Reviews and Essays
The paintings in Darla Bjork’s new series, Torii / Gate, demarcate liminal states of being as described by Victor Turner, a culturalanthropologist, who wrote that in these states individuals "are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony." By following through a series of subscribed actions, the liminal moves a participant toward physical and spiritual transcendence. Such experiences, as Turner explains, are often ungovernable by the laws of logic and order, and the catalyst for Bjork’s latest paintings.
Associated mainly with the Shinto religion of Japan, torii are traditionally constructed at the entrances to temples or shrines. As archways, they mark space and make the liminal possible, a threshold for the believer needing to cross from the banal to the sacred. At first glance, however, Bjork’s torii are flat, with no formidable dimensions in which to pass through. Look again. Much like her preceding series. Windows, our attention is directed to that which lies just beyond what we see. Her torii are not grounded in a defined location, but rather floating in an unearthlylandscape of black and grey encaustic. The waxy surface shimmers in the light, as if evoking the abyss of space itself ? empty, immense, and with only a faint glimmer of life. Yet from this vastness emerges, in a vivid red palette, a structure, simply constructed, that holds together in its otherwise permeable state. Our eyes navigate into, through, and outside of it while being punctured by that which threatens to subsume it.
Bjork’s canvases vibrate with bursts of color. Find the splashes of salmon paint bursting from the torii or the streaks of green that shake the surface, there you will find the liminal at its best. Her colors express a very human inability to meditate for longer than a very brief moment, an anxiety of our senses to tune out the nuances of the day to day. This anxiety does not disrupt; it is an excited expression of seeing, feeling, and touching. Bjork is a tactile painter, and her surfaces are heavily worked, with layers of encaustic and oil stick that are scrapped, reapplied and scrapped again. This repeated working and reworking, much like the tension that is in each of us, speaks to a longing for a wholeness beyond ourselves. We are never settled, continually reaching out and pushing forward only to fail and move on again. Where and when we arrive - if we ever do - is uncertain. Bjork’s paintings direct us betwixt and between those uncertainties.
Harry J. Weil is an art historian and curator who received a PhD from Stony Brook University and has contributed numerous reviews and interviews to American art publications. Currently, he organizes exhibitions at the historic landmark church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity and teaches at Ithaca College’s Manhattan campus.
Darla Bjork’s oil stick and encaustic Windows vibrate between ethereal landscape abstractions and architectonic, vividly spatial images—a romantic dialogue connecting the outside with what comes from within. Taking elements of her fluid earlier series, especially Water, the Windows are developed according to a grid: still effervescent, still active, but overseen by a monumental, painterly architecture. Window panes, window frames, girders, posts and lintels, Stonehenge in the blue mist, the towers of Notre Dame—maybe they are there, or maybe they are not, hovering in an uncertain, atmospheric domain of sky blue, pale green, and yellow. Bjork’s expressionistic layering takes all-over composition to a kind of epic infinity, while the question of when a painting is “finished” is rooted in the series’ conceptual focus on life and what, if anything, comes after.
Initiated by the approaching death of Bjork’s mother—also an artist—the first of the series, Windows 5, is dark, visibly struggling. After Bjork’s mother died, the Windows shifted to serene evocations of looking into the next world—existence or something less nameable on the other side. The surfaces of her powerful but peaceful grids are reinforced by lines etched and scratched with a screwdriver or dental tool, echoing the structure of the composition while revealing, this time literally, that which lies on the other side of the medium. Layers of color, hidden by newer layers, are resurrected in the scratchings. Surprising reds and blacks emerge with surreptitious fierceness from beneath the series’ predominantly pastel tonalities.
The Windows transform the traditional pictorial relationship between object and setting, emphasizing instead the interchangeability between outside and inside, what is behind a structure versus in front of it, and what can hide beneath. With a compelling combination of intuition and decisiveness, Darla Bjork’s Windows achieve the simultaneous expression of the Renaissance window into space, abstraction’s shattering of that window--and the psychological crossbeams holding it all in place.
The summer gallery hiatus is finally over, and it's now time for the fall season—which is pretty overwhelming. The fact that most of the galleries open on the same night just adds to the element of urgency and chaos. Things have really changed over the past year. Installations and gimmickry were prevalent last year. Now, no one;s drawing stick figures on the walls anymore or creating installation machines out of scrap cardboard. There's a welcomed emphasis on painting.
In my first column for Gallery Hopping, I bemoaned the lack of painting being shown. I am pleased to report that this is now not the case. Its not just that theree's an abundance of paintings, but quality paintings abound. With anry a monochromatic work in site (that's for the Lower East Side these days), I was impressed by the diversity and realistic pricing policies of many of the galleries.
One of my favorite painters that I saw was Darla Bjork. Her long career has taken several turns over the years, resulting in self reinvention(s).
