VAN Critique Sept/Oct 2014: Marilyn Lerner at Butler Gallery

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Maria Lerner, ‘Centre Point’, 2011, oil on wood

Marilyn Lerner
Circle in the Square
Butler Gallery, The Castle, Kilkenny
9 August – 5 October 2014

For artist Marilyn Lerner New York is a frenetic city from which her practice provides a haven of peace. This exhibition, Circle in the Square, Lerner’s first in Ireland, comprises 21 examples of her work, the main body of which is oil on wood, with just four pieces on paper. Lerner started out as a sculptor, working with wood for three years before moving to painting. This experience is reflected in her wood supports, which are made specifically for Lerner, and feature distinctive bevelling that allows the work to stand away from the wall in a very understated way. The deep grey walls and well-placed lighting (the exhibition has been carefully curated by Gallery Director Anna O’Sullivan) further enhance the work.

Lerner’s colour palette is broad, but she manages nonetheless to achieve a harmony that is easy on the eye. She describes how she starts with the geometric form, then fills in one colour, which she says is ‘easy to find in terms of the form’, then sits at a distance from the work and takes her time determining which colour she will bring in next. Effectively, then, adding each new colour requires a period of consideration, a weighing-up of the balance between the colours already there and those yet to come; though, as she paints in oil, she can work on several pieces at one time.

Her process is nevertheless lengthy, each step requiring careful thought and contemplation, which allows her to switch off from that buzzing New York exterior and reach into herself. As she describes it, this results in a deeply personal piece of work.
But on first glance the paintings in ‘Circle in the Square’ strike the viewer as extremely impersonal. They are all based on geometric figures – circles, squares, ovals, triangles and rectangles – rendered in a wide range of colours. This abstraction par excellence makes any pursuit of representational or referential elements seem impossible.

As viewers, often we look to the titles of works for clues. Lerner’s titles are terse – Quartet, Door – and in many cases are descriptive rather than revealing. Squaring is a series of squares arranged in a circle; Center Point is a series of circles within rectangular blocks of colour. Other titles such as Dawn Dervish or Morning Raga are slightly more suggestive of personal experience – the accompanying notes clarify that Lerner travelled to Asia in the 1980s – but of 21 titles, only Hand in Hand fully intrigues.

This is not the only contradiction inherent in this body of work. The choice of geometry as her vocabulary implies that Lerner is concerned with exactitude, yet in certain pieces there is noticeable imprecision. In Diagram for Circles, for example, the central image isn’t quite centred, the margin on the left being slightly greater than that on the right. In Devi, some of the lines in the upper section of the painting do not meet exactly. These ‘imperfections’ can be interpreted as signs of a human hand, and a creative process where no two renderings, no matter how hard the artist tries, are exactly the same – a quality which distinguishes painting, for example, from digital reproduction.

Lerner cites Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky as influences, two artists who produced abstract works based on the language of geometry, but who were theoretically quite different. There are strong Klimtian elements in her works on paper, another artist much appreciated by Lerner, who also refers to Mondrian, Forrest Bess, Alfred Jensen and Stephen Mueller. The impression is that she looked to these sources for form, colour and vocabulary, rather than to position herself in a particular genre.

But then, that is the point that Lerner makes: her works are a way to “find a place to position [her]self” in her world, rather than in relation to the world of art.

There is no doubt that this exhibition is challenging. Somewhat paradoxically, the very fact that the process by which the works are realised is so personal can make the end result feel quite distancing for the viewer. There is a sense that the experience Lerner is embodying in her work is entirely interior; there is no ‘message’ or point of reference for the viewer, because this is not about the world outside the artist, but her own internal being. The question this poses is whether it is possible to be absorbed by or into the work. The answer appears to be that this depends entirely on the individual viewer, making it – that paradox again – a very personal matter.

Mary Catherine Nolan is a Dublin-based artist, with a background is in linguistics.

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