ITHACA, NY — although difficult to tell from afar, longtime New York City painter Ellen Weider appears to have carved out a distinctive, if unassuming and surely niche, place in the overcrowded landscape of contemporary abstraction. Working primarily on linen and using pronounced graphite lines as well as areas of acrylic, and sometimes gouache, Weider constructs unstable little toy architectures. Meant as allegories for the human condition — in particular our emotional and fraught relationship to space and containment — the artist approaches these potentially ponderous matters with a welcoming levity.
For her new solo show at Corners Gallery, “Psychic Geometry” (April 19 – May 28), Weider is exhibiting 13 modestly-sized paintings on linen boards framed behind glass. (Save for one smaller piece, all are 16” x 20”.) This is the first, and hopefully not the last, local presentation of her work.
All but one or two of her paintings here stick to a certain basic structure. Against beige, raw linen backdrops, the artist interposes one or two larger areas, patchily painted in pale, iridescent pink or turquoise that shift depending on the angle from which one approaches them. Like the “panels” in a comic, these enframe a narrative scene — although the storytelling here is more implicit. Inside these enclosures, loosely drawn geometric and iconic shapes seem to float, as if dream-like reverie.
As in some pieces by Paul Klee (the perennial fountainhead for work in this vein), Weider most commonly combines the flat, frontal shapes characteristic of geometric abstraction with a whimsical, mock-naïve take on drawn perspective.
There’s a considerable range here just under the surface of Weider’s deceptively consistent “look.” While most of her pieces here deploy a Crayola-box profusion of colors, I was stuck by a handful using a more constrained approach.
Done in acrylic without gouache, “Partial Recall” is a particularly striking example. Outlined in crimson chalk or pencil, two contiguous geometric shapes (a triangle and a parallelogram) form a sort of toppled rooftop shape that wants to but doesn’t quite bump up against the lower left corner. This “roof” has been colored in with a faintly sparkling pale turquoise that shifts to white. There are no other colors. Outlined in the same dark red, three iconic shapes — a wide and a skinny ladder and a staircase — appear as holes in the geometric slab, revealing the linen-beige background behind.
Beyond tedious description, “Recall” can be interpreted as a meditation on the relationship between presence and absence; Seeing and experiencing something directly versus imagining or recalling it, as it were, in one’s mind. But neither rote description nor armchair interpretation really get to the heart of what Weider’s art is about. Rather, like any fully realized body of work, they embody a way of speaking — here at its most concise and poetic.
More characteristic of her work, at least as seen here, is a piece like “Exhibitionist.” A wobbly, pale blue-green staircase serves as a container for a panoply of floating shapes colored-in a variety of hues and intensities: triangles, circles, rectangles, cubes, a crescent, a ladder, a ribbon, an obelisk. The “top” sides of this ghostly structure — the part you might attempt to climb — bear further shapes in negative/positive space raw linen.
“Made in May,” in contrast to everything else here, is entirely flat and frontal, lacking a drawn perspective. Although reductive and abstract, the piece comically suggests blooms in a flowerpot. Surreally, these blossom both in the above, cloud-like pink area and in the bottom, vessel-like area filled in the same color. These “flowers” (there are other ways to interpret the piece) are an irregular process of circle-dots: each in repeating or unique colors that sing out noisily.
Weider’s is joyous, invigorating work. Her paintings here are both playful and introspective, of their time without slavishly following trends or trying too hard to be hip. “Geometry” is a tight, rewarding show: one that might delight a newcomer to abstract painting while teasing cognoscenti with its painterly and art historical know-how.
These metaphorical geometries are also usefully viewed in the context of Ithaca-area painters working in abstract, and particularly “geometric” abstract modes. Particularly notable in this regard are the paintings of Domenica Brockman, who has previously exhibited at Corners. (Her art, like Weider’s, can be viewed and followed online.) Working primarily with encaustic and acrylic on wood panels, Brockman’s work likewise plays off of contrasts between the austere and the exuberant, linear geometry and painterly touch, modernist tradition and contemporary insouciance .