Contributed by Leslie Roberts / Gabriele Evertz’s new paintings are a song cycle in color. Some of her previous shows had singular emotional states as themes; “Rapture” and “Exaltation” are two. But in her new solo “Path” at Minus Space, six large square canvases extend the concept, forming a chromatic narrative – an emotional journey through the pandemic to the present. They start in despair and isolation, move through night with glints of hope, break sharply, and conclude, not with sadness but with strength in a belief in the urgency of color in life. Evertz, whom some might call quintessentially modernist, sees her new work as neo-Romantic.
A viewer doesn’t need historical context to sense a narrative progression. And Evertz doesn’t suggest there’s only one emotional reading of colors or of her work. But she’s specific about how she represents emotion through color. In the first three paintings, the only prismatic hues are blues and greens. Ordinarily, reds and the rest of the spectrum are constants in the artist’s palette, but during the grim time when she began the series, their brilliance felt unseemly, so she turned instead to earth colors. Evertz has worked extensively with grays, but umbers are new to her palette. She explores them as flat color, as glaze, and as almost-black, noting that earth colors are found in cave paintings older than written history. She uses metallic pigments too – partly for their reflective, chameleonlike quality, but there’s a suggestion of the divine, especially when she explains that the single thin golden vertical, inconspicuously located near the left edge of Nocturnus, is a response to poet Amanda Gorman’s words, read during the 2021 presidential inauguration: “There is always light.”
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These paintings were begun in spring 2020, when the artist was first able to resume work in her Brooklyn studio after lockdown. Six are arranged chronologically in the gallery. The initial painting, Onward, is limited to blues and greens with a few central threads of near-white. No warm tones, not even earth colors. But the close-value blues and greens shimmer. The painting appears nearly symmetrical, but the right side is on a blue ground, the left on green. The more you realize this, the more insistent that reversal becomes. In the next paintings, Nocturnus and Temple, umber is included with the blues and greens. In Evertz’s handling, the umber, surrounded by colors calibrated to merge with it in value, virtually reads as the red she’s avoiding.
Evertz’s paintings can only be fully appreciated in person. Like Bridget Riley’s work, hers is almost exclusively about color, and electrifies a room. In reproduction, the paintings look strong, but much of the voltage is lost, as are the multiple dimensions of real-life experience. At different viewing distances, you experience visual fluctuations: blurring of edges, optical mixture, fluting, afterimages. The paintings’ scale, 6 x 6 feet, elicits a bodily response. And some colors just can’t be reproduced digitally.
These paintings also require time. Not only do you see color relationships unfold; you realize that the compositions, which look at first like vertical stripes, are full of slight tilts. In reproductions, the diagonals are merely a design subtlety. In person, the leaning edges can create a change in light from the top to the bottom of a painting. It can take a minute to grasp that a complete color shift results from diagonals that are nearly imperceptible at first glance. You don’t so much see the tilts as deduce and acknowledge them.
Path, the fulcrum of the show, contains this kind of gradual vertical color change, plus another arresting shift. It is installed on the rear wall with other works flanking it. The color red finally emerges (three reds, to be precise), weighted with umber and sparring in vibration with ultramarine. On the left side a long repetition of chords of red/blue/red/umber begins. The pattern recurs until, a few inches from the right edge, the composition cuts sharply to a field of light value, as if slammed aside to reveal a completely different painting. You keep looking back and forth to resolve the sudden disjunction. While Evertz’s work is never completely symmetrical, it generally has a strong sense of balance; this total shift near an edge is highly atypical. Asked if the asymmetry was an impulsive decision, Evertz said it was the opposite: a tough, resolute action taken to convey the intensity of the moment when she finally saw a positive way forward.
Viewing some of these paintings in Evertz’s studio a few months ago, I was struck by Path’s extreme asymmetry. At the time, its unexpected conclusion brought to mind a Beatles song. I mentioned this to Evertz diffidently, fearing she would think a comparison to popular music trivialized her work, but she was delighted to have her painting connected to music. I Want You (She’s So Heavy) ends with a sequence of crashing metallic arpeggios, played over and over, more and more loudly, until, after nearly eight minutes, instead of reaching a climax or fading away, the song ends abruptly with the literal cutting of the tape on which it was recorded. In Path, the sharp break from the assertive red/blue to the very light passage is a similarly exciting jolt.
After the seismic break of Path, the two concluding paintings at last present the full spectrum of hues. Yellow is withheld until the final painting, Intervention. It resembles the first one, Onward, in featuring a central light field framed by blues and greens. But Onward holds but a few rays of faint moonlight, while Intervention barely contains its brilliant polychromatic surge. Seen together, the paintings suggest another musical comparison. Franz Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise (Winter Journey), based on poems by Wilhelm Müller, chronicles a rejected lover’s increasing despair. Much as Evertz avoids a full prismatic spectrum to respond to the winter of Covid, Schubert avoids major keys to capture the winter of a man’s soul. His songs are anguished, yet almost unbearably beautiful. Even when Evertz excises bright hues to convey mourning, she makes color glow and beckon. Unlike Schubert’s journey, Evertz’s path has light at the end. The act of painting was crucial in carrying her back to strength. It now offers us that vicarious experience.
“Gabriele Evertz: Path,” Minus Space, 16 Main Street, Suite A, Brooklyn, NY. Through November 19, 2022. Open on Saturdays.
About the author: Leslie Roberts is a Brooklyn-based artist and professor emerita at Pratt Institute. Recent shows were at 57W57 Arts and Minus Space.