Meticulous application yields works with depth

ART

Goya-Girl exhibits `drop paintings'

Art Review

October 30, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Quick, what's the difference between a drip and a drop?

Answer: Jackson Pollock made "drip" canvases; Madeleine Keesing makes "drop" paintings.

Keesing is a Washington-area artist whose approach to painting shares a spiritual kinship with that of the late New York abstract expressionist in its exploration of paint as a material and in its meditative quality. Her luminous large-scale abstractions now are on display at Goya-Girl Press Gallery through Saturday. (After the show closes, several of Keesing's paintings and prints will remain at the gallery indefinitely.)

But where Pollock created his paintings by freely pouring, dripping and spattering pigments across the surface of the canvas, Keesing's are meticulously constructed out of hundreds of parallel rows of paint drops that run horizontally, each tiny sphere of pigment individually applied with a brush.

A typical Keesing painting may consist of anywhere between 20,000 and 60,000 such individual drops of paint, all precisely ordered in subtly shaded, variously hued lines of color that seem to shimmer and fluoresce on the retina.

Keesing has been steadily refining her technique since the 1980s, when she produced the first canvases in what would become her signature style. More than most contemporary art, Keesing's paintings suffer in reproductions like the one in this newspaper, which simply cannot convey the emotional intensity of the originals. From a distance, her canvases look like finely woven fabrics whose colors seem to ripple and flow over the surface in liquid eddies. Only when viewed from no more than a few inches away do her fluid designs resolve themselves into tens of thousands of tiny dots of paint.

Keesing has said that for years she resisted exploring her unique method, fearing the work would be dismissed as merely compulsive or obsessive.

For example, it can take her a week or more to paint the 100 to 200 rows of drops needed to completely cover a canvas from top to bottom in a single hue, and most of her canvases have several different sets of hues superimposed on top of each other. After a painting is finished, it may still require months or even years to dry.

No wonder that for Keesing, the act of painting is itself a kind of meditation. She paints each drop one at a time, lifting her brush off the canvas after every stroke and reloading it with paint from her mixing bowl before applying the next, always working from left to right and from the bottom of the canvas to the top.

Within this seemingly rigid and inflexible manner of working, Keesing finds great freedom of expression. Sometimes it comes from the subtle tension between individual drops of pigment and the hues they are painted over: yellow over gold over red, for example, or cranberry on top of lavender. Sometimes it emanates from small gradations of hue: ivory over cream, or violet over indigo.

Her latest works are brilliant coloristic tours de force that clearly show the influence of the Washington color school of the 1960s, as well as 1970s minimalism, performance art and feminist reinterpretations of the modernist grid. But it has only been since last year, when she was given a one-woman show at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art, that she has finally begun to win the wider recognition that her work deserves.

Exhibit

What: Works by Madeleine Keesing

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today through Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday

Where: Goya-Girl Press Gallery, 3000 Chestnut Ave., Suite 214

Call: 410-366-2001

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