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Confronting the Canvas: Six Women of Abstraction

By Claire Fenton

Abstract Expressionism has historically been defined by male artists who rose to fame in post-World War II America. While women were practicing unique modes of painting alongside their male counterparts, they were given little emphasis or attention within the canon of art history then as they are still not today.

“Confronting the Canvas: Women of Abstraction,” on display June 4 through September 4 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, gathers the works of Keltie Ferris, Maya Hayuk, Jill Nathanson, Fran O’Neill, Jackie Saccoccio and Anke Weyer. This show does not attempt to rewrite history, but instead it identifies and gives prominence to emerging and mid-career women working in the field of gestural abstraction today. Curated by Jaime DeSimone, it is one of the first museum exhibitions to focus solely on contemporary female painters.

Fran O’Neill, don’t back down, 2015, oil on canvas, 66” x 66.” Courtesy of the artist.

Fran O’Neill, don’t back down, 2015, oil on canvas, 66” x 66.” Courtesy of the artist.

Consisting of approximately 30 works, the exhibition explores the manner in which these women appropriate both the physical, dramatic processes and the expressive freedom of direct gesture at the core of action painting, redeploying the now-historic style to boldly advance the abstract painting of our time. This curatorial project is not necessarily a revisionist perspective of the New York School but a report from the front line about the current state of abstraction by women painters living and working in New York today.

New York-based Ferris employs a spray gun to paint, or in her own words “bedazzle,” a canvas. By doing so, she transforms a two-dimensional surface into pulsating layers of mark and color. Often discussed in terms of graffiti or the digital age, Ferris’ experimentation with dots, splats, streaks and swirls in yellows, pinks, purples, blues, even white, harmonize throughout the geometric fields.

Anke Weyer, Myellow, 2015, oil and acrylic on canvas, 84” x 66.” Peter Sahlman Collection. Courtesy of CANADA. Photo: Jason Mandella.

Anke Weyer, Myellow, 2015, oil and acrylic on canvas, 84” x 66.” Peter Sahlman Collection. Courtesy of CANADA. Photo: Jason Mandella.

With their symmetrical compositions, intricate patterns and lush colors, Hayuk’s paintings and massively scaled murals recall views of outer space, traditional Ukrainian crafts, airbrushed manicures and mandalas. Hayuk weaves visual information from her immediate surroundings into her elaborate abstractions, creating an engaging mix of referents from popular culture and advanced painting practices alike, while connecting to the ongoing pursuit of psychedelic experience in visual form.

Nathanson’s Color Field paintings are rich with contradiction as they explore color energies, material versus immaterial, as well as tensions between form and color. Process oriented, she embarks on a thorough practice of creating studies from torn plastic colored sheets before finalizing placements and hues. Nathanson then pours polymer gels of handcrafted oils and acrylics into elegant, fluid paintings on panel.

Jill Nathanson, Brass Instrument, 2015, acrylic and polymers on panel, 60” x 60.” Courtesy of Berry Campbell Gallery.

Jill Nathanson, Brass Instrument, 2015, acrylic and polymers on panel, 60” x 60.” Courtesy of Berry Campbell Gallery.

The paintings of the Australian-born O’Neill rely upon a construction/deconstruction equation, where she uses her physical body to produce, alter, destroy and re-create oversized gestures. Layer upon layer, O’Neill applies paint only to swipe, smear and remove it with her body or another material. Her paintings are as much an additive process as a subtractive one, where at times she reinvents imagery on the same canvas. Most recently, her large-scale gestural paintings capture one movement within a square canvas.

In 2008, abstract painter Saccoccio first began an ambitious body of work relating to portraiture. Her “improvisational portraits,” as she refers to them, are borne out of her interest in Renaissance and Mannerist portraiture. In her quest to reinterpret portraiture, she researched the materials, such as mica, utilized by Renaissance painters. Evolving the practice, Saccoccio’s surfaces are freckled with mica and translucent varnishes, creating multilayered planes of shifting forms. In these large-scale paintings, Saccoccio’s process includes tipping, dragging and shaking the large-scale works over one another, where liquid pools of color, directional lines and translucent orbs coexist. Saccoccio is also the inaugural recipient of MOCA Jacksonville’s Brooke and Hap Stein Emerging Artist Prize, awarded in March 2016.

Keltie Ferris, Maxxx, 2012, oil and acrylic on canvas, 72” x 60.” Courtesy of Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York.

Keltie Ferris, Maxxx, 2012, oil and acrylic on canvas, 72” x 60.” Courtesy of Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York.

German émigré Anke Weyer extends the practice of gestural abstraction by attacking a blank canvas with pure gusto. One sees how her instinctive approach surfaces in spontaneous, bold and expressive brushstrokes that document the process of painting. In the large vertical compositions, Weyer’s bold, expressive brushstrokes and intense colors vibrate off the canvas.

“Confronting the Canvas: Women of Abstraction” is on view through September 4. The Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville is located at 333 North Laura St., Jacksonville, Fla. 32202 | Phone: 904-366-6911 | mocajacksonville.unf.edu.

Claire Fenton is an arts writer based in Jacksonville, Fla