Mary Weatherford, Bakersfield Paintings
She uses large canvases, made from textured linen. This material resembles burlap just enough to remind me that the site of interest here is Bakersfield, and not the art world – a cow town – and the texture shows through the paint.
I saw these paintings in the city of their birth, in CSUB’s Todd Madigan gallery, long enough ago that the forms of them have grown vague in my memory. On the closing day of that exhibition, David and I were in the area looking at almond blossoms and the bee migration, appreciating the broad landscapes of the Central Valley. I recall a visitor to the gallery remarking, “Oh – that,” (she pointed to a neon tube) “that looks like X street, the street where all the bars and hotels used to be. Now it’s sort of a bad part of town,” she finished regretfully. “And that part of that painting looks like a cow. You LA people won’t see it, but out here cows are what we know.” The woman from Bakersfield was right, I did not see the cow, but her point and the connection were made: Mary Weatherford’s Bakersfield paintings are about place, and about landscape as experiences of specific places.
Thin washes of color in these paintings build into a whole the way memory accretes, they are applied in layers – in some places the colors mix, but just as often both hues appear as though separately, one through another. These layers have the appearance of depth one might attribute psychologically to reminiscences.
Having decided to use the term “thin washes of color,” part of me expects the paintings always to appear diffuse, but where there are edges, either between colors or where color ends and white ground begins (e.g. at the top of a pink painting titled Panorama Dr. and at the upper third of North Chester Ave.), it is a shock, and the paintings feel strong. I wonder what softness is, and I think that the memory of place, say from one’s youth, looks in the mind’s eye to be misty and un-graspable and yet feels emotionally real, even absolute. Such are the ways of these paintings as I experience them.
I think now about Weatherford’s use of neon. Looking online I find a recent exhibition by this artist in New York City (Mary Weatherford, Manhattan, at Brennan & Griffin from September 9 to October 14) and these New York paintings reassure me in my belief that Weatherford’s references in this work are to memory and place and in the moments where these two combine into lived and imagined experiences. I don’t think the neon has to do with Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tubes (which feel more overtly political and idea-based), or with any exhumation of Light and Space sensibilities; I think that the box-like transformers and the electrical cords depict the overlay of industry on the landscape of Bakersfield, the light from the neon reminds me of electrical lighting in the city, and of old neon signs and also of the light from the sun, changing at different times in the day. In the Manhattan group at Brennan & Griffin are several paintings with three and more tubes of colored neon and these are placed so to embody action and the breathless excitement one might feel in that city.
I recognize that previous bodies of work by Mary Weatherford may be much more specific than I thought when I first saw them, and I wish I could go back and look again at her cave paintings, and the vines, and the more distant brick walls. Those past works and these new ones seem to me now not about painting, but of paint and about the things an artist can do with it. The ideas that Mary Weatherford’s paintings communicate derive from their very materiality, and from the physical things they represent, and not from any position they take. I am reminded by them to see what is present, and to look without trying to find. Thanks Mary.
Mary Weatherford, Bakersfield Paintings, LAXART, September 21 to October 27
Bakersfield images gathered from LA I’m Yours.