So many people showed up at ICA’s Salon, Approaching Imagery, that we had to rearrange the chairs. It was a good kind of problem to have. The Salon, which was partly inspired by the presence of Charline von Heyl’s extraordinary paintings in ICA’s first-floor gallery, brought together three painters— Scott Olson, R.H. Quaytman, and Philadelphia’s own Dona Nelson—to discuss their own work and, more generally, current issues in painting and abstraction.
To begin her presentation, Dona Nelson showed a movie clip. It was a chase scene from John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, very dark and shadowy and hard to make out. After the chase, the protagonist has a long phone conversation in a lighted telephone booth in the middle of nowhere. “I can’t give you anything but love, baby,” he says to the person on the other end.
“I think Cassevetes films are very applicable to Charline von Heyl,” Nelson said. For one thing, they have a convoluted narrative. For another, they are riveting without being exactly entertaining. And finally, “You can never really identify the emotions, but they’re nonetheless very emotional.”
Later, during the discussion, R.H. Quaytman picked up the theme. “It’s interesting that you chose the Cassevetes clip,” she said. “If you’re a painter, you’re kind of in the broken-down car at night, and everyone is going past you.”
It was wonderful to hear these painters—these passionate inheritors of a mantle older than history—discuss what they love and what they want to do. Scott Olson works with rabbit-skin glue and marble dust and vegetable pigment. He showed us an image of the industrial landscape outside his window, and another image of the Michigan woods covered snow, to give us a sense of the world he lives in that influences the art he makes. R.H. Quaytman, who declared her love for vitrines, conceives of each exhibition as a book. “I make a lot of rules,” she said. “But they don’t always help.” Dona Nelson likes to paint outside. “Sometimes I leave the paintings out overnight. Who knows what will happen to them? I try not to protect them.”
Best was when they asked each other questions. “How do you make decisions about what to cover up?” Dona Nelson asked Scott Olson. “What do you think that impulse of covering up is?” This from a woman who often uses both sides of her canvases, who seems as though she wants to open up everything.
“Shame,” R.H. Quaytman suggested.
“I try not to decide,” Scott Olson offered.
Then the audience, many of whom were painters themselves, joined in. In that warm room crowded with people who had come to think about painting, it was impossible to believe that making this kind of art was like being alone on a dark highway. For one night at least, all the cars stopped outside the phone booth, and everyone in them got out: “I can’t give you anything but love, baby!”
Who needs more than that?
The next ICA Salon, Art in Transit, will be held on Wednesday, November 2 at 6:30.
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