When abstract expressionism replaced figurative painting in the late 1940s, the critic Harold Rosenberg explained the radical esthetic change thus: “What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event … it was decided ‘just to paint.’” To be jettisoned in the bright new postwar world were the stuff of the past—figures, stories, and illusionistic space—that were now associated with social realism, European tradition, and Depression hard times. Painting’s meaning, now redefined as the liberated artist’s psychic state, would be transmitted directly to viewers without tedious intermediary stories and symbols. That purist impulse lasted a generation. Today, with all art taboos gone, the old figurationist/abstractionist war that once destroyed friendships seems quaint and dated. Gerhard Richter, for example, famously pursues entirely separate painting styles, while others combine figuration and abstraction in various blends, interchangeably. It is no act of esthetic treason, then, that Benicia realist painter Toby Tover-Krein should have donned Jackson Pollock’s paint-spattered shoes (figuratively speaking) for a new body of abstract work. Her show, curated by Arts Benicia,www.artsbenicia.org, is on view at Olson, www.olsonrealtyinc.org Realty until December 17 (with a reception December 3, 6-9pm).

recylced matter
Recycled Matter
Mixed media on canvas

Tover-Krein, who describes her previous work as "human/social condition narratives," explores the freedoms granted by abstraction— expressive mark-making unconstrained by the dictates of illusionism—with the discipline of an artist trained in figuration, like the artists of the postwar period who came of age during the thirties. The jagged yellow, blue and green squiggles of oil pastel floating atop a modulated white field of acrylic in “Almost” suggest sun-drenched landscape without depicting it, in the vein of gestural painters like Willem DeKooning and Joan Mitchell. More lyrical is “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road,” with its billowing, buoyant, vaporous forms in pale yellows, beiges and pinks —a synthesis of Arshile Gorky and Helen Frankenthaler, Oz’s living flowers replacing monochromatic, tornado-tossed Dust Bowl Kansas.

Less retrospective in feeling are works that play with polyptych formats, looser, more uncontrolled and eccentric mark-making, and a cave-painting palette of gold-ocher, red-brown, beige, umber-gray and white. Tover-Krein’s six “Enigma” paintings are presented in groupings of two or four (presumably due to space constraints); the multi-panel format adds thematic richness, implying narrative sequence (cartoon panels, film strips) and symbolism (mirrors, windows). These works also show the artist moving toward impulse and improvisation, away from depiction, her unconscious creating eccentrically-shaped organic growths, alternately craggy and aqueous, embedded within geological matrices. In “Enigma Nos. 5 & 6,” a crescent of ocher hovers above a field of mottled white rivulets and runnels suggesting stalactites. “Enigma Nos. 1, 2, 3 & 4” is presumably hung above the previous two paintings, although the quartet seems to form an integrated whole, with the shapes lining up at the edges, that is depleted rather than enhanced by the addition of the other pair, which seem unrelated except in their shared palette (if viewing adjacent jpegs onscreen on a computer is a trustworthy method of evaluation). In “Frazzled,” Tover-Krein adds handwritten words—e.g., “Call your mother”—that suggest the punning glossolalia or diaristic internal monologues, respectively, of William T. Wiley or Squeak Carnwath.

Mixed media on canvas

Rounding out the show are a couple of assemblages that embrace the current recessionary scavenging esthetic and employ “materials that express multidimensional meanings with environmental aspects.” “Bordeaux” is a square-format cardboard/mixed-media collage that suggests, with its subdued palette and toppled fragmentary forms, archaeological ruins. “Recycled Matter” employs shards of torn cardboard also, but its vivacious forms and color suggest cartography instead, geopolitical entities in slow sedimentary drift—not a bad metaphor for these challenging and politically paralyzed times.

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