In order to capture the truth of nature, a painter must intensify its effect to compensate for the qualities of light, air, and climate that belong to nature alone. In other words, the information taken in by all of the senses must be translated into purely visual terms.
This is what Judith Zeichner accomplished so splendidly in her recent solo show, “At Home and Abroad,” at Noho Gallery, in Chelsea, 530 West 25th Street.
Zeichner has a real gift for balancing formal qualities with atmospheric interpretataion. Like an herbalist extracting plant essences, she boils natural elements down to their essentials without sacrificing verisimilitude and a sense of place. In this regard, she is a little like Fairfield Porter: a painter’s painter who invariably builds an abstract composition with the specific elements of nature.
Zeichner transcribes each terrain with tender regard for its particulars; yet her brushwork retains a rugged vivacity and never bogs down in fussy descriptiveness. Thus her canvases fairly flow with a sense of nature’s own effortless freshness.
In her oil on canvas “Winter Woods,” for example, slender black saplings, set against blue hills and interspersed with surviving bits of greenery, are enveloped in a golden glow. Yet the long, cool shadows that the trees cast on the earthy forest floor convey a palpable sense of crisp winter air.
The piece de resistance in another especially lovely little oil by Zeichner called “Leaving St. Just” is a little blue automobile , which appears in the process of literally being swallowed by the lush landscape as it swerves along a curve in a highway bordered by lush foliage. While a vista of verdant fields sprawls seemingly to infinity in the distance, this little blue vehicle hugs the picture plane as tenaciously as one of Mondrian’s piquant red rectangles, creating a tantalizing spatial tension that animates the painting in formal, as well as atmospheric, terms.
Such touches bespeak a sophistication that sets Zeichner apart from many other contemporary landscape artists. Her ability to achieve a perfect balance between the formal and the pictorial elements in her paintings can also be seen to particular advantage in another oil on canvas called “Water Reflection,” in which rocks on the shore, lily pads on the surface of the water, and ripples in the pond take on a bejeweled complexity as fluidly juicy as that in one of Joan Mitchell’s gestural abstractions. That Zeihner can indulge such painterly autonomy, even while evoking the particulars of her subject so convincingly, is part of what makes her work so admirable.
By contrast, “Cape Cornwall, Early a.m.,” one of the paintings Zeichner created during a residency in a remote region of southwest England, is a study in stillness. It depicts a simple cottage nestled in a coastal hillside, set against stripes of deep yellow sky and placid blue water at the horizon-line. Here, too, the viewer is drawn into the scene yet still able to savor the formal contrasts between Zeichner’s bravura handling of the scrubby hillside and her smoother execution of sea and sky. One of the great pleasures of her work is the way in which she simultaneously charms us scenically and lets us in on the secret alchemy of pigment on canvas by revealing traces of “process” or leaving some small section of the picture “unfinished.” Witness, for example, the lower right portion of “Cape Cornwall, Early a.m.,” where she deconstructs the illusion by letting the paint surface unravel into sketchy strokes that invite our delectation of the pain itself.
As the title of her show implies, Judith Zeichner depicts a fairly wide range of subjects both domestic and foreign. In “Joigny, France,” big, blowzy clouds with shadowed bottoms float above a panorama of earthy fields, verdant furrows, and breeze blown trees. “Tours, France,” on the other hand, demonstrates that this painter of landscapes can also wrest considerable beauty from a more urban view of gray rooftops and red chimneys clustered against a luminous pink sky. Indeed, Zeichner creates a compelling composition from another city subject in “Couvert De Dominicains XIII Siecle,” in which patterns of shadows on an empty street of mellow gray, green, and beige buildings are employed to build an austere architectural composition that contrasts sharply with her more familiar evocations of organic forms. Even here, however, where nothing of nature enters into the picture, Zeichner manages to conjure up an evocative atmosphere by virtue of her unerring ability to evoke subtleties of natural light.
When figures appear in Judith Zeichner’s paintings, they generally seem to function much in the manner of the little blue car in “Leaving St. Just,” as compositional focal points as opposed to enecdotal elements. A good example is “Figure on the Rock,” where the red shirt of the little girl looking out to sea among ruggedly evoked rock-croppings is a tiny yet pivotal part of the composition. And even when the figure occupies a larger part of the pictures, as in “Manicure at Window,” it is boldly generalized in a manner akin to certain California painters such as Richard Diebenkorn and Paul Wonner, who fused figurative subject matter with Abstract Expressionist paint handling.
Some of Zeichner’s watercolors and other works on paper, such as “Couple on Beach” and “Cloud and Water,” are especially exhilarating for their gestural dexterity, demonstrating her ability to block a subject in with a few spare, swift strokes and blotches of color. The latter painting is particularly striking, signaling “sky,” “earth” and “water” with haiku-like brevity.
Then again, even in her simplest, most technically abbreviated works, Judith Zeichner seems capable of translating her direct responses to mature into images that evoke a remarkable sensory complexity. We feel the breath of life emanating from her compositions; thus we experience them viscerally, as well as visually. Her paintings are vital and enduring for her ability to invest that which we see with the mystery of the intangible.