Have you ever wondered what color the universe is? If so, you may be gratified to know that research scientists at Johns Hopkins University have determined that the universe is beige. Yes, beige -- actually, pale beige -- according to their best computer calculations. Sounds bland, doesn't it? But according to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, beige is "a variable color averaging light grayish yellowish brown." Wouldn't you know it? What seemed so bland a moment ago turns out to be a variation of the inscrutable color brown, the color of chocolate, tropical rivers, and dried blood.
It's also the color that sets the tone for Jacqueline Bishop's new paintings inspired by the shadowy Amazon basin. For years, her incursions into the region relied on small boats traversing remote rivers, each tinted a distinct tea-like tone by the tannin in the trees along their banks. Looking deeply into them she saw shadowy, complex things that spoke of the life of the forests and their creatures. Like a meandering river of dreams, her experiences evolved into the work in this Texture of Memory show.
It makes for an eloquent, if enigmatic, exhibition. Many of the works are modest in scale and are spaciously arranged, yet they more than hold their own in the capacious expanses of the gallery. Part of this has to do with their compression: In psychic intensity and detail, they are densely packed. Even so, their pervasive sepia aura makes for quite a switch from her formerly prismatic palette of deep reds, greens and indigo. Yet, these paintings may be her most mysterious to date. Sepia is the color of time's patina, and time has not been kind to the rainforests. While lamenting their decimation by commercial interests, Bishop mines them for insights into the mysteries of life in general and the epic ecology of the Amazon basin in particular.
In the title painting, The Texture of Memory, a mocha-toned river provides the backdrop for a colorful profusion of orchids, moths and hummingbirds in a tangled wreath of vines. Above the dusky waters, more birds and butterflies appear in resplendent repose against web-like tangles of vegetation, and it is unclear whether they are merely resting or hopelessly ensnared. Meanwhile, back on the river, the law of the jungle holds sway as exotic animals lustily devour no less exotic fish under the watchful eyes of howler monkeys. If the colors seem more muted than in Bishop's former palette, they are ultimately no less vibrant owing to the color contrast with the sepia background.
Ayahuaska is simpler, a riot of butterflies and moths, wings outstretched against a burnished Amazon sky. Frozen in space, their rose and golden hues resonate against umbral recesses in startling baroque profusion as a dugout canoe the size of a luna moth floats across the canvas. Such surreal transpositions of scale are typical of Bishop's perspective in and beyond the aptly named Ayahuaska.
Inspired by the hallucinogenic vine of the same name, it evokes a painterly rendition of Ghosts, her large installation of dozens of paper butterflies cut from Brazilian newspapers, sealed in beeswax and suspended by thin filaments from some netting above. A trail through the middle traverses derelict bird nests and brazil nut shells and the spectral aura of aging newsprint resonates with the tea and sepia of the paintings to create an eerie, elegiac atmosphere reminiscent of the Latin literary surrealism of Borges or Marquez.
The gallery's middle chamber contains a series of drawings of forest life rendered on collaged bits of newsprint, and Silhouette, in the back chamber, is an installation of 62 small impressionistic watercolors made on location with the waters of Amazonian rivers. The collage-drawings hark to early surrealism, while Silhouette is a lyrically conceptual production. Yet, the oil paintings are still the most mind-boggling of all, magic realist vistas of a delicate if densely fecund landscape.
A notable exception is Elements of Grace, in which a spectral crimson butterfly and a woman-shaped orchid appear like omens over bare and treeless mountains. Here the stark distillation of forms underscores and illuminates the delicacy of the profligate foliage of the surrounding images. Taken as a whole, the net result is a dark alchemy of beauty, danger and allure from the archetypal feminine side of nature, an extravaganza of poetic precision from the remote rainforests of the imagination.
- Elements of Grace is the exception to Jacqueline Bishop's latest exhibition at Arthur Roger, avoiding the shadows while hovering over the treeless mountains.