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  • Arthur Bacon

LISE GRAHAM at Seattle Design Center

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

The paintings of Lise Graham, now on display at the Seattle Design Center (Ste 288) are some of the most exciting abstract paintings I have seen in a long time.

One might argue that there are two kinds of abstract painters; intellectual and emotive. Malevich, Vasareli, Albers, Mondrian, Judd, Riley and Stella are all sternly intellectual while Klee, Pollock, Rothko, Kandinski, Miro, Krasner and Guston are arguably more emotive painters. The basic principal of intellectual abstraction is the “negation of visual phenomena in the objective world” according to their progenitor Kasimir Malevich, while “emotive abstraction” allows for extrapolation of visual phenomena and seems to be more evolutionary and often a temporary stage in the artist’s oeuvre. In layman’s terms “intellectual abstraction” is meant to be hermetic both in its image and the handling of the materials (we are not allowed to get involved) while “emotive abstraction” invites the viewer’s interpretation of meaning and the pleasure of the artist’s touch.

This is why I say Ms. Graham’s paintings are so exciting; I can actually (honestly) partake in them! Lets say you are looking at Frank Stella’s Telluride or one of Bridget Riley’s stripe paintings, I guarantee you will be hard-pressed to explain what “they mean” when your ten year old daughter says, “Why are these paintings in this museum daddy?” unless you are very familiar with Clement Greenberg, Barbara Rose or Rosalind Krauss. You could just be cool and quote Stella, “What you see is what you see” honey and introduce her to the “in” crowd. Like Peter Schjeldahl said in the New Yorker once, in an article about “White on White Bad Boy” Robert Ryman, “getting a Ryman can produce a thrill equal to grasping a difficult mathematical proposition.” This begs the question of whether it is more important to actually love the work, or love the swell of one’s chest in being in on a secret that nobody else knows. As a matter of fact, it is de rigueur for the abstract purists to reject any “interpretation” of their work except in the most Baudrillardian ambiguity.

Lise Graham grew up in the fastness of Canada’s maritime provinces and studied art in Boston and Seattle. When you look at a Graham painting you know you are looking at some thing of significance. Of course, it doesn’t matter what you think you are looking at but at the very least you stand there ten feet from the canvas and let your eye wander from place to place and you are free to imagine rocks, the sea, rivers, distant horizons or clouds; you know you are looking at more than paint on a flat surface. Graham’s paintings are about memories long forgotten, vaguely suggested.

From the other side of the room, Reveil, Morning’s Sudden Light, 2011, reminds us of Rothko, the dark green horizontal shape at the bottom surrounded by a lighter blue-green that melds into a kind of purplish haze with a thin, yellowish line across the top. From a proper distance though, of about three feet away, we see the autochthonous dark green shape as a possible island and can imagine a sea and horizon. I am absolutely positive that Graham is not consciously intimating anything but the possibility is always there to be savored in addition to the fulgent hues and elegant brushwork that are so consistent in her work.

Harbour (2012) is a symphony of shapes, marks, and drawing. From a distance one can imagine sea rocks, crashing waves, eddies, urchins, mists and tides. A six inch square of the painting reveals another world of highly developed determinations, pauses of heart, exploration and exclamation points in the myriad marks, hues, scrapes and scumbles. Nothing is half-baked in a Graham painting; everything is the work of a highly refined multi-faceted painter.

Ineluctably we are products of certain times and places and without knowing anything about Ms. Graham one might conclude a provenance of the Eastern seaboard or perhaps Ireland in her work. Rolling Greens Across the River, 2012 is a 4×6 foot painting of rocks that are not rocks and surrounded by water that is not water. The large, slightly triangular shape on the right repeats itself about five times edging up toward the corner like a distant memory trying to regain a semblance of accuracy; meanwhile we are pulled around back to the bottom of the painting where the paint flows Rothko-like suggesting more water, around more mossy rocks that rise into misty skies and everything changes as we move in close to exult in the delicate brushwork, scumbling and melded colors.

I do not think that Ms Graham was ever thinking of real shapes when she painted any of these paintings because they are too good, they could not have been consciously contrived. This is the work of a mature artist who has been “around the block” and is painting for the sake of painting but, because of who she is, the life she has lived, the joys and travails of a full life, the painting is rich in the suggestiveness that escapes from the unconscious when one is in “dead stroke,” to use a pool analogy. It is said that Mondrian actually used to pull the curtains down on the train so that he did not have to look outside (and that he kept his studio closed off from any view of nature). In these paintings Ms. Graham has opened the blinds of her past with stunning effervescence.

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