Bobbie Oliver’s solo exhibition Residuals at High Noon Gallery consists of a visually striking series of mysterious blue paintings in varying sizes. Residuals – the residue of paint accumulated on the surface of the canvas also signifies for Oliver a “lived life” that is revealed in the process of making, and is embedded in knowledge accrued in her forms over time. Created within the past two years, these abstractions are part of a larger story and proffer a visual language spanning not only a period of years, but decades. In keeping with the show’s title, the mystery of just how these forms “reside” in space may lie somewhere in the balance between chance and deliberation as they beg the viewer to question: Where are they, and how did they get there?
For Oliver, working with acrylic paint, like drawing, is fresh and immediate. Built up in multiple layers of acrylic medium, her large and small scale pieces are produced by pouring jars of deep blue pigment onto canvas. Through a murkiness of waxing and waning density, amoebic shapes appear. Comprised of abundant particles of dust that seem to float or suspend in a dim, innocuous space that optically registers as ambient light, the imagery is initially distributed through the distillation of ultramarine powder. In all the works in this untitled series, background and foreground contemporaneously emerge and submerge in semi-transparent, semi-opaque surfaces. Deep, dark regions are frequently juxtaposed against a brighter background whilst they bring into being a quietly activated space. Most of the works are mnemonic of images viewed peripherally. Formal resolve is attained by the formation of alternately thin and dense masses that cling to or cut off at the frame’s edges, exaggerating a sense of proportion. Accentuating this illusory technique are large gaps in scale as well as refined fluctuations of hue. Japanese calligraphy is evoked through a distinctive mark making emphasized with blotting techniques in which line and shape vacillate between crisp and blur, or are out of frame or focus. To great effectiveness, Oliver’s masterful technique distills form down to its essence. One can see remnants of drawn lines and imperfect smudges on the painting surface yet there is no fixing or smoothing over of any perceived glitches. In this way, her painting surface serves as both subject and material.
At closer inspection of the works, pigment reigns supreme as dark, ultramarine masses of material never emit, reflect or refract their own light but appear to absorb light, similar to the optical tendencies of distant nebulae. Through both genre and formal approaches to the figure-ground relationship, the history of painting is conjured through an affinity with such renaissance techniques as fresco and grisaille. These highly saturated, ultramarine blobs imbue historical references in keeping with the show’s title, Residuals, by calling to mind the rich ultramarine residue that varied cultures have extracted from lapis lazuli spanning millennia. In contrast to the foreground, the paintings’ ground repeatedly invokes ultramarine ash: a variable blue-grey tincture that is known to be achieved from the extraction of ultramarine from “ground” lapis lazuli. Oliver’s process, therefore, reinforces references to old master techniques by producing this mid-value grisaille similar to the preparation of skies in historic landscape painting; this color’s airy, atmospheric quality gives an impression of limitless expanse. Ultramarine’s use in early renaissance frescoes as a pigment combined with binding medium and applied over dried plaster reinforces the connection of this body of work to a rich artistic lineage.
Deference to the void demonstrates Oliver’s mastery of materials and composition and her marked level of self-control. Here, form is the initial attraction whilst a further reading, the negative space, becomes a deeper, more circumspect interpretation. Moreover, the painting surface, an acute mattness or virtual flatness of finish, creates a density in the shapes in addition to their weightlessness through its lack of glint or reflection, generating more complexity. Its sublime quality also enhances an innate spatial stillness that harks back to the fresco tradition. As a result, stasis is implied in forms that seem to float, frozen in deep space in a state of timeless inertia that invites more viewer immersion. Seeking more open-ended, neutral interpretations of her forms, Oliver leaves room for associations that are not necessarily intentional so one can confront the artistic process, and materials. Process is honored as an action recorded on the painting’s surface; her contra-gestural approach lets the magic occur through the action of pouring, and waiting. In Residuals, Oliver revisits a highly informed painting vernacular – over, and over.
BOBBIE OLIVER | RESIDUALS at High Noon Gallery
March 14 – April 14, 2019