Art

Galleries | Cate McQuaid

Jeannie Motherwell’s paintings revel in abstraction

Jeannie Motherwell’s “Mysterious Condition”
Jeannie Motherwell’s “Mysterious Condition”

Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler, giants of mid-20th-century abstraction, were Jeannie Motherwell’s father and stepmother. She, too, is an abstract painter. Her show at Rafius Fane Gallery, “POUR. PUSH. LAYER,” makes no bones about what Motherwell learned from her parents, but she is well past copying.

The title gives away her kinship with Frankenthaler, who stained her Color Field canvases with poured paint. Motherwell’s affinity for black echoes her father’s. But she has a less psychoanalytic bent than those two artists, and more a focus on energies of creation and destruction. 

She makes large paintings on canvas and on clayboard. The canvas soaks in the paint, and the clayboard looks like a surface upon which the paint dances.

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“Mysterious Condition,” a blotted and dotted horizontal work on canvas the color of an overripe peach, feels like a nod to Frankenthaler in its steamy infusion of color, and its palette and format. We can look for the artist’s father in the black-and-white “The Eyes of Argus,” but her paintings have more motion and clamor. This one roils with monstrous vitality. Two openings near the top cut across with black arcs like heavy eyelids make it a sleeping giant, his face sore, runny, and clotted with shadow.

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That force and muscle also drive pieces with more color — electric, intoxicating teals and reds that might be merely pretty if Motherwell weren’t corralling them like wild horses. 

“Sol” features a heaving field of ember red and yellow orange — colors so pregnant with heat and light we might be looking at the sun’s vaporous surface. Yet darkness nests at the center: a dense, shadowy bronchial network of brown black and deep green, like a scar or a cancer amid the pulsing light. 

This and all Motherwell’s paintings pit generation against collapse, and are as capricious as light flashing on water. They pin us with similar intensity — a moment of coming to be that will just as soon vanish.

JEANNIE MOTHERWELL: POUR. PUSH. LAYER.

At Rafius Fane Gallery, 460 Harrison Ave., through Oct. 22. 508-843-2184, www.rafiusfanegallery.com

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.