MARGARET NOMENTANA: IRREADABILITY
By Peter Frank
In the wake of the twentieth century’s enduring experiment with expression (especially “self”-expression), artistic mark-making has been championed as an integral, even primary, activity. But mark-making for its own sake is not enough. The marks must cohere-not necessarily as ciphers, but as some sort of visual signal. If they do not constitute a script, and convey language thereby, they must constitute some kind of image or at least some kind of record, some sense of the hand having deliberated and moved according to a reason that needs those marks to look as they do, and to have been placed as they have. What comprises legibility here is not the readability of the marks, but their dynamic-their poise within a field. Their actual glyphic content can be minimal, even illusory; their calligraphic suggestivity, their en-formation, suffices as their information. The recent painting of Margaret Nomentana relies on this condition of quasi-legibility-and plays crucially with its conditionality.
Throughout her career, Nomentana has regarded form as meaning. Educated in a tradition of painterly abstraction, she has always believed that shape, and color and texture and gesture and saturation, bear meaning in their very presence-or certainly in their orchestration into presence, which is the task of the non-objective artist. When Frank Stella insisted early on in his own career that “what you see is what you see,” he was not simply arguing for the sufficiency of form per se, but the sufficiency of its power to inspire sensation in the beholder. Nomentana has long subscribed to this understanding of abstraction’s power, although, as her recent work clarifies, she is less satisfied even than Stella to let form per se mean per se. She recognizes not just the metaphoric qualities of aesthetically devised visual and physical phenomena, but their integral relationship with visual and physical phenomena based on other systems, other contexts of generation. In this, Nomentana knowingly derives not simply from Stella’s generation of formalists-the generation of her teachers-but from previous generations of abstractionists whose practice relied on social ideology, perceptual investigation, and metaphysical construction as sources for their work (not to mention reasons for its existence). Her work re-explores the meaningful intricacies of early 20th century abstractionists not to revive those intricacies-she works in the belief that such intricacies do not need revising, as they have never been lost-but to capitalize on them, to find her own voice by finding her own language within a modernist discourse.
We can identify Nomentana, then, as a “neo-modernist.” Her ideals, like those of the thousands of non-objective artists who have come before her, reside in the artwork itself, and regard abstract form as a sufficient, even crucial, means of conveying sensation and sensibility between artist and viewer. This conveyance is the basic purpose of art, as it functions to stimulate more than just optical response. Its order, or disorder, provokes parallel perception in the viewer, whose regard for the world is modified thus. The formulation can be pretty, or jagged, or lyrical, or bleak-and Nomentana’s paintings have been all of these-but in each case the feeling conveyed by the formulation speaks to, or perhaps induces, sensations on the viewer's part that say something about life-something that, however profound, the viewer feels immediately.
This immediacy is a goal of abstraction- and, in work as radically simplified as Nomentana’s, this immediacy is the primary goal. The work itself is hardly simple, but it relies on a pared-down vocabulary of shape and color. Indeed, beyond its vocabulary of marks- and, you might say, its syntax of placement- Nomentana's work relies on the stark formula propounded most famously by leading abstraction theorist Hans Hofmann, a formula that posits a “figure” against a “ground.” The basic elements are that... well, that elemental, the thing rendered against, and thus standing out before, its field of visual context. (In Hofmann’s native German, the word for “object” is Gegenstand-“stand-against.”) Coming out of a landscape tradition, Hofmann himself allowed for nuanced gradation between figure and ground. But Nomentana comes out of the tradition that Hofmann helped put into motion, a mark-making tradition in which the marks are made on a field that suspends them in a depthless and yet infinite space. This tradition has been identified through the years with different groups of artists, critics, galleries, cities, and even regions, from Houston to the Canadian Prairie. Washington, in fact, is one of the major sites for this “color field” interpretation of Hofmann's teachings, and it was in Washington where Nomentana was exposed to such practice in local museums and, ultimately, at the Corcoran School of Art.
But Nomentana has lived and worked all over, from Los Angeles to Maine, from New York to Rome, and has responded to and absorbed models as diverse as Georgia O’Keeffe and Eva Hesse, the German expressionists and the Russian constructivists, Ellsworth Kelly and Morris Louis (to name only some of her modernist sources). She has long relied as well on a crucial aspect of the modernist sensibility, the sense of fracture and irruption that painter Budd Hopkins, among others, has identified as the “collage aesthetic” pervading modern (not to mention post-modern) life. As opposed to some of her other series, Nomentana has employed some collage technique in the work on view here, but, more importantly, we see a collage-like reasoning here, one that establishes a heightened contrast between figure and ground, and even between discrete figures. Indeed, Nomentana’s tendency to scatter those figures betrays a love of the aleatory, a taste for randomness and chance that, at least since Dada, has been a significant characteristic of modernist collage.
That tendency, ironically, undermines rather than supports the “readability” of Nomentana’s often calligraphic-seeming marks. The coherence discussed earlier that would give the marks a quality of legibility is not in evidence; much as it may resemble, and be derived from, calligraphy, this is not writing, and is not meant to appear as such. Rather, another kind of coherence pertains, a more planar coherence that allows Nomentana to counterpose-or, if you would, scatter-her marks in dynamic, asymmetric relationships. Refusing to think of the canvas as writing paper, she has avoided the linguistic convention of notation, opting instead for the more painterly convention of planarity. In this, Nomentana also manifests the collage sensibility, empowered as she is to work across and down the plane with a constantly varying vocabulary (if unified syntax) of marks and gestures.
What Nomentana strives for here, and in much of her work, is the sense of the presence of text rather than any actual textuality. For all her love of literature, and for all the particular pleasure and stimulation she derives from poetry, Nomentana is a painter, not a writer, and is painting and drawing, not writing. Indeed, one thing to which she does aspire is the conveyance of a sensation only conveyed abstractly, beyond words, beyond images-conveyed perhaps in music (another source of pleasure and inspiration for her-as are the related arts of dance), but otherwise available to us only in the most nuanced of non-objective imagery. Her search is, if anything, for the sublime.
Nomentana’s journey toward the sublime devolves from her commitment to abstraction itself; admiring the painting in particular of Mark Rothko, she has seen in it the infinitude and transcendence associated with the contemporary (as opposed to Kantian) definition of the sublime. In her own evolution Nomentana has explored various modes and formulations that might permit a glimpse into the marvelous abyss. But she always quite deliberately moderates that glimpse with the noise of the world and the mind. Her work does not let go of quotidian experience; the marks and shapes in the current work serve to celebrate the pulse of daily life even as it sets that pulse against an intimated fathomlessness. Rather as did O’Keeffe, Nomentana seeks the midpoint between the everyday and the eternal; unlike O’Keeffe, she does not find that midpoint by locating eternity in the everyday, but by distilling the everyday into abstract marking, and, in contrast, by giving the eternal its own visual presence, however approximate.
This, then, is how we can ultimately read Nomentana’s figure-ground relationships. The figures-marks, ciphers, proto-letters-manifest the ordinary world, but make it less ordinary. The grounds-fields of unmodulated or barely nuanced color-manifest the unknowable universe, but make it slightly more knowable. In their abstraction, the figures begin to move into the grounds. In their visualization, the grounds begin to rise to the surface. In Margaret Nomentana’s painting, the everyday and the eternal move towards one another, ever so slightly.
Los Angeles © June 2007