Off the Grid
THE CANVAS-September 2010
by Annaliese Jakimides
Elizabeth Cashin McMillen, Greg Day, Ragna Bruno
“Even if within the order there may be enormously instinctive and accidental things, nevertheless they come out of a desire for ordering…”
Elizabeth Cashin McMillen, Row, 2006, oil on paper, 46” x 36”
Elizabeth Cashin McMillen creates work that not only climbs inside your skin and insists that you pay attention, but also climbs inside hers with the same insistence. Part of an untitled series, Row is a simple lineup of what McMillen calls “body fragments without reference to a beginning or end.”
Although she had never created work in response to world events, soon after the World Trade Center towers fell, she began painting monochromatic horizontal bars, as evidenced in Row. “Body parts drifted into my paintings without narrative,” she says. “These people, I could see parts of them as conveyors of story. I cannot tell stories with words, but here were the stories, their fragments.” Even in fragments there is truth.
Her oil paintings come in a variety of sizes, but she is happiest working on “a large canvas, moving within the space.” Her largest paintings run in the 100-inch range, but that limitation is only a result of her studio’s size.
“I love moving around,” she says. “It’s almost like being a dancer. And I love being on my ladder. I love even the sound of it.”
Born on the South Side of Chicago, McMillen spent many childhood years in Mexico, where she saw artwork everywhere she turned. Perhaps as a result of those formative experiences, her palette is both simple and profound.
Desiring the resistance of a hard surface, she always begins by tacking paper or unstretched canvas to the wall. Although she is sometimes “thrilled” by a new brush, she prefers her worn brushes, the ones that have traveled through previous paintings, and that will “eventually become fragments” themselves.
Each day as she goes into her studio—imprinted with the “tattoo of my decades of working in it”—she is exactly where she wants to be.
Greg Day, P52311, 2007, acrylic, dried pigment, and epoxy resin on custom-made birch panel, 16” x 12”
Greg Day’s roots are in rural Maine, where as a young child he began to consider the permutations of light, the extravagances of space, and what he perceived as a nucleus of urban landscape and infrastructure—long before he had the vocabulary with which to understand or communicate any of it. He went on to study architecture and architectural engineering at the University of Kansas, followed by years abroad and in New York City. Today he can be found in his studio in Bath overlooking the Kennebec River, being both “a full-time lighting designer and a full-time painter.” He says that each feeds the other.
Day calls himself a “builder of paintings.” Using computer-aided drawing software, he has designed an organic grid that theoretically never ends. Each painting—intricacies of line and form, movement, depths of light, ridges from which to view a world shimmering with personal history and possibility—flows naturally into the next.
P52311, like all of the other paintings in the Elva Project—now numbering 200, and counting—is on a 16-inch by 12-inch custom-made birch panel. One could bolt them all together, albeit in a particular order, and there would be no break in the systemic rhythm of this extraordinary universe, in which Day continues to be as fascinated by the conundrum of boundaries in infinite space as he was when he began the project over ten years ago.
Each painting in the series is titled with a random five-digit number prefaced by a letter because, Day says, “I didn’t want to create a sense of a logical pattern. I want to be able to select a panel, with no logical reason, and enter it. I want to reinforce the random and the infinite”—and the clearly very connected—“universe.”
Ragna Bruno, Enigma, 2010, oil on canvas, 48” x 48”
Straddling two worlds, Spain and Maine, Ragna Bruno paints the landscape of place as well as the landscape of relationship—the relationship of movement and particles, the interstices of space. The foundation for both is found right outside her window, either here or there, on one side of the Atlantic or the other. Bruno travels regularly from her studio in Hancock to Madrid, where she grew up, the child of a Swedish mother and a German father. The duality of her cultural upbringing, she says, has been the source of her art.
Enigma, from her series Counterpoint, is rooted in her landscape of relationship, where a muted, erratic grid gives rise to a rhythmic energy both lush and soothing. The layering of one color over another becomes an intimate gesture of invasion. Each painting in the series was composed to Bach, specifically the Goldberg Variations, which, Bruno says, “centered me. Since very early in my life, music and poetry have been the structure that holds my feelings and life together.”
Beginning with a grid laid down in charcoal, she follows where she is led. Like life, she says, the painting changes and expands—a constant surprise, a gradual revealing—until it achieves balance.
Moved by the work of artists such as Max Bill and Paul Klee—both of whom were natural draftsmen with an affinity for precision, geometry, and color—Bruno’s works are built in the dream state of a similar world.
In early 2010, she moved into a new studio, which she describes as “a place of light and peace,” a place large enough to accommodate the dimensions of works the size of Enigma. Here, she says, paraphrasing Henry James, “I work in the dark, I do all I can, I give all I have.”