Something Cosmic

A review of Qualities of Stillness: Paintings by Joesph Ablow for Big Red & Shiny, March 2016

The subjects of “Congregation,” the centerpiece in an exhibition of still-life paintings by Joseph Ablow at the Boston University Stone Gallery, are tables which resemble planets. Eons away from the dining room, they appear poised within a sparkling cosmic abyss in a moment of gravitational alignment. Oranges emanate from their legs as if from within the prisms of their angular, wooden souls. Lacking faces, they gesture through reverberations of color and expressive distortions of space.

Throughout the collection of iridescent canvases, which the late BU visual art professor completed in the last three decades of his life ending in 2006, we see variations on these tables’ otherworldly communion. We see more tables—as well as cups, pitchers, bowls and the occasional napkin or wrench—animated with the intimacy and loneliness, the attraction and repulsion, of the human beings who are absent from their world. In one painting, a piece of cloth poses as a hat; in another, like a ghostly messenger. Bowls seem to gaze at each other from across great impasses with apparent recognition. A tribe of mugs stand in solidarity against a precariously tilted surface plane.

“What was to have been for me a subject only for study became an engulfing involvement with a world that, for all its stillness, was elusive, mysterious and open,” said Ablow, who transitioned to painting still-lifes after an early career in portraits and figures. Rather than arrange his subjects before painting them, he preferred to approach them as landmarks on a landscape to discover, in all their natural disarray. He wouldn’t start painting his cups, bowls, pitchers or tables, he said, “until they seem to exist without my interference.”

The ubiquity of these tables in Ablow's work owes to his approach to them as world-stages - evoking the vastness of a landscape or the austerity of planets, depending on their distance from the viewer. “Congregation" offers a view of the latter. The tables are depicted within contradictory planes in space so that they appear at once light years away from each other and in close proximity. The white cloth floats in the well of its own dense shadow as if the folds of its flesh were of the fabric of space and time. 

There is an inherent aloneness effected by the contradictory dimensions of these objects, no mater how close they sit on the plane of the canvas. But Ablow weighs their formal isolation with an agile use of vibrant colors, deep black shadows and shimmering ethereal brights which bring them into a dramatic dialogue. In "Congregation" veils of iridescent color resolve the divisions of their being, breathing them into a shared presence that transcends their disparate dimensions.  In “Still Life with Kilim,”  color is likewise used to enact a narrative. The dark blue pattern of a Turkish table rug at once adds structure to the visual landscape and also, by virtue of the vertical rigidity of its blocks of dark blue, seemingly insurmountable divisions to the characters who inhabit it. Between the lands of bright orange and pepto-pink, a blue plate waits to cross, between two edges, perhaps forever. A glint of orange to his right prefigures his first move. Meanwhile, his ceramic comrades watch the impasse in solidarity on a red earth that wraps the orange-pink island, marking a territory that the blue plate seems destined never to meet.

Characteristically Modernist, at some moments the objects of Ablow's study nearly dissolve into flattened planes of color. But within his compositions' immediate abstractness operates a dramatic logic characteristic of early painters of narrative - most notably those early Italian Renaissance portraitists who Ablow cited as influences. 

Compared side by side, Fra Angelo's "Virgin of the Annunciation" bears illuminating similarities to Ablow's "Vigil III." The fifteenth century fresco shows Mary and the angel on a shallow spread of orange carpet between a web of pillars framing them in dramatic action, their flattened orange foreground shifted up, organized in proportion to human significance rather than according to scientific laws of gravity or of perspective. Though lacking faces, the visitation of Ablow's pitcher to his a pregnant mug and her stiff companion are presented on similar dramatic territory; like actors in a fable, but without names. In Ablow's eyes, the most ordinary objects are subject to the cosmic relations of legend.


Past in Present: Instagram and the Picturesque

 for Atwood Magazine, September 2014.

