Philippa Blair


Geographical consciousness plays an important, if not fundamental role in Philippa Blair’s work; a New Zealand-born painter who has, since 1995, adopted Los Angeles as her base. Blair has always been conscious of a larger context for her practice, not to mention a legacy of abstract painting in the United States and Europe; and had exhibited widely internationally before settling in LA. The artist brings with her a unique (pan-cultural) Pacific sensibility informed by diverse and hybrid references. Forms of abstracted maps, although perhaps not immediately apparent in her voluptuous abstractions, and musical scores, inform the work, too.
The recent series of paintings and drawings, collectively, ‘Cutting Loose,’ share an exploration of the topography of the canvas and the picture plane, a post-perspective illusionism weaving and threading trails, pushing pigment backwards and forwards, foregrounding and simulating recession and progression in space and in color, utilizing a variety of implements to sculpt the surfaces. Differing viscosities of pigment from the very thick, directly applied impasto to milky sprays of liqueous color jostle and rest in layers. Blair has recently developed ‘windows’ through the pigment, carved out in sections to reveal surprising underlying striations of color. Physical build up takes place ‘wet-on-wet,’ usually working at high velocity. An intense, highly disciplined method has taken several years to refine into a complex visual vocabulary, where fluidity meets drawing. Interested in the mechanics of movement, the painter uses arcs and pivots to articulate spatial dynamics in the work, which are literally extensions of the movement of the body: technicolor motion pictures, no less. The compositions favor gesture and are not restrained by grids and vectors often recurring in her work, although consistently, the paintings merge kinesthesia or movement and reference to acoustic elements.
Although she takes interest in the work of her contemporaries, the analogy between music and color explored and so succinctly expressed by Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, finds an updated, funked-up re-appearance in Blair’s paintings. An anomaly and a hybrid, Blair distances herself from the decorative character of many contemporary abstract painters who tend to focus upon composition. She cites John Cage as being an instigator to her exploration into spontaneous rhythm, and balance between form and formlessness. Alluding to musical composition, one element is brought in, juxtaposed with another, and plays with additional ingredients to form visual tensions – resonance, harmony and sometimes dissonance.
Blair has been a peripatetic magpie (a bird that likes to collect luminous objects), combining and synergizing a panoply of references, from the ‘Kete’ series (2001), with reference to Maori basket weaving (in the fresh lucid greens and woven structures), to the ritualistic and meditative raking and combing of Zen sand gardens, apparent in these recent works, in the pushing and pulling of pigment. The skeins have been pulled apart to emphasize spatial clarity: brilliant color sparkles against a clean white gesso ground.
The canvas is plotted and mapped aerially. Recession in space is at once two-dimensional and renders three dimensions. The element of time, the fourth dimension is also apparent in their barely contained velocity; trajectories of paint applied with such dexterity, they are intrinsic, inextricable stand-ins for motion and inertia. A delicate balance is struck between drawing and painting, chaos and order, color and graphic sensibility.
The idea of making roads (in-roads) into the paintings, takes physical form. Likening grading roads, the process is one of diligent layering. Their compositions are likewise reminiscent of road maps (and are also titled according to specific locations) even if triggered by memory (from Tuscany to Montana; from Venice, California to the Southern Alps of New Zealand; from LA freeways; New London to New Mexico): they are closed-eye vision, abstract memories of place; de-composed and re-composed, cut loose in the mind’s eye. ‘Cutting Loose’ is a fitting title here – the desire to take off (‘Scappare’ (2003), the Italian title of one painting in the series, has the same meaning: cutting loose, taking off, escaping, and even eloping). Going down one pathway leads serendipitously to others, in an unpredictable, unforeseeable journey, often the role of the painter with a blank canvas: a dead-end here – a fork in the road and twisted turns in the other direction.
The diptych format is common to most of these paintings, heightening spatial awareness and physicality, intensifying and increasing ‘breathing space.’ The panels form tensions: like electro-magnetic fields (or pulses), the colorful charges jump across space from one side to another. Continuity and rupture, growth and decay, stops and starts. The pivotal intestinal shapes derived by scraping the fresh wet paint allude to a body. Two halves that make a whole; organs that become an integral composite – co-dependent marks and structuring devices that support and form a coalescing armature, an architectonic field or accretion. Spatial articulation inherent to these paintings and sketches suggest sites, in an abstract painterly architecture. The vellum and ink drawings are integral to the painting process and probably more readily articulate space: the graphic black and white stand in for skeletal structures, the bare bones of the thought-action process; a process of structuring visual rhythms.
Alice L. Hutchison, Los Angeles, 2004