OPEN SERIES Essay
When I first became acquainted with Linda Schrank’s paintings and works on paper some years ago, I was initially attracted by their radiant color and energetic drawing. I was fascinated, too, by the way she created dense, warped grids – or rather suggested that she created dense, warped grids – with overlapping accretions of bold strokes. The seductions of hue, rhythm, and surface were immediately apparent, but these works soon insisted that they required prolonged attention if they were to yield up the full complexities and subtleties of their structure. If you spent time with one of Schrank’s surprising paintings, you discovered that nothing was quite as it seemed to be on first acquaintance. Just as you thought you had understood the logic of the skewed basket weave of opposing swipes, for example, the illusory grid these gestures hinted at began to unravel. The fabric of broad strokes pulsed and flexed, as if it were being distorted by internal pressures or shifts in tension outside the borders of the image, yet you remained aware of the subliminal influence of the grid as an organizing principle. Crisp-edged, neatly disposed dots, sharply defined lozenges, and overscaled swipes, often in hues darker and more sober than the paintings’ dominant golden glow, added still more tonal and spatial complexity, as well as associations with the art of the past ranging from Analytic Cubism to Byzantine mosaic to the gold grounds of early Renaissance and Sienese painting, along with echoes of the photo-mechanical and the commercial. New intricacies of drawing and mark-making revealed themselves when you came close, but when you tried to move through Schrank’s webs of strokes and sweeps, you were not only confronted by the fact of paint, but also made aware of how her process involved both addition and removal – sometimes, it seemed, at the same time. The physicality of these paintings was so assertive that rather than plunging into a secret, interior space, when you tried to penetrate the grids, you were made to reconsider the materiality of the delicately inflected but ultimately impenetrable surface.
Striking evidence of change came in 2006, when Schrank made her first trip to India. An extended stay in New Delhi, made possible by a fellowship to an artist’s residency program, elicited the intimate, luminous, notably “open” watercolors, known as the Sanskriti series. The fresh palette and the modest scale of these free-wheeling paintings seem to have been responses to both the Mughal miniatures Schrank studied in the National Museum in New Delhi and the vibrant colors she saw everywhere around her, as she explored her new surroundings. The transparency of the Sanskriti series was both a choice and a factor of their medium, chosen for its speed and portability. The structure of the watercolors was no less complex than that of the paintings that preceded them, but far more relaxed. The mesh of disciplining, overlapped strokes began to fray and dissolve, as if Schrank’s immersion in a dramatically new place and a dramatically new culture exerted an influence more powerful and immediate than the abstract memory of the grid. The dots and staccato marks that played such important roles in the earlier works were still present, but imbued with new associations. Schrank has described the cursive, multivalent marks and pools of color of the Sanskriti series as specifically provoked by her experience of India: “the myriad streets, the anarchy of traffic and the tangle of the Banyan roots,” as she puts it.
The paintings that followed, over the next year and a half, build on the strengths of the“woven” works that preceded them – their intensity, complexity, and radiance – but they also move into new territory. Schrank’s recent works are clearly informed by her encounter with India, but they also reflect her sensitivity to the environments in which she has worked since the Delhi residency. The transformations provoked by sub-continent persist, but they have been modified by being conflated with, for example, her accumulated understanding of the Italian countryside, where she spends a substantial part of every year, and the visual cacophony of downtown New York that fills the windows of her Soho studio. The results are entirely abstract, but richly suggestive, at once mysterious and plainly allusive. Most striking is the airiness and transparency of Schrank’s recent work. The concealing fabric of strokes has completely eroded, revealing an engaging universe of quirky forms, spots, dots, hooks, strokes, and erasures that float free among veils of light-struck color. An accomplished printmaker, Schrank has always been interested in exploring ways of transferring the medium to the support – the hovering dots of the “woven” paintings often appeared to have been stamped on – but her recent work seems to place more emphasis on the visible evidence of gesture and her method assures that in her canvases, panels, and works on paper alike, paint, however thinly applied, sits up on the surface, making its inherent tactility known. Dots, spatters, and carefully drawn rings of color punctuate the recent paintings, but they no longer have the mechanical associations they once had. Instead, they read as revelations of the artist’s hand – as slightly tremulous and fragile touches, for all their authority and clarity.
