Despite the geographic titles for Mary Weatherford’s Bakersfield Paintingsthat are derived from street names in the California city and inspired by the Kern River, big oil and local lore, the paintings evoked a larger sense of being than could be contained by any one location. I immediately perceived the grandeur of the works upon entering the packed gallery on opening night. The large-scale canvases bespoke ethos through thin layers of aggressive applications of veiled Flashe paint and linear cuts of neon tubing. It appeared that the paint and neon were codependent and required each other’s existence for the message to get across.
While I can only scratch the surface here with Weatherford’s subject, I use the word message because as I spent more time in the gallery, I felt the paintings breathe and pulsate with a rhythm of tender exuberance, hot and cold relationships of diaphanous and dense color build ups and a dynamism that made me want to return when the gallery was empty so that I could achieve total absorption. The intimate space of LAXART yields to Weatherford’s paintings being experienced as an immersive installation. Even though I was surrounded by people at the opening reception, I intuited the possibility of a religious or at the very least, an intense emotional experience with the paintings, similar to the feeling of being sequestered in a chapel like St. Chapelle amongst the color and light filtered space when I returned to the gallery at a less frenetic time.
The color strokes were both deliberate and entropic; the neon maintaining a sense of grounded vibrancy. With the cords hanging from their mounted structures, the fluorescent tubes resembled pared down light spears, javelins and even sail masts. Without reading the background for the painting project, I could infer the reference to navigation and tributaries of water being diverted and drained or markers of recreational stretches on an abstract map. Yet, although there was a definite visual separation between the two physical objecthoods of painting and neon, Weatherford has achieved a symbiotic relationship between the isolated bodies of paint on the canvas and the contained, colored gas in tubes.
A second visit to LAXART proved that I was able to glean a few more noticeable outcomes from Weatherford’s 6 canvas installation. I was in a practical mood so I did not feel any more “moved” than when I first experienced the show a few weeks prior with people teaming around. But, I was transfixed on formal and visual levels where the neon and painted surfaces competed for my retinal attention. This phenomenological response made me wonder, “What came first, the paintings or the neon?”
Perfectly timed for the show at LAXART, Weatherford’s solo show at her New York gallery, Brennan and Griffin, takes it’s inspiration from the moods of downtown streets; Varick, Canal to name a few. Knowing that Weatherford was a Whitney Independent Study Program Fellow, I am certain that the artist spent a great deal of time in Lower Manhattan scouring the urban canyons for legends or simply a feeling. But, I wonder if the artist has a personal favorite between the two bodies of work seeing how the differences are subtle at best. Would it mean more to me as a viewer if the artist spent some kind of penitent conversion period in any of the locations Weatherford conjures in her titles? Maybe more to the point is that the most potent oral histories the artist possibly received was via word of mouth with the handed down truth becoming obscured by painted abstraction and retellings of events particular to the territories. But, as I later learned from a short exchange with the artist, there are no narratives going on here—simply painting, color and the light of the city represented by the neon. I guess I let my recently born storytelling imagination get the best of me.
You can catch Mary Weatherford’s Bakersfield Paintings at LAXART Gallery One, which is located at 2640 S. La Cienaga Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90034. The show closes October 27.
At top, Ruby I (Thrifty Mart) and Ruby II (Thrifty Mart).