Unsettled attraction

Joan Sullivan
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Michael Pittman's compelling work continues with his latest exhibit, 'A Disquieting Strangeness'

Obstruction After Oleum Cephalicum

Grand Falls-based Michael Pittman recently won the Visual Artists Newfoundland and Labrador Large Haul Award, given to a visual artist who is having an impressive year. Pittman was a good selection. His work starts at the juncture where surrealism meets expressionism, and it is really special, really strong. Pittman has developed these visual ciphers that invite decoding by sense of association. It is a highly individual iconography, constructed with his particular style of non-representational compositions, built upon richly interior instincts, and wielded onto a tactile exterior.

His new solo exhibition, A Disquieting Strangeness, includes 22 pieces, all multi-media, usually made by applying acrylic paint to a board that has been scratched, raked or even gouged. The palette is kept to three or four major colours, like cream and red and black, that are not blended but left in distinct, undistilled areas.

The colours can be offbeat but, oddly, harmonize within their blood reds, steel greys and muted olives, and their rendered symbols range from elemental, even very basic shapes, and elegant filigrees. Continuously they react with and play against the grain and touch of the wood.

These works are largely abstract, but still convey a sense of narrative. These pieces are about layers, and the energy of the surface, but are also concerned with storytelling. There are intricate patterns reminiscent of Celtic knots, or hieroglyphs unusually repeated in a group or motif. They then make a series, or family, of shapes and diagrams. It is like a new kind of script, or pictograms.

Theres a definite scale to the markings. Delicate lines are placed against broad brushstrokes. And these are overlapped and overlaid to fabricate a distinct texture formed of the wear of the wood and the gloss of strata.

Pittmans titles are unique and resonant poetic juxtapositions, underscoring the counterpoise of hovering contour and calligraphic line in his pieces. For example, The Eye of the Mind (Red Engine of Atrocity) has a red, laddered tower floating against a pulsing sky above a bleak ground. The effect is both alien and suggestively familiar, as it is in Red Dogs Dancing on Nails, with its quartet of the animals stamped in repeated stylized (headless) form over a thicket of upended nails.

Bright White Night (Association with Frozen Crows) seems like a cave drawing of a dreamwalk, with architectural red outlines adrift over whorls and smudges of blue, white and black. The Flywheel (Infra Furorem), in green and bronze, includes a curve with sawtooth edging, an outline of a fish, a rhythm of interconnected pipelines, and a swirling, attracting circumference studded with small nails. It is an extraordinary assemblege, both figurative and supra-terrestrial.

Alter (suppression system) is organic, raw, and human, its outstretched pose either a plea or a threat. Untitled is a rare still life, while Urchin is a submerged female figure in Cyclops helmet.

This sub-aquatic imagery returns in Vessel with subtle crabs, with its drawing of an old-fashioned divers headgear floating against bands of rust, lime and pink, all waving like seaweed.

Germination shows the entwined, decorative, intestinal roots under a fine spray of bare branches, while Obstruction 2 has a red form set against a mottled light background, yet reading like a figure removed, deleted from the background or erased from a photograph.

Pittmans imagery is consistently curious, heady and compelling. Heavy Feeders (Pre-production) is a trio of unevenly spaced figures, similar but not exact replicas with their curling hands on hips pose, their heads aflame with floral banners, allusive of a royal or religious headdress. It is truly striking, the power of their heads, the configuration so entrancing, and aflame.

There is a dreaminess to these pieces. Despite the feeling of vigour, and often of express indications of motion, there is also a deep feeling of memory. Maybe it is this combination that so attracts, and unsettles.

A Disquieting Strangeness: New Works by Michael Pittman continues at The Leyton Gallery of Fine Art until July 21.

Organizations: Obstruction 2

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Red Dogs Dancing on Nails

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