Materials such as graphite, acrylic and linen work independently and together to compile Ena Swansea’s quasi-abstract paintings. Highlights from the Contemporary American artist’s latest body of work are now on view in her third solo exhibition with Ben Brown Gallery, green light. Nature (lakes, rivers, forests, woods, and beaches) clearly inspires Swansea’s majestic work. At first glance, the paintings are without a doubt aesthetically pleasing.
The artist’s talent, though, lies in her ability to quickly complicate this perhaps initially superficial beauty. Viewers are drawn further and more intensely into each painting with Swansea’s seamless re-creation of the emotions that promise to accompany being ‘one with nature.’ Swansea captures the meditative, radiating and healing qualities of the natural world brilliantly, transporting exhibition goers directly into the picturesque landscapes. Simultaneously, each painting boasts a luminous, shimmering surface that only deepens this experience.
Swansea’s “extensive experimentation and understanding of paint chemistry,” allows her “to push the limits of what paint can do,” explains Christopher Baer, Ben Brown Gallery’s Managing Director. “It’s about capturing the feeling of light and transparency on the surfaces of the world around us without being literal.” Initially (I am embarrassed to admit) I chalked each paintings’ uncanny iridescence up to tactful spot lighting. Said brilliance, however, was not dulled in the least when Baer turned off the lights. Swansea’s carefully constructed colours, lines, shapes, and figures continued to glow.
Central Park Pond, (2019) had an especially noticeable sheen emphasized in what appeared to be the reflection of a snow-covered Central Park winter wood.
“The brilliant and the muted colours of cinema, the velvet blacks, have stayed with Swansea’s work since film school. Swansea’s attention to the effects of transparency can be seen in her experimental investigations into the myriad ways in which an image itself can be migratory, invoking an oblique political critique,”Christopher Baer
In some ways, Swansea seems to deliberately ignore reality and lose herself in fairytale-esque representations of nature. The artist “avoids being descriptive,” and instead “works on a frontier where images almost dissolve into abstraction…” Some of the artist’s paintings also feature figures, but instead of letting them dominate the scene, she almost constructs them as figments of the imagination; they work wonderfully to juxtapose the more fluid, but equally striking landscape which is always the star of Swansea’s show. It is this contrast between figure and abstraction that facilitates Swansea’s flawless ability to apprehend the very feelings evoked by environmental beauty.
Swansea‘s work has always been labour-intensive, but like many other contemporary artists, her process and its end result actually benefited from the brutal seclusion brought about by Covid-19.
“The aesthetic qualities of the paintings were changed by the experience of long periods of complete isolation in the middle of New York City”Baer explained
“Solitude enabled the artist to work uninterrupted on many paintings at one time, so a new kind of cross-dialogue between the works became possible. ”