Turning to a Full Spectrum

Susan Breen adds brilliant pigmentation to her earlier portfolio of textured blacks

Susan Breen, in her third solo show at Woodward Gallery, takes a giant step away from her almost trademarked limitation on color. Her rich oily blacks of prior years here give way to visions of scarlet, celery green, coral and celestial blue.

Breen continues to take an almost sculptural approach in her work using wooden support panels, primed with powdered marble dust, that are sanded until they have the physical presence of tiles or stone tablets. In earlier work this literally ground down, support and its inherent intaglio scratches affected, and often even dictated, her imagery.

In this new work, color takes precedence over texture in washes, pours and “dirty” wipes that leave brilliantly pigmented films and overlapping contours. The immediacy of the paint handling, in “Web of Reason,” is revealed upon closer examination as articulate brushwork, smears and smudges that grant this work a vivid freshness, similar to rain on carved stone.

In circular images, such as “Vertical Pulse,” “Cascade” and “Crimson Bangles,” Breen mitigates the asphalt black weight of Donald Sultan and the sticky nostalgia of Ross Bleckner’s 1980s paintings, adapting their dynamic forms and swiped paint handling as her own. The garden imagery of flowers, stems, vines and fencing compositionally swims in and out of perceptions of formal symmetry and the appearance of pattern. Breen only missteps when she depends too heavily on actual patterning at the expense of detail. Works such as “Twilight Departure” and “Horizon” suffer for lack of paint depth.

That said, that tendency does not detract from Breen’s very evident belief in a light that clears the path and is everywhere apparent, especially in works such as “A Flash of Hope,” “Floral Apparition” and “Spirit Coral.” This “O’Keefe in the City,” all-pervading light cuts through the layers of paint that consume form and through color, lifting the ordinary and resetting Breen’s compass, almost 180 degrees, to quite nearly the opposite of her inky past.

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