Anna Schuleit Haber bases several of her paintings at Abigail Ogilvy Gallery on caustic, absurd short stories by the 20th-century Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. Schuleit Haber, an abstract painter, is not illustrating them. Rather, she is dancing with them.
The artist explores interstices between mediums, where viewers don’t know what to grab — the story’s pull, or the paint’s. We are left to find our way in the wilds between narrative and abstraction, sensing characters in bold gestures, mystery in shrouds of color, and tension and release in the play of lines.
An abridged Bernhard tale is appended to “031 Character”: “In which a scholar reveals himself to be prone to coarse gossip on the one hand, and false flattery on the other.” Schuleit Haber activates the naked brown sheet with muscular gesture: smudged yellow beneath a drippy brown window and a black squiggle that could be Mickey Mouse on Quaaludes.
We could parse the paintings Is the scholar black? The flattery yellow? But Schuleit Haber’s vigorous strokes deflect such interpretation. They may be themselves felt responses, one laid over the next.
Not all her paintings are based on Bernhard, but she has primed us to look for stories. When a recognizable form appears, it sets off a narrative cascade.
A blocky black field dominates each panel in “Untitled – Triptych.” I saw the first panel as purely abstract — red, white, and gray scrunching over the black. Then an irrefutable yellow cow appeared in the second. When I spotted a table setting in the corner of the third, it made the black a table, and a sprawling, blue-gray form a diner.
That shift sent me flying back to the first panel, where the black had morphed into a fist clenching other colors. For a moment. Then the blots and strokes broke free of story, frothing and churning on their own. Which was it: either? neither?
That’s what Schuleit Haber offers from the interstices: the opportunity to wonder, rather than to know.
SCIENTIFIC PURPOSES (IN WHICH A MURDEROUS HAIRDRESSER DONATES HIS HEAD TO SCIENCE, WITH ONE RESTRICTION): Paintings by Anna Schuleit Haber
At Abigail Ogilvy Gallery, 460 Harrison Ave., through April 15. 617-820-5173, www.abigailogilvy.comCate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.