“Painting is dead” the saying goes. Since the invention of photography, the state of painting has been in constant change. Some might say painting has to struggle to stay relevant. Others may argue that painting is now free to explore new territories. Whatever the case may be, contemporary painting certainly offers us something that no other medium can. That is where Mary Weatherford comes in. Her latest work is evidence that painting is alive and well.
The Bakersfield Paintings is a series that resulted from the artist’s residency at Cal State Bakersfield. Weatherford was invited to the university to make new works for an exhibition at the Todd Madigan Gallery and teach the students during her process. The result is a series of paintings inspired by her surroundings.
With particular attention to light and ambiance, these paintings transport us to another location. Working with flashe and linen, she is able to create beautiful layered swashes whose colors stay vibrant even as they blend into one another. Cutting across the canvas are neon tubes which bring the paintings to life. It is tempting to try and see some of the works as landscapes, however seeing them from afar the sense of emotion overtakes any figures our brains may tell us are there. And viewing from a distance really is the best way to see the paintings. By stepping back the neon lights are flattened and we can think of the works purely as paintings instead of as mix-media works with painting and sculptural elements. The cords from the neon lights are actually quite distracting up close.
Her color palate ranges from green and yellow to blue and red to pink and white. Each painting then gives the feeling of “bright sunny spring in the pasture” or “rainy day in Bakersfield” or simply “sunset.” Perhaps those would have made good names for the paintings. Instead Weatherford titles each with the name of a street. Just as well. With these colors she is able to give visual form to the atmosphere of Bakersfield. I have never visited Bakersfield, but after visiting this exhibition I am left with a hint of what it might feel like.
With the rise of photography, painting became abstract. No longer concerned with realism, painting moved into impressionism, abstract expressionism, color fields, and so on. With the rise of conceptualism art became less about spirituality and more about ideas. Weatherford’s paintings lie in an awkward place in between; they are the lovechild of Helen Frankenthaler and Dan Flavin. Here she gives us purely abstract pieces that go where painting has not gone before. Clearly there is plenty of ground for painting to interrogate, and Weatherford does so with an elegant combination of color and light. She steps into the realm of conceptual art when she ties her works to a particular location. Overall her paintings are so much about the expression and intuition, that the idea of geography becomes a bit lost. Conceptualism has its roots in language, and this comes to play in Weatherford’s titles. Our minds must resolve the dissonance between “North Chester Ave.” as text or concept with the visual that we are faced with.
Previous to The Bakersfield Project, the artist worked on a similar series titled Manhattan. Her painting style has been a steady evolution over her career, and that series was the first to introduce the neon. I can’t help but wonder how appropriate the same style of painting really is for two cities that are so different. Neon might make sense when representing the home of Times Square. Is that same neon still able to properly give the viewer the essence of a cow town? Having never been to Bakersfield and never seen the Manhattan paintings in person, I’ll have to let someone else make that call.
Mary Weatherford’s show at LAXART has closed, but I would certainly recommend keeping an eye out for her next exhibition.
Words and images by Noé Gaytán.