Susan Woldman Elfer
Dec 19, 2017 – Feb 1, 2018
The Narthex Gallery
Saint Peter’s Church
619 Lexington Avenue (54th Street)
New York, NY 10022
By NOAH BECKER, JAN. 2018
“The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can hope for is to put some order into ourselves.”
-Willem De Kooning, 1950
“I grew up in a forest. It’s like a room. It’s protected. Like a cathedral… it is a place between heaven and earth.”
– Anselm Kiefer
“I fell in love with black; it contained all color. It wasn’t a negation of color… Black is the most aristocratic color of all… You can be quiet, and it contains the whole thing.”
– Louise Nevelson
Susan Woldman’s work at the Narthex Gallery in New York City’s Saint Peter’s Church is a dazzling group of paintings. The church environment at Saint Peter’s as an exhibition space, resonates with the history of such places. In terms of her influences, she is influenced by sculptors such as Louise Nevelson, “I love Louise Nevelson, she’s an artist who creates something out of nothing just by re-arranging things that already exist,” Woldman says.
Woldman is also acutely aware of the history of St. Peters Church in regards to Nevelson, “The chapel Louise Nevelson designed is in the same church as my exhibit and I’ve been sitting quietly in there enveloped by her creativity,” Woldman explains. Woldman’s influences also connect with the history of old paintings, “I love J.M.W. Turner. I know, he’s a painter not a sculptor, but I feel such depth and dance in his paint strokes,” she says.
Ruminating on these influences has obviously infused her paintings with a stark sense of tonality, surface and texture. Texture and the sculptural aspect in Woldman’s paintings was something I saw right away and it’s also one of the things I like most about art – painting that is influenced by other art forms. That sense of experimentation and jumping between mediums – so enjoyable with this kind of painting.
Woldman’s paintings suggest landscapes, and other than Turner, I was curious where these landscapes were derived from? “I’ve lived in Manhattan for most of my life so painting these abstract landscapes takes me out of a crowded city. It’s my car ride through the countryside,” she says.
History shows a strong connection between the natural world and abstraction. Early Ellsworth Kelly leaf drawings and Kelly dreaming into window forms are visions of holy light in nature and nature’s forms. This kind of visual escapism is important in an environment like New York City where an art dealer friend once said to me, “If you want reality, take the L train.”
But making this kind of work is an intuitive experience as is Woldman’s way of working. “I’ve been asked to draw a sketch of what a painting will look like in advance and that’s more challenging to me than doing income taxes – “I work best intuitively,” She says. Woldman lets the excitement of the brush and the movement that happens to propel her through a piece. Much like any of the predominantly male Ab-Ex painters of the past, Woldman creates a much-needed virtuostic moment in painting. But the epic hyper-masculine high-key work of white male artists that once dominated art history, seems like a faint dream-memory in relation to the now ailing white machismo hero in art.
Woldman’s use of color in her compositions is sparing – she is drawn to black and white, finding expression in that way, “A decade ago if you handed me only two tubes of paint – black and white, I would have been extremely frustrated and thought you were very mean. Now black and white sends me over the moon,” she says.
Woldman works with internal light and the light within an image as opposed to chiaroscuro or lighting and color effects on objects or figures. Color can be dangerous and I appreciate the power of monocromatic paintings that suggest color. “I love color, but noticed that color had become a ‘cheat sheet’ for me,” Woldman says. “I’m aware of a light source in that I try to follow the light and shadow in some reasonable way – but I’m not bound to that. Where I place shadow doesn’t always move in the same direction. I do believe there exists a center of light,” she says.
Woldman is a sculptor at heart and this is evidenced in the paintings. “I paint only on wood because I’m a sculptor at heart and scratching marks in the surface of these paintings give me the feeling that I’m building something.” WM