|I value only those artists, who really are artists, that is, who consciously or unconsciously, in an entirely original form, embody the expression of the inner life; who work only for this end and cannot work otherwise. —Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Self Expression. This is ostensibly the aim of all artists, and certainly the most common euphemism employed to describe abstract artwork. For Kandinsky, in his classic text, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), self-expression and the aim of art was a spiritual endeavor, one that led the artist on a journey into his/her interior wellspring of mystical and sacred inspiration, and that compelled him/her to express this to an audience, and for the audience to share in it.|
I value only those artists, who really are artists, that is, who consciously or unconsciously, in an entirely original form, embody the expression of the inner life; who work only for this end and cannot work otherwise. —Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art
Self Expression. This is ostensibly the aim of all artists, and certainly the most common euphemism employed to describe abstract artwork. For Kandinsky, in his classic text, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), self-expression and the aim of art was a spiritual endeavor, one that led the artist on a journey into his/her interior wellspring of mystical and sacred inspiration, and that compelled him/her to express this to an audience, and for the audience to share in it.
While the concept of “self-expression” may have lost its meaning since Kandinsky’s era, I am pleased to proclaim that the concept of “the spirituality in art” is still intact, a fact that is well evidenced by the thoughtful and delicate acrylic abstractions of Israeli artist, Rotem Reshef.
Reflective of her own interior emotional landscape, Reshef’s paintings evidence her interest in biomorphic forms. Loosely based on natural forms (plants, water, cells, molecules, particles), her richly saturated colors leak and bleed into each other and toward the edges of her compositions. Following on in the tradition first set out by Kandinsky himself, and successively explored by creative greats including Emile Nolde, Marsden Hartley, Lee Krasner, and Terry Winters, Reshef’s images evoke the ways in which nature is inherently abstract, from its most microscopic molecular units to its macroscopic cosmic expansiveness.
Employing a technique that is similar to true fresco, Reshef paints wet into wet, using diluted acrylics on water-primed damp canvases, which enables her pigments to flow and merge into pools, rivulets, floods, and puddles of color (much like watercolor). There is a fresh improvisational feel to her images that is comparative to music, and again evidences their lineage from Kandinsky, paralleling his own inspiration from the music of Schonberg. Sharing a similar sense of immediacy and experimentation, and a continued relationship with nature, these works demonstrate a great variety of mark making—from impasto swirling lines, to Rorschach test-like blots, to tadpole-esque dotted patterning. Fresh and elegant, her works substantiate her keen sensibility and adroit handling of delicate media, and highlight her playful sense of experimentation.
It is sometimes difficult to tell in looking at these images whether Reshef is depicting a bouquet of blossoming flowers, a cluster of luscious jellyfish, or a microscopic view of cellular forms. Though reminiscent of botanical imaging, Reshef has a less than scientific interest in these images as she invents hybridized images of life and phenomena. Even so, some of her images clearly refer to the microscopic, molecular, and scientific. Take Hovering (2008), for example, a compelling canvas depicting six suspended rotund forms evocative of cells or microbes floating in a gelatinous pool. Carefully rendered in diluted hues of watery grays, browns, and greens, the abstracted forms demonstrate a gentle and careful touch that is reminiscent of the kind of feminine ovular forms Eva Hesse explored in her proto-feminist post-minimalist sculptures. Similarly, Break Through (2008) evokes a petri dish cross section of squishy fecund microscopic structures, which squeeze and push against each other in a tight and compact composition of organic flesh-colored forms. Similar to this work is Moving Along (2009), a horizontal composition depicting two worm-like forms extending from the two opposing ends of the composition, over which Reshef has applied numerous interruptions of squiggly aquamarines, olives, and oranges. Such images trade on a logic of systematic methodologies to provoke deeper understandings of the more numinous qualities of such regimented contexts.
Her titles often key us into which specific element of nature was her point of departure. In Butterfly II (2009), for example, one of her most striking works, we are presented with a bloody bulls-eye out of which fluid streams of violets, peaches, ochres, and grays radiate. Like a multicolored stain left behind from an unintended spill of liquid onto paper, the image references the Dadaist and Surrealist “chance operations,” and yet is so clearly precise and exacting in its graceful, yet off-kilter composition. Cloud (2008) similarly arresting, yet completely contrasting in ambience, depicts a gray/black/brown scrubbily-brushed ground of sorts, out of which a tornado-like funneling plume of grays and browns emerges. Elegant and modest in its simple presentation, the image is straightforward and undemanding, and yet completely sophisticated and absorbing. The same is true of Tacoma Stans [Racome Stans] (2009), an image obviously sourced from a loosely bunched collection of yellow trumpet bush—bright golden trumpet-shaped flowers—and yet within the abstracted gushing swells of her agile brush stokes, it expands into something more supernatural, lyrical, and soulful.
Other works boast less indicative titles, yet still evince that same sense of mystery and wonder that Kandinsky so vigorously sought. Images such as Pink Flash (2009)—a satin-like mellifluence of cloud-like fuchsias and pinks, and Orange Celebration (2009)—hovering flows of reds, oranges, olives, and aquamarines—draw to mind the organic and rotund forms of Georgia O’Keefe’s works. While some images, such as Rust (2008), a handsome, yet somewhat gloomy all-over composition of grays, browns, and blacks, transport us to that London-fog-rainy-day sentiment of longing and alienation, others such as One Chilly Morning (2008), send an icy shiver up the spine through its frosty arctic blues and seaweed greens that expand out over a ground of gessoed white canvas.
In fact, in most of these images, it is the negative space, which carries the most significance. Take, for instance, In Statu Nascendi (2009), a festive and radiant multihued image of bulbous clusters and spindles that dance across the canvas surface. Here, however, it is the power of the white ground that sets off the composition and draws out the strength of the image to its pinnacle. Similarly, in Shine (2010)—a florid and expansive composition of unfurling emollient hues of peaches, goldenrods, umbers, and blues—the negative space is made even more prominent by Reshef’s supple pours of pure white pigment that resonate crisply at the edges of the color flows. Sinuous orchid-like strands of paint surge outward from the center toward the edge of the canvas, emboldened by the cavernous hollows of negative space circumscribing their presence and defining the composition.
Reshef’s reliance on her inner intuition and feel for the pure sensations of color—elements that were also key to Kandinsky’s approach—are unambiguous. Her images are joyous and celebratory, protective and soft, almost womb-like. She reveals her process, leaving the traces of her practice exposed and available to the viewer to experience both visually and viscerally in their watery layering. Yet, she pushes beyond the possibilities of watercolor, exploiting acrylic’s innate intensity of pigments to maximize the emotional content of the imagery.
Ultimately, it is through her sprightly touch, her broad vocabulary of painterly technique, and her approach to color, that as critic Joshua Simon describes, her work “suggest[s] something that is beyond our familiarity with the world.” Perhaps it is just this that Kandinsky was on to. By using what we are most familiar with—nature—and using its mystical presence and force as a point of departure into abstraction, the art itself transports us to another place that is familiar, and yet not. Reshef’s powerfully spiritual paintings transport us to other realms that enable us to gain insight into our own inner natures. In the end, perhaps, this is the greatest form of self-expression.