City Gallery Finds Hope In Abstraction

Roberta FriedmanRoberta Friedman’s Hot Stuff, true to its name, blazes with whirls and streaks of bold color, lancing across the paper. Here and there are corrosive interruptions that crackle with their own energy. It’s the product of a process using hot wax on a steel plate that required Friedman to work fast and embrace accidents — and allowed her a chance to express her current state of mind.

Friedman joined fellow artists Joy Bush, Judy Atlas, and Nancy Eisenfeld for “Abstract/Distract,” now running at City Gallery through Jan. 27. Producing work for the show, Friedman explained, allowed each artist to use her art to respond to the times.

“We didn’t want to specifically make a political statement,” Friedman said. But as they talked about what they wanted to do, they found that each of them felt “unsettled” and “distressed.”

“We wanted to present our skewed vision of the world,” she said, “despite the skewed vision of the world.”

Producing hot wax monotypes involves first using a hot box with a stainless steel surface. Heating that surface allows an artist to effectively paint with wax, though it has to done fast. The print is created by pressing paper to the wax while it’s still liquid. Alterations, and additions, are possible afterward, but the process, a bit like watercolor, is immediate and more than a little unpredictable.

“For me, there was a total freedom in doing these,” Freidman said. She embraced the spontaneity they required. “It was an escape,” she said, though not escapist. “The color made me feel as though, despite everything that was going on, I could still make something that was fresh and new.” And those prints with their vibrant colors insisted on life, on joy.

“There’s hope,” she said.

Joy BushIn her photographs, Joy Bush has a knack for throwing off the viewer’s sense of scale. Her images can seem at first like landscapes, photographs of big spaces — lights on telephone poles, or the surfaces of large bodies of water. But look again, and you see that they’re just the opposite. Bush’s camera lens is focused up very close, at “slivers of walls and pavement,” Friedman said. Bush invites us to find the world inside the cracks in the sidewalk, the little details that matter.

“I pay attention to those things that most of us overlook and give those things a chance to be seen,” Bush wrote in her artist statement. “It is very different from just going out and photographing in a hpahazard way. It is studying, looking.”

Judy AtlasWhere Bush moved in on detail, Judy Atlas found herself taking a step back. Friedman explained that Atlas, who now lives close to the shore, draws inspiration from the seascapes around her. But like Friedman, her art isn’t simply a means of escape; it’s a way of coming to terms.

“When I bring my brush to the canvas, I do not have a preconceived image in mind,” Atlas wrote in her accompanying statement. “Instead, I take my time, to enjoy blending colors, making shapes and responding to the image as it develops. Most recently, I have found myself reflecting on today’s sometimes frenzied and scary current events ... or dreaming of more peaceful times. These paintings grew from this process.”

Nancy EisenfeldIn response to the unsettling situation around her, artist Nancy Eisenfeld took an even longer view. “Nature’s forces are benevolent and destructive, necessary for our existence and out of human control,” she wrote in her artist statement. “The cycles of growth and decay and resurgence of life again constantly affect us. My sculptures, drawings and paintings address these issues.”

Eisenfeld’s energetic, kinetic paintings take on an additional weight: While this exhibit was planned eight months ago, a few weeks ago, Eisenfeld, a founding member of City Gallery, suffered a debilitating stroke in her studio in Erector Square. She survived it but is affected physically and verbally.

“She has been an arts fixture here for 50 years,” said Friedman, “the most creative person I’ve ever met,” and a role model in how to be a continuously practicing artist. “She’ll pick up the bark of a felled tree and lug it home.” She’s known for collecting anything she can use — “wire, plastic, broken glass.”

“She makes art to keep herself whole,” Friedman said. “She is a wonderful teacher and incredible mentor. She has a gift for evaluating artwork,” offering critiques that are “always thoughtful and helpful. Never hurtful. Often productive.” In helping others finish their pieces, “she’s famous for looking at an abstract piece and saying, ‘Turn it around. Turn it over.’ And it’s better.”

Eight months ago, when the four artists decided to do a show together, “Nancy would have enough work done for 400 shows,” Friedman said. “The fact that she can’t do art right now is devastating.”

“Abstract/Distract” runs at City Gallery, 994 State St., through Jan. 27. Visit the gallery’s website here for hours and more information.


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