She started out doing landscapes and, during her tenure as a psychiatrist, painted a lot of portraits. Since scaling back from the psychiatric field, Bjork returned to landscape painting, but brings new abstract priciples to the works, emphasising the underpinnings of the mysterious, unknown power of nature itself.
In her current Water Series: Recent Paintings, Bjork incorporates the ancient technique of encaustic wax along with oils painted on wood panels. This allows for some amazing textures that threaten to drip off the walls. Using a rich palette of blue hues, Bjork sets up enless contrasting elements. One could stare at each of theses paintings for hours and stull find more subtleties with every minute of viewing.
In her "Water Series 3" painting, Bjork's mastery of colors morphing into one another, yet delineating its own space presents the viewer with a three-dimensional experience. Not quite an abstract work, yet never literal landscape, she stradles the line between the two. This amorphous approach invites the viewer to fill out the space in the mind. Viewers get a sense of really feeling the lifeforce of water, rather than just viewing it. In combining these elements—which may verge on mixed media, though one never really gets that impression—Bjork expresses a unified vision that relies on diversity. It may sound like a contradiction, but it works.
Overall, I'm looking forward to this art season. Sometimes a struggling economy can make for higher-quality artworks. Many of the galleries appear to have a stripped-down aptmosphere since this is a time when frivolity is out of fashion and true talent is once again in demand. It's heartening to see veteran painters like Darla Bjork getting the attention they deserve. I wouldn't call this era "the death of the avant-garde" or anything, but this promises to be a time with a renewed focus on craftsmanship and talent.
September 17, 2009
Darla Bjork, who spends half her life painting in a studio beside her home on Ohayo Mountain, uses her art the way clients use her day work as a psychologist...to ruminate and heal, to look inward and simultaneously let things flow. That's what makes her latest body of work, "Water Series", so refreshing...a leap beyond past collections woring with faces, or color swaths, or pure emotionality, becoming gentle exploration of flow and rhythm, repetition and sustenance. She works in encaustics, loving the materials uncontrollable aspects...as well as its palette, which she's taken into ultramarine directions this time around.
Bjork's latest paintings, many diptychs, will be up at New York's SOHO20 Chelsea Gallery from September 1 through 26, with an opening reception wet for the big seasonal kick off on Thursday September 10. ...Or just check out www.darlabjork.com. She's a great Woodstock artist and it's a blast to hit these seasonal kick off shows in the city this time of year.
August 27, 2009
landscape, and light. Bjork celebrates the generosity of nature, the luminescence of sunrise and sunset. With this work, Bjork finds the sensuous abandon possible in the act of painting and the clarity manifest through such abandon--a liberation of the self possible through artistic creation.
In 1999, Bjork, conjuring memories of her youth, began again to paint landscape in the countryside. Abstraction and landscape have always been, for Bjork, a path to and recording of freedom, expansiveness, a mapping of an(other) access to the self. As Bjork painted (self) portraits, she fantasized a return to the painterly abstraction that first attracted her to the emotional qualities embodied in color, gesture, and form, to a free and generous play--a passionate vision.
Bjork continues to work on the edge, playing with revelation and concealment, light and shadow--the chance of catching a glimpse, the chance of another understanding (of the self). Resisting boundaries, she dares abandon, her painting has become expansive, even as it pushes against the picture plane and moves beyond the canvas edge into the viewer's space, explosive. She courts chaos, but her vision is now unmasked and chaos is reformulated--freedom, space, fluidity--the layering of sumptuous color and red-golden light.
Overlook, is symphonic in scale, a communion with self through the intermediary of the natural world. Bjork works at the translucent grey moment just before dawn--light bleeds through. We look from a distance, darkness opens, the under level floats up, we become aware of the tension between near and far, between surface, the picture plane, and that which lies beyond and behind the picture plane. A curtain of red washes down. Powerful, threatening, pressing against the picture plane, it looms into the viewer's space, obscuring possible vision, impeding access to the promised depth. Red becomes the color that contains the dark (of the sun). Pale, golden oranges create a delicate tracery through the red, the dripped paint as willed as the marks made with a fine brush. The apocalyptic and lyrical are held in delicate and precarious balance. The struggle (within the self) is quieted, held in abeyance.
With The Cave, Bjork again poses the question of balance between light and shadow, surface and depth. The underpainting, the subterranean level, is a world of its own, frightening and perhaps dangerous--one could lose one's footing. A subdued light recalls the light of December when "the sun is really low in the sky." The light pulses; is the dark lifting or closing in? As she works to see, to "get down to the bone," the artist allows the ideal, the child's fantasy of (total) freedom to interrupt the adult's nightmare recall of confinement. Playing with gorgeous color on the razor's edge of self-knowledge--between luminescence and the void--each instance of clarity holds the possibility of yet another shrouding/cloaking. The artist's response is an understanding that the dark, The Cave, grounds the light giving it depth and luminosity.
