By Jeanne Brasile
At the onset of the pandemic, artist Rachael Wren spent more time than usual in nature looking at trees – noticing the subtleties of space and her relationship to it. The constants of the square canvas and gridded plane provide a stable ground for experimentation with other variables such as mark-making, color, line and shape. While ostensibly about trees, these eleven new paintings -completed in the past two years – depict various arrangements of vertical trunks cropped at the top and stripped of branches and leaves. Yet, the underlying gridlines, left visible amid the overlying composition, hint at something more complex. Wren’s use of the tree and the grid provide the scaffolding around which she constructs her richly nuanced conversations about atmosphere as subject. Wren’s paintings convey a sense of proprioception, or kinaesthesia, in wooded spaces she shares with viewers. This is brought to bear in the gallery, along with the visitor’s relationships to the space and paintings within. These connections are heightened by Rick Wester’s sensitive installation.
Anchoring the exhibit from opposing ends of the gallery are two 72″ square canvases, “Already There” and “Thicket.” The large format is a breakthrough for Wren who generally paints in a 48” or 36” square. Moving up in size enhances the experience of physically entering the fictive space of the painting while concomitantly establishing a relationship to the architecture of the gallery and the other paintings. “Thicket” with its greenish-gray palette draws us into the receding space of a dense composition filled with hazy, foggy light from a source on the left. The trees recede into a darker space on the right, giving viewers an opening to enter the wooded scene. “Already There” is more open spatially with an energetic orange palette that shifts in a gradient to blue-gray moving to the top of the painting. The brushstrokes are loose, barely held together by the freely rendered verticals of the trees. The tension is palpable, as if the trees are on the verge of dissolution, merging into the space around them.
Highlights of the show include “Encounter” which seems to glow from within. The large, cantilevered brushstrokes sit atop one another like haphazardly stacked children’s blocks about to topple. This work functions like a visual retort to “Already There” with its loose verticals. “Spring Rain” shows Wren’s penchant for dispersing space as well as her newly expanded visual vocabulary. Introducing new shapes such as quasi-quatrefoils, overlapping horizontals and verticals, and amorphous ‘blotches,’ the composition becomes more abstract than the others. Wren deftly uses a softly contrasting palette of green, gray and lavender to moor the looseness of her gestures and unify the work.
The visual proximity of Wren’s paintings enables one to see the incredible array of atmospheric conditions observed and Wren’s rich lexicon that masterfully depicts the void as subject. As one moves through Still It Grows, fleeting moments in nature are captured for quiet contemplation; dappled sunlight through spring leaves, the enveloping mist of a humid morning, fog rolling through the forest or the dawn’s gentle side light cutting through a copse. Wren is a master of giving form to the formless in these mindfully conceived and unhurriedly executed paintings that must be experienced in person to fully appreciate their complexity and eloquent impressions of atmospheric conditions.