It’s hot and crowded on the Piazza San Marco in Venice, but through the lens of your iphone screen, the sun and tourists are just players in your photographic imitation of grandeur. Your boyfriend - let’s call him Billy – wanders off toward the Grand Canal but you remain still amid the shuffle, poised to grab a slice of the visual feast. A bird catches flight. You snap the photo, put a filter on it, and think how pretty your lives are.

But before you can send it to Instagram your moment of beauty dissolves into cliché: between you and the Basilica, a herd of tourists hold up their smartphones. They snap at the birds, they snap at the buildings and with their faces planted to their screens, they silently populate the interweb with a stream of filtered photos no more or less special than yours.

To see one's romanticized digital memories as one tiny sliver among the multitudes may be our tech-saturated age's most ubiquitous form of degradation. Yet there might be comfort in the knowledge that we’re not the first in history to divert our attention from the present moment to the encapsulated, digestible beauty of the Picturesque. That filtered and vignetted instagram photo, if remarkably contemporary, is an expression of an enduring desire to frame the visual world with the goal of making it pleasant to look at. It’s an expression of a desire to capture experience, affecting as it is elusive, into a vision that’s worthy of our idealism.

Long before we applied filters to our moments there was the Claude Glass. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the pocket-size mirror rose to popularity its ability to imitate the glow and gradation of a Baroque-era painting. Its darkened glass lowered the color key of a given land or street ‘scape, accentuating prominent features and playing down specifics while its rounded and convex form would create a vignette. In the time it takes today to snap a photo of a sun-lit canal, yesterday’s romantics could transport the “mellow tinge” of French painter Claude Lorraine’s sun-swept and utterly self-contained masterpieces to a city or pastureland of their own.

Above: the Claude Glass imitated the gradation and grandeur of Picturesque landscapes. The only catch? Tourists would have to turn away from a scene to look at it. Source:

Above: the Claude Glass imitated the gradation and grandeur of Picturesque landscapes. The only catch? Tourists would have to turn away from a scene to look at it. Source:

That is, if they were willing to turn away from it. To see the glass’s Picturesque vision of the visual world tourists would have to look at a scene from behind, favoring the view through the dark little mirror to the real thing. For the draftsmen among them, the glass facilitated the creation of quick, idyllic sketches to show to friends and family upon return. The mode of recording was slower, even more contemplative, but the motive to record is all too familiar. With a Claude Glass in pocket, the tourist of yesteryear saw life with a visual appetite akin to the iPhone clad of 2014: that is, ready to embellish at the faintest glint of beauty and ready to dismiss the real thing in order to do so.

There may be something exploitative about the pre-framed made-to-order vision of the Claude Glass or, in any case, the iPhone 5, but the desire to capture idyllic versions of our lives is a romantic one at heart. Encapsulated in Claude Lorrain’s epic, classically precise harbor and pastoral scenes is a familiar longing for an all-encompassing beauty beyond the passing moment. Though his style so sought after by owners of his namesake glass may be out of vogue, our modern-day iteration – the tinted squares of Instagram – represents a similar idealism. Like Lorrain’s landscapes, they show us a world that glows with feeling, that’s more elegant than mundane, that expands into the distance, and where the stench and heat are subsumed by the pure golden and blue colors of perfect weather. By crop and by filter, our photos show us what we’ve seen and done with a nostalgia that the unphotographed life evades – a nostalgia for what may or may not have actually been.

It’s hot and crowded on the Piazza San Marco where the tourists continue to move across the square with an elegance that reminds you – if you could take out that commercial billboard at the far end – of an old master’s painting. With your phone now in your pocket, your hand is free to hold Billy’s as you stroll together toward the Basilica. Maybe a year from now you’ll remember this day by his photo of that bird, but as the moment stands you’re content to forget it as you walk beneath the chiseled archways into a room of gold-plated domes decorated with devotional figures of an era past. A squeeze of the hand, a look in the eyes. And then it comes to you: a rosy tint, a vignetted glow like a filter.