In Meadows and Untitled #6, Bjork claims the freedom to be playful, to lavish in the sensual enjoyment of the medium, as in the light of a sunlit day. Looking back even as she goes forward, "you bring the past, the tenderness, the nice things with you," she paints beginnings, the translucent yellows, fragile new greens, and soft pinks of spring. She recalls the art of her foremothers, from her grandmother's garden and the "pale pink roses" she grew, and her mother's painting, to the art of Joan Mitchell and Jay de Feo's monumental The Rose. In Untitled #6, the yellow brush strokes become figure-like, they cavort, play, dance across a green field backed by the silvered turquoise blue of summer. This work could only be made through an immersion in nature, in full view of the countryside, staring into the light--vision unmasked.
In this celebration of a lyrical relation with the natural world, the act of painting, becomes for Bjork, the reach for a utopian ideal. Bjork works to reconcile structure with expansiveness, "it has to be both," luminescence and the dark of the sun. Light filters through layers of color, and color becomes light. The gesture of the artist's hand, is at once brushstroke and ray of light, a particular moment of sunset and a record of freedom and expansiveness--the opening of the artist's psyche.
Flavia Rando Ph.D.
Darla Bjork's abstract paintings, currently involving encaustic waxes on wooden boards, are all about a process of exploration, of freeing something deep within her. She says that when she starts a series of new works, she tends to keep to smaller pieces, and then grow larger in size as her brush strokes - the inner painter she's always seeking to let loose - seek more freedom.
Since starting to work with encaustics, Bjork's been feeling as though she's made a breakthrough with her art. She likes the elements of digging and scraping that the new media allows her, she can really get deeply into a painting now, instead of redoing only its surface, as most traditional means. She can work with layers: On one recent piece, she points out a strip of blue beneath a surface of splotchy brush strokes. That's where she started. It lends the piece a ballast, a sense of depth, that some of her older pieces are missing.
Bjork, who will have a pair of paintings, a recent diptych, in the new 7 x 14 show opening at the Kleinert James Arts Center in Woodstock this Friday, came to her art in a roundabout way. Yet it is that journey that fuels its deepest parts.
Born and raised into a Scandinavian family in Minnesota, Bjork speaks about her mother 'meticulous landscapes' and her own need to rebel against her parent by not going anywhere near art for years. She became a doctor - a psychiatrist with a full career working in mental institutions. Eventually, she found herself drawn to work in New York City, and there decided, on a whim, to try a sculpture class where the teacher now her life partner suggested that she take up painting. "Nancy was right," she says of that decision. "I just fell in love with paint and colors."
Bjork's early works reflected her day jobs at the time. They're angry, tortured faces that catch the viewer off-guard with their primal power, small and raw - an observer's view of an insider's angst. "I guess I found a way of releasing some of what was building up inside of me from my work in the hospitals, " Bjork says now, matter-of-factly. She adds that she didn't stop painting faces until she retired from her position as clinical director at South Beach Hospital and set 'up a private practice for herself - and a second home, with her partner up in Woodstock.
"I didn't know what I was doing when I moved to the abstracts." Bjork admits, almost gleefully. "I just loved the freedom of it - not having to think about having things resemble other things. I could spend hours painting."
Encaustic#2/06She still does that, out of small studios upstate and in lower Manhattan, where Bjork tries to spend time with her art on a daily basis. She notes how the Woodstock locale has produced paintings with a horizontal character to them - like landscapes - while those she is doing this winter in the City are more amorphous, almost like peeling walls. "I've learned a great deal from the way in which light filters through the trees," she says. "I'm always aware of the light when I paint."
As with many in her field of abstraction, I ask Darla how she knows when enough is enough, when to call a painting done. She describes the process where she is working on it flat down, with the heated encaustics, or sometimes now upon an easel, moving the piece to the wall and back until it feels right. That process can take anywhere from days to less than an hour, depending on elements out of her control.
Does she have an idea what she wants to create before starting to work? Not really Bjork says. She may start with a color or a brush stroke - or not. "In the end, it's all about endless learning: I spent for too many years in school. With abstraction, you're learning as you go along, and there's no end to what can happen."
She pauses a moment. Then her two selves seem to conjoin in front of me. "As a psychiatrist, I've often thought about Rothko's suicide and wondered whether it was because he didn't know how to move on from where he'd gotten," she says. "I see artists who seem to have gotten stuck doing one painting. I feel the opposite, especially now with the encaustics added to what I do. I love the ability to move on."
Does Bjork have any ideas about the art world's commercial side? She sighs and we move on.
What about any second thoughts, created by her shift from doctor to painter? "If I'd know what I could get from all this back then, I would have started much earlier and foregone everything else," she says. "I would have loved to be a painter like Agnes Martin, quietly working on what I did for decades."