Soaring Beyond the Divide / Lissa Bockrath at Lesko Gallery
Lissa Bockrath’s works have a fearless quality. They evoke climactic moments of awe and revelation, using paint to recreate feelings of immanent transcendence, even divine presence. Perhaps they’re most like music — symphonic tone poems by expressive composers like Franz Liszt or Bedrich Smetana. In ways that parallel the sonic textures of those composers her sweeping oil on canvas inventions celebrate physical and psychic energies, traveling back and forth across visual/cognitive land and sky, between reality and dream, imagery and pure abstraction.
That might sound confused or chaotic, but Bockrath supplies her Promethean tales of search and dawning redemption with a clear narrative arc. They often begin at the lower left in darkness and proceed through areas of incident and turmoil, upwards across the canvas toward an area of emergent light. Bockrath conveys an active, cinematic sweep, an airborne POV that suggests high altitude and rapid flight — like film clips from the first day of Creation.“Soaring Beyond the Divide” in particular suggests a conjunction of physical and spiritual activity both mythic and romantic, like poems and paintings of the early nineteenth century. As in the swirling, mighty images of the great English painter of elemental dramas J.M.W. Turner, Bockrath’s work re-imagines the towering grandeur of the “sublime,” a three-way conversation between human experience, the forces of nature, and an intuition of the divine.
As in her previous showings at Lesko Gallery Bockrath presents about twenty mid-size works plus ten smaller, foot-square paintings, comparably powerful and complete in their visions of a self-transforming world. She says in a statement that nature inspires her in quite specific ways, and the smaller works on display derive much of their power and interest from a close resemblance to landscape studies. “Into the Air…We Breathe” presents a looming brown cloud, fraught with a menacing chemical luminosity. It threatens and dwarves a low earthly line of objects – foliage, maybe buildings, all scratched into the apocalyptic atmosphere as if on the bank of an estuary. It could almost be an accident, this painting, a chemical spill in its own right – yet not quite. Bockrath has tweaked her scene so that it veers as close to depiction as it can, without quite depicting anything.
This kind of almost ghostly pictorial suspense haunts almost all of her works, but seems most spontaneous in the 12”/12” square framework. “Aurelian Shower” could hardly be a natural scene, unless it showed some unusual event during a volcanic eruption. Flame-like rain, or rain-like sparks, fall from a swirling burnished cloud onto an island, or perhaps onto the coils of a sea serpent, that rises from a dark, subterranean lake. This is the weather of Hades, or of the mind – not a sight anyone has seen. But it’s thrilling, in part because it reads as a potentially very distinct rendition. The panoramic quality of Bockrath’s small paintings is another source of surprise; a viewer must peer into these scary new worlds, where detail is just lost in the distance, tantalizingly on the cusp of resolution. “Inhale and Exhale” is another imaginary ‘scape where jagged webs of electricity hang down from a cinder-colored sky, reaching toward a watery abyss that produces its own choppy, lightning-like spikes.
“Soaring Beyond the Divide” itself measures four by five feet and explores the blue and red palette that characterizes most of her larger paintings at this show. In other years Bockrath has explored ways of evoking, almost summoning the mythic elements earth, air, fire, and water as distinct phenomena, but throughout this exhibit and also in this painting, the dynamics of encounter, mixture, and resistance is the point. “Soaring” looks something like an “X” shaped explosion. Clouds of smoke and moisture and fire billow, spreading from a central area. It could almost be a painting of a raincloud hovering low over an active volcano, but as the title implies, motion and passage are the primary facts under consideration. There is a sense of release somehow encoded in Bockrath’s abstract imagery here, a feeling that something (an ambition, a period of growth?) has risen far enough to set itself free, cresting above previous obstacles, and is about to move onward.
Since her graduation from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1995 Lissa Bockrath has consistently explored expressive painterly modes and the intersection of gestural techniques with the clinical, descriptive qualities of photography. In the past Robert Rauschenberg was as notable an influence as Turner, and she continues to dialogue with many contemporary artists in terms of her techniques and the edge she seeks, between abstraction and depiction, day and night. Her paintings currently at Lesko Gallery take that dialogue and her own aesthetic journey to new heights.