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Rebecca Purdum: Touch, tactility, materiality

Rebecca Purdum: Breathing Painting at the NY Studio School Gallery

Rebecca Purdum: Touch, tactility, materiality
Contributed by Carol Diamond

In very good art, stark opposites like life and death, night and day, and pain and joy co-exist in harmonious juxtaposition, eliciting the powerful fusion of vastly different emotions through empathy and imagination. The eight large paintings in “Rebecca Purdum, Breathing Painting,” currently on view at the New York Studio School Gallery, bring elemental contrasts to the viewer’s attention. While the paintings visibly manifest touch, tactility, and materiality, they also emanate spirit, weightlessness, and breath. The result is intense intimacy and gentleness. At the same time, the scale gives them a vast and enveloping atmosphere. Together these qualities send the mind into a world of memory and sublime dreamscape, evoking an expanded sense of time. 

On her website, Purdum says: ”After decades in the studio making and looking at abstract paintings, I have relied on the belief that art and spirit are one in the same and have always wanted my work to lead to something greater than myself… Whether I keep or destroy them depends on whether they continue to answer the question ‘what happens next?’” Of her process she notes: “Then there is a moment when everything comes together, all the parts that make up the painting, the time and place involved, my thoughts and feelings and their sifting out. It all comes together as an affirmation of what is present, and essential, in the moment.”

In Usher (2014, oil on canvas, 84 x 84 inches), a cacophony of gold and ochre marks suggest an extreme close-up of Monet’s haystack in sunlight. A pulsating presence hovers edge-to-edge and never seems to rest. Yet the repleteness of the canvas imparts stillness, too. Low Flight (2002, oil on canvas, 48 x 216 inches), a triptych, seduces as only pure blackness can when handled deftly. Every glimpse of light, touched along the dark expanse or scraped through its surface, suggests nature’s mystery and beauty in the beyond. The canvas’s horizontal motion pulls the viewer along on a night walk, purposeful and meditative.

Purdum is in the company of painters in art history who manifest a transcendent presence through attention to small touches of paint. Marks accrue, mantra-like, to a greater whole, pigment over pigment, covering and uncovering to conjure a unifying spirit outside the artist. Like the works of Mark Rothko and Milton Resnick, late Monet’s, and Turner’s light-infused skies, Purdum’s paintings transport the viewer into spiritual realms. Her commitment to some form of evolution within each canvas is persistent and rigorous. Yet the sheer layering of paint she applies directly by hand, skin to skin, can be loose and light. These contrapuntal characteristics and the artist’s devotion and productive continuity over decades reflect a painterly vision of singular originality and groundedness.

After a year when touch has been denied, this is the ideal show to bring us back to our senses. Since the emergence of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, the art world has had to adapt to virtual studio visits, Zoom lectures, and remote interviews. I recently attended Purdum’s conversation with Robert Storr presented by the New York Studio School – via Zoom, of course. As she discussed the work and her process, I jotted down the phrase “loneliness crowded with the beautiful.” This struck me as another of art’s essential dualistic traits: the ability, perhaps the responsibility, to transform aloneness into beauty. While Purdum’s current exhibit may feel like a world outside time, distant from fashionable art agendas, her work may go to the heart of what we need most right now. Hers is art of the moment, unattached to an issue, yet speaking to the need for long silences, deep breaths, and steadfastness in a cause. 

“Rebecca Purdum, Breathing Painting,” New York Studio School, 8 W. 8th Street, Greenwich Village, New York, NY. Through April 18, 2021.

About the author: Carol Diamond is an artist and a tenured associate professor at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Her assemblage sculptures are on view in “Abstraction Now,” at the Truro Center for the Arts, Castle Hill Virtual Gallery.