This variety of practice and experience rekindled her passion for self-referential, self-sustaining two-dimensional composition. The need to rededicate herself to this passion was one of the factors prompting her move to a more secluded place— albeit one in sufficient proximity to New York, where she can continue to draw sustenance from a broad variety of cultural activity.
It is not so far-fetched, in truth, to see in Nomentana’s recent and current work a response to her love of music and especially dance. A dedicated abstract painter her whole career, she inherits the tradition of inferred musicality that goes back in practice at least as far as Kandinsky, and in theory even further (to Walter Pater’s dictum that “All the arts aspire to the condition of music”). The kinetic impetus of music, one realizes, is made manifest in Nomentana’s art, and her broad and adventurous musical tastes — not to mention her balletomania — infuse her work on paper and, especially, painting. She has not consciously generated her linear forms as ciphers for human motion, much less formulated her works as static embodiments of dance or music; but once her enthusiasm for the arts of sound and human movement is acknowledged, it’s hard not to see — even feel — a close parallel. Putting aside even the personal notations with which choreographers are wont to annotate their works, the “figures” Nomentana inscribes on sometimes-shifting, sometimes-solid grounds frequently assume the lineaments of a terpsichorean animation. They are too intricate to appear as simple stick figures, but in that intricacy they evince distinctly mammalian, even humanoid, characteristics.
Again, such metaphorical alignments do not adhere altogether comfortably to Nomentana’s paintings and drawing-collages. They are, admittedly, contrivances of perception — specifically, of reception. But Nomentana’s mind is also that of a human perceiver, and receiver, as responsive as anyone else’s to the mystery of form(s) and as capable of embracing — and thus generating — multiple interpretations. The imposing quality of non-objective art is not its lack of meaning but its surfeit. Gleeful and expert, Margaret Nomentana takes full advantage of such challenging richness.
Los Angeles © 2004