Laura Bidwa

By Ann Bremner, Columbus, Ohio, USA (2000)

Nature and culture, not to mention nature and nurture, meld unexpectedly in Laura Bidwa’s most recent works. An air of familiarity permeates the wood forms she constructs as grounds for painting: books you hold in your hands as if to read or place flat as on library tables, shelves you hover over and peer down at, to see more clearly. But that cultured domesticity is undercut by surprising, unbridled colors poised in peculiar juxtapositions or floating, swirling, together and apart. There’s a fat, buttery yellow that’s just a shade from goldenrod, a green that pushes beyond lushness to nascent decay, and violets and grays often made up of several colors. These aren’t the commonly expected hues of “pretty” landscapes, but they seem natural, closely observed, all the same: that green just might come from pond algae, an odd violet from a sky when the weather or light is changing. The abstract imagery (and the shapes do relate as “imagery”) hints at possible sources or references but never resolves into anything settled or clichéd. So one sees not landscapes but eccentric universes collapsed, condensed—though never contained—in the forms of the books and shelves.

The nurture comes from the intense concentration Bidwa lavishes on each relatively small painting. You might expect objects like these to be overtly precious, delicate, demure. You can imagine another artist using similar forms to display found or invented relics, encoded with stories. The hand-sized scale of the books in particular suggests an intimate diary or keepsake album. But there’s nothing demure about this tough-minded painting. Those fluid layers of color and shape are too expansive, and occasionally too explosive, to read like carefully preserved mementos. This work is far too edgy, too tenuously balanced and rife with competing possibilities, to be genteel. Bidwa’s work can be reticent, however: it reveals itself to a lingering gaze not a casual glance. And the literal edges—of color fields and intersecting layers or of the wooden forms themselves—are frequently the most intriguing places to let your gaze linger.

Refreshingly free from references to popular culture—whether nostalgic or au courant—the paintings nonetheless appear thoroughly contemporary, of this moment. A comment from painter David Reed, which Bidwa passed on to me, just might provide the clue to that contemporaneity. In looking at a great deal of current abstract painting, works from the last ten years or so, Reed believes that he has observed a changed sense of movement in space, conditioned by the image screens that fill our lives: the screens of movies, televisions, and computers. Neither pinned to the surface with push-pull tensions nor receding back into limitless depth, space and movement unfurl up, down, and across such paintings, as across those screens. Reed’s observation clearly describes the filmic space and motion of his own monumental paintings, and it also has real pertinence for Bidwa’s very different work. Colors and shapes glide across her paintings; collide, coalesce, or slide over one another; or hover in place. By transposing that screen sensibility to objects, artifacts almost, made of wood, she freezes it, preserves it for contemplation.

Bidwa’s shelves seem especially well suited to this kind of scrolling screen space, which in some works unfolds across several planes, a back or front edge as well as the horizontal surface. The books are less obviously matched to the treatment, which raises the question of how she developed this format. It evolved in part on a practical level, as a response to working in Dresden during her residency. She needed a portable, packable painting surface, and the hinged books could close to become their own semi-secure cases. Yet she has continued to make book paintings in her Columbus studio, so they must fulfill other formal and expressive criteria. Could the off-kilter mesh between the screen space and the book format be exactly what makes these paintings so intriguing and satisfying? You approach them expecting to see something fragile, hermetic, miniature, constrained—and find instead a wide-open world.