At the same time, these small touches evoke the organic, suggesting stylized eyes and one-celled organisms. Larger, more complex configurations, along with flourishes of delicate line and vaguely geometric fragments – like multi-celled organisms and creatures who resist identification or wisps of the earlier paintings’ basket weave, come unmoored – enter into conversations with the spots and dots. From a distance, each of these elements announces itself as a self-contained, fairly coherent entity. Approach, and each reverts to being an incident of pure painting. Scales shift and so does the implied reading of the picture. The suggestive illusion of an alternative world becomes less potent. The macrocosm gives way to the microcosm as the unexpected configurations shatter into delicate lines, loose brushstrokes, and carefully delineated shapes, making you acutely aware of both the fiction of painting and the presence of the artist as the author of eloquent marks. As in the Mughal miniatures Schrank studied in India, some of the most remarkable subtleties of these paintings become visible when seen from a close viewpoint. Here, however, we discover not a wealth of pattern and detail, but nuances of paint application – layers, brushy swipes, edges, stamped marks, fine lines, and more – that conspire once again, as you move away, to become the eloquent, nameless protagonists in Schrank’s inchoate dramas. If this sounds tricky, think again. But the uneasy coexistence of these two readings of these elements adds an enlivening tension to the paintings. From a distance, the size disparity among the various “characters” suggests that they occupy different spatial zones, while from a closer view, they become part of a continuous, inflected paint surface.
Everything seems to be in flux. Schrank’s idiosyncratic configurations coalesce only momentarily, like primordial, elemental life forms spawned by the sea of transparent color, and threaten to dissolve again if you look away. The constellations of marks can seem to be in motion, repulsed by the boundaries of the panel or tugged by some gravitational field to the center. They drift, as if pulled by tidal forces, towards one side or another, or shrink from one of the corners. Sometimes, everything expands across the entire surface to form a pulsing, irregularly inflected “cloud,” a slow swirl of floating dots, lines, and spirals, swoops, scrapes, and patches, in and on a flood of delicate but brilliant color. The associations with the primordial are irresistible, so it’s interesting to learn that Schrank came across a Dogon creation myth, through sheer serendipity, at the time she was working on one of these paintings. Because of the fortuitous aptness of the Dogon account of the birth of the universe from a cosmic egg – also described as the opening of the god, Amma’s, eye – Schrank titled the picture Amma’s Egg, The coincidence pleased her. “I just happened to be reading about the Dogon culture while I was working on this painting and the name seemed absolutely right on, eyes, spiraling movement and all.” Other associations are equally strong. The all-overness of Schrank’s compositions, their dependence on a multiplicity of loosely associated elements, the delicacy of her drawing, and the ambiguity of her configurations, all invite consideration of such modernist antecedents as Joan Miró’s intricately rendered “Constellations” or Paul Klee’s abstract glyphs, with their uncanny sense of animation, although Schrank’s “imagery” is very much her own and devoid of Surrealist overtones.
There are strong family resemblances among Schrank’s recent paintings, yet each has its own space and rhythm, its own mood and temperature. Each is ruled by a single potent color – electric blue, diaphanous lavender, a strange green that shifts to yellow – that functions not so much as “background” but as a generating force that determines the character of all the other elements. Schrank’s recent paintings and works on paper, individually and collectively, are evidence of new inquiries and new quests, yet she has clearly taken the virtues of her earlier pictures as points of departure. The alluring color, inventive mark-making, and unpredictable space that have long distinguished Schrank’s work are still abundantly present but so are fresh considerations. Her recent paintings are elegant, accomplished, and full of surprises.