Although veteran American abstractionist Emily Mason lives and works in New York and Vermont, her palette does not reflect the muted tones of either the city or the New England countryside. Indeed, entering her recent exhibition was like diving into the waters of a tropical lagoon. Her fugitive greens and incandescent reds, oranges, yellows and purples seem burnished by a brilliant Mesoamerican sun. But the exuberant use of lavish color belies Mason’s deliberate engagement with a legacy that stretches back through Frankenthaler, O’Keeffe and Rothko all the way to Matisse.
In such paintings as Aztec (2009), Border Crossing (2010) and Peruvian (2008), Mason does, in fact, make references to water and to colors often associated with Mexico and South America: hot red, purple, blood orange. And while this exhibition of 25 works made over the past seven years included some that seem unanchored to deeper strata of meaning, paintings like Sea Through (2009), Everything Unknown (2003) and In Shadow (2009) enter into a more substantial exploration of chromatic relationships.
Sea Through (20 by 24 inches) was one of the smallest paintings in the show but among the most complex. The double entendre of the title suggests the dual aspects of the painting, which is both pure abstraction and a symbolic window with a view. Framed by the semblance of a ruined wall is the aqua blue of what could be a Mediterranean cove, its allure an almost gravitational pull. The wall is defined by intricately layered yellows and maroons, and there are hints of scumbling and scraping. The materiality of the paint and the romantic vista the image suggests are set in a push-pull opposition. Looked at another way, Sea Through is about the interaction of vibrant tones.
Everything Unknown (40 by 38 inches) exemplifies Mason’s revelatory use of color. A bold magenta is balanced by other, judiciously chosen hues that give small areas in the painting mysterious importance. There is a little arc of intense blue in the lower left corner, an archipelago of gestural green strokes that descend on a diagonal, and a blush of orange within a diminutive, deep red field in the lower right. Emerging from and submerging into the sea of magenta, these colors assume a geological weight.
Photo: Emily Mason: Everything Unknown, 2003, oil on canvas, 40 by 38 inches; at LewAllen.