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Essay for catalog accompanying "Seasons" exhibition at Ryder University Art Gallery, March 3-April 10, 2016

The Seasons

Peter Campion

Deborah Rosenthal’s paintings in “The Seasons” reveal a sensibility immersed in landscape, in natural cycles of transformation and renewal. Rosenthal is no plein-air painter, however, no illustrator of scenic views. What makes her so remarkable is the strength of her aesthetic imagination. She is that rare artist whose formal knowledge has fused so thoroughly with her inventiveness that they appear indistinguishable: with a few brushstrokes she can bring the entire history of painting to bear, even while those brushstrokes remain spontaneous.

But history and spontaneity are not the only dichotomies Rosenthal sets in imaginative relation. Her fascination with counterpointed doubles shows in the contours and shapes themselves. The immovability of mountains and the transience of water, the hardness of rock and the softness of cloud, the repetition of patterns and their sudden interruptions— these are only some of the opposing sensations rendered in the paintings.

And this is what makes Rosenthal’s recent work not only beautiful but masterful. By engaging contraries, she constructs powerful metaphors. I mean that Rosenthal is a “literary painter” in the unconventional, deepest sense of that phrase. She doesn’t reproduce familiar scenes, much less build her pictures beneath any conceptual scaffolding. Instead, she manages, while remaining true to the innate properties of her own medium, to endow her paintings with a poetic fusion of intellect and feeling. To spend time with the work in “The Seasons” is to explore metaphor itself, to feel the consubstantiality of all things “rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,” along with the urge to wrest form and meaning from that mutability.

Consider “Doubled Landscape.” One of the pleasures of looking at this painting is following its rhythms. Curvilinear and angular lines alternate and segue into each other. Abstract shapes balance against those legible as leaves or clouds. The scalloped forms along the edges reoccur in the middle to create pattern, even as they work as a framing device and thereby stave off the sense of infinite repetition. What's more, these rhythms occur within a composition which itself engages our sense of time. Placing a diagonal in the center of the painting, Rosenthal has tilted the horizon line upward, making it a temporal divider: we see the form of the house as well as its surroundings as if on different days, in different conditions of light and weather. “Doubled Landscape” proves, then, not only to contain rhythms but to offer a searching meditation on rhythm itself, on what remains and what changes in the cycles of repetition and variation that we call time.

In a group of paintings from her series called “Winter Journey,” inspired by Schubert’s song cycle“die Winterreise,” Rosenthal’s ability to render the experience of time combines with her skill for painting the human figure in the landscape. Here, the figure moves through a winter scene, and through the stages of mourning a lost lover. Using an approach she developed ten years ago, while painting her Orion series, Rosenthal plays with the scale of this figure, making him as big as the hills and mountains. He seems to have come from a space larger than the frame of the picture, an otherworldly or mythical space, even though he inhabits the landscape that he in fact resembles-see, for instance, how the figure's head in “Winter Journey II” merges with the shape of a mountain summit. The individual, human process of grief has become part and parcel of the elemental, seasonal cycle of death and regeneration.

For all of these “literary” or metaphorical resonances, the “Winter Journey” paintings turn out to be rewarding on purely formal terms as well—consider, for instance, the spiral shapes created by the stark lines forming the figures, and by the winding movement between the vibrant yellow and the cool gray of the ground.

The combination of figurative and abstract approaches is not simply a method for Rosenthal but a subject itself, one she explores for its metaphorical richness. Take “Landscape Painter.” Here, the blend of abstraction and representation turns out to occasion some wonderful humor. The figure at the left leans toward the center, as if guiding the viewer into the distance, setting up the expectation of recession from foreground to background, in the manner of traditional landscape painting. But instead of a valley or vista, we get a moment of pure abstraction, a playful arrangement of mostly triangular shapes and lively colors. If she flouts the expectation of deep space, however, Rosenthal is not a programmatic “pure” abstractionist, bent on steamrolling the picture plane to total flatness; ambiguities of depth do occur here: the shapes at the top of the composition, for example, do suggest mountains in the distance, even as they fit into the arrangement of abstract forms.

The play between representation and abstraction occasions humor in “Landscape Painter,” but it also reveals a profound response not only to formal challenges but existential ones. I have in mind the feeling of simultaneous inevitability and surprise that Rosenthal manages to convey: the figures and forms in these paintings appear as instances of reality uncovered, carved down to what cannot be reduced. Still, Rosenthal’s work seldom feels “subtractive.” Instead, for all their inevitability, those figures and forms have the air of previously unforeseen pieces of consciousness that have just now grown into being.

This ability of Rosenthal’s shows with particular strength in those paintings containing both a male and female figure. In "Fête," the figures look as if they've sprung from the roughed- up surface: the white and blue from which they’re made beguile their surroundings, so that the whole composition breathes with atmosphere, with the charged sense of living presence. In “June, or What I Thought I Knew,” the framing has been beaten back, to make the whole painting hinge on the two figures, inhabiting separate places in the landscape, yet endowing the space between them with an intense magnetism. In both of these paintings, otherwise so different from each other, the figures are not depictions but things in themselves. Their being semi-abstract only heightens this sensation of consciousness at play: just as Rosenthal’s landscapes prove all the more vivacious for being half perceived and half created, so these figures reveal a liveliness for remaining pairs of separate, singular selves and also subjects of others’ imaginations—the painter’s and each other’s.

Perhaps the most thrilling, and moving, example of Rosenthal’s skill for rendering separate yet connected figures occurs in “Garland.” At the center of the painting is an infant, whose abstract body coalesces into the detailed face. On either side, the heads of mother and father appear in profile. All three float at the center of circular shapes that resemble cameos, and these shapes appear bound to a chain that winds beyond the sides of the picture. This structure of the garland opens space differently than a ground plane: there’s a sense of being flung, propelled along a cycle of time and generation. And yet the space does still open, arresting the suggestion of infinite repetition, and holding those three figures with all their particularity. Rosenthal’s mastery shows here. By virtue of those formal decisions, she manages to return genuine wonder to the image of the young family, a motif that otherwise might feel too familiar or sentimental, but here gains tremendous force and feeling.

This is what makes Deborah Rosenthal so important a contemporary painter: her prodigious technical talent is not an end in itself but a means of giving each painting, indeed each shape and color, its maximum sensation. Her metaphors of nature, love, and family bear the imprint of necessity, even as her paintings retain all their formal vitality apart from subject matter. In “The Seasons,” such virtuosity feels indistinguishable from generosity. These paintings by Deborah Rosenthal are an occasion for gratitude.

Peter Campion is the author of three collections of poetry, Other People, The Lions, and El Dorado (all from the University of Chicago Press). The recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rome Prize,he teaches at the University of Minnesota.

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