August 27th - October 2nd
Opening Reception: August 27th 5-7:30PM
Pinned to Lisa Noonis’ studio wall is a print of Picasso’s 1918 painting “Les Baigneuses,” a grouping of three women at the beach in old-fashioned bathing suits. The figures’ odd, angular, and uncomfortable-looking poses suggest life’s ordinary, yet generally unnoticed, eccentricities, which helps the Modernist image transcend the specificities of portraiture and place.
With a similar allegiance to the untidy nature of reality, the gestural, semi-abstract beachscapes in Lisa Noonis’ Tidal series convey a concentrated experience of reality. Unfettered by a too-literal focus on form, Noonis conjures oceans, tide-pools, clouds, and semi-populated beaches from scored, indelicate surfaces lush with an unapologetic, post-Abstract Expressionist love of color and paint.
Noonis attacks her paintings’ surfaces with brushes, knives, oil sticks, squeegee, and graphite. Tidal’s colors flow and glide between clear, high-intensity oceanic blues and subtle, complex grays, often concocted of warm ochres, cool lavenders, and de-saturated, sea-weedy greens. Splinters and gleams of high-chroma red and yellow, modulated pinks, and flecks of acid green or cadmium orange punctuate the muted color harmonies.
Bright beach days alternate with moodier, overcast mornings and brilliantly lit dusks. “Just Us,” with its holdout pair of day’s-end beach umbrellas, evokes the ambiance of late afternoon after a long day at the beach, when only one or two other stragglers roam the shoreline as the sun heads down. In other canvases, grouped and singular beach-goers connect glowing red and yellow beach umbrellas among the unstable eddies and flows of intermingling light, water, and sand.
In several paintings, such as “In Between,” the umbrellas unmoor from their pictorial forms to function primarily as design elements in a mostly abstract composition. Here the rounded, vaguely pentagonal shapes become islands in a current of multi-colored marine pigment. In the diptych’s left panel, a horizon line is suggested at the top left, while on the right a kite tethered to the beach is represented as it would look if seen from the ground. But the conjoined foreground plane is tilted toward the viewer, so that the umbrella forms and tidal channels are seen aerially. At the same time, scale shifts dramatically between the two panels, and the waterline on the left panel becomes on the other a coastline, as if seen from the kite’s perspective.
For all that, the initial impact of Noonis’s paintings is immediate and direct, while their less tangible character reveals itself over time. Paintings like “Towards Straws Point” and “Dusk I and II” court sensation, the glimpse, the unspoken, the striking thing seen as you turn away. Their genesis is the world not as the eye and mind want to make sense of it, but rather as it is experienced between seeing and memory. Refusing Realism’s bracketing of experience and leaving the painting open allows for not just what the mind says is there but what the body knows, and for an extraordinarily intimate engagement with the viewer.
Because nothing is fully rendered, “the audience is free to create its own story,” Noonis says. “The sentence isn’t fully punctuated with a period at the end. It unfolds and unfolds as you look at it – it isn’t a closed box.” Given this intangible dimension, it’s no surprise that the artist inhabits her subjects the same way. “When two people talk, there’s a whole other layer of conversation going on in addition to whatever’s being said,” she says. “I think artists look at the landscape in the same way.”
For perhaps obvious reasons, Noonis eschews photographic reference material. Instead, she works from life, responding to her subject in small, rapid sketches in gouache or oil. These sketches later become starting points for studio paintings, though what happens next has more to do with memory and sensation than with literal representation. Invariably the studio canvases take on a life of their own as the artist vigorously adds and subtracts paint, draws and paints over, considers the results from multiple angles and orientations, works and reworks her paintings’ surfaces.
It’s this process that pushes the paintings beyond place-based rendering and, paradoxically, ever closer to the experience of reality. As paint layers rise and recede over time, textures build and the canvases grow rich with pentimenti, residual marks, alternate readings, and new, ninth-inning linear strategies. Some areas are resolved in certainty, others left in doubt. The result is a visual record of process, what Noonis calls “the grit, the fight,” as well as paintings that align not just with vision, but with the intangible. “My eye sees so much more (than the camera),” Noonis says. “In memory, I see even more than that.”
It isn’t the memory of how something looked that these paintings convey. Rather it’s the sense of a moment – a series of emotional and psychological experiences, not so much, in Wordsworth’s phrase, “recollected in tranquility,” as reconstituted in the materiality of paint. Composed from memory, “Clouds Reflecting on Shore” reads like sheet music. The bright reflections in wet sand enliven and deepen the foreground’s descending color-chords that are the painting’s true subject. This diagonal, Morandi-like arrangement of muted grays in shifting hues of violet, blue, and green forms a rhythmic bass-register of luscious drifts, scrapes, dabs, and blends for a counterpoint of higher-key notes that glide across the painting’s top third. The effect is to evoke sensation through a lyrical, intuitive engagement with the paint while remaining anchored in the experience of a definite place and time. Still, “Clouds Reflecting on Shore,” along with many of the works in “Tidal,” seems ready to transcend place altogether.
The largest paintings in the series push most thoroughly into abstraction, yet still without fully abandoning representation. With leanings toward the early Diebenkorn’s landscape-based abstractions, “In the Mist” gorgeously records the low tide dolor of New England’s Atlantic coast in prismatic seashore grays and clouds of lilac paint.
In the minimalist, climactic “Summer,” the most abstract piece in the series, everything happens in the paint. The jewel-like flecks and glimmerings of primary color-notes and polygonal shapes remain, but they’re no longer assigned to bathing suits or umbrealls. There’s the distant memory of clouds and a horizon line, but the seam between sea and sky is pitched so diagonally as to not exist per se. The familiar palette is now flushed with dynamic variants of tidal blue that somehow never become discordant or redundant. Noonis orchestrates the surface tension with restrained diagonals and dynamic, directional brushstrokes, and counter-directional scrapings, traces, and lines. As a summation of the series, “Summer” most evocatively conveys Tidal’s expressive goals with confidence and seeming ease.
This is painting at a high pitch, intuitive, honest, and vulnerable. Each work performs a balancing act between order and disorder, carried out to capture perception at its freshest, at equilibrium between “out there” and within.
Lisa Noonis’s work in “Tidal” demonstrates painting’s continued power to exceed the lens of sight, to invigorate the senses and to distill beauty and meaning from seen and felt experience.
-Christopher Volpe for The Banks Gallery