“Not Tyrannized by the Seen”

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A Consideration of Eric Aho’s Transcending Nature recently at the Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire

By Arlene Distler

Back in April of 2012 I was wandering around the Armory show in New York, an event that has become a huge and important showcase for contemporary art from all over the world. I passed a large abstract painting on the outside wall of DC Moore Gallery of New York. It caught my attention. Among all the hundreds, maybe thousands, of art works placed in their pop-up gallery cubicles—heightened realism in the drawing of a frying pan, brightly striped canvases or shiny chrome objects that seek to mirror the razzamataz of our glitzy, LCD-lit world, often seeming self-conscious searches for something new and fresh—here was someone who simply loved paint and painting. Now that was fresh! The painting, Daybreak (2011), at 92 x 80 inches, also made a big impression. Amid the crush and chaos of the Armory it was a breath of fresh air. I was familiar with Eric Aho’s gorgeous, evocative landscapes, and the powerful ice paintings. But I was completely surprised by the aesthetic of this painting, Aho’s leap into the creative abyss.

Picture 3
Eric Aho, Daybreak, 2011, 92’’ x 80’’ (three panels), oil on panel.
Image Courtesy of the Artist and DC Moore Gallery, New York. © Eric Aho.

Aho had his first survey show at the Currier Museum this summer, through September 8. It turns out Daybreak is not so much a leap into the abyss as a graceful dive into the deep end of waters the artist has been swimming in for decades. Some people might still prefer the landscapes, and there were some beauties here, such as French King, the first painting next to the entrance, a large painting of a sweeping view of the Connecticut River valley, that provides an impressive portal into the show. All the paintings in Transcending Nature, save a group of sketches, were oil on linen.

I visited Eric Aho’s studio in Saxtons River shortly after his Currier show opened. Situated in an enclave of old brick buildings, once the campus of a private boys’ school, Aho works in the school’s’ old gymnasium building, its main features being spaciousness and high arched windows that allow the sun to pour through. Paintings, those few still in the studio, are propped against the wall. No easel in sight. Tubes and small bowls of mixed oil paints are everywhere. Aho showed me what, at present, constrains the size of his work: the only way to get a painting out is through “the toaster,” a floor to ceiling slot in the wall to slide paintings through sideways. They are then maneuvered through a garage-type door leading out of an adjoining space.

None of the landscapes, which were his central focus for decades, were present. The place was completely given over to the new work. Yet nature is clearly a constant touchstone. Aho talks about still doing plein-air painting, but notes, chuckling, that these excursions do not look like the usual outdoor painter’s. No neat painting box (or messy one for that matter) for him. He goes out in his truck, and basically carries his studio with him. There are buckets of brushes, cans and bowls of paint, some left over from previous paintings.

To me, the large abstract oils are an unfettering of what has always been evident in Aho’s work: a love of the medium and an exploration of what a robust and lyrical approach to the laying on of paint can do. How a painting can evoke something seen or remembered and at the same time have a life of its own internal space, form, and color. In the case of Aho, that life is akin to music or dance. Not to overstate, but one senses arabesques in the brushwork and whole symphonies of color.

Picture 1
Eric Aho, Naturalist, 2011, 82’’ x 108’’, oil on linen.
Image Courtesy of the Artist and DC Moore Gallery, New York. © Eric Aho.

In the same way that Willem deKooning’s abstractions contained figurative elements (sometimes with bizarre results), until almost the end of his life, there has been a transitional period with Aho’s abstractions in which vignettes of landscape elements could still be discerned among the dabs and slashes and undefined forms. In Daybreak, the painting featured at the Armory show and included in Transcending Nature, mountain and sky are clearly visible as such in the upper left corner. In Kaamos, the most all-over abstraction, with the canvas treated explicitly as a two-dimensional surface covered with jots of blue and white paint, there are sections that are clearly birches, or pieces of birches. More recent paintings, such as Naturalist, and Approach, have almost entirely done away with recognizable landscape elements, yet the palette of deep umbers, cerulean blue, yellow, pink-tinged ochre, and their sense of space connect these paintings to a sensibility deeply rooted in the natural world.

Describing his work’s progression where representation has yielded to abstraction, Aho says, “I started being distracted by the paint on the surface. It became a new topography with more opportunities.” He goes on to say, “I feel the abstractions are still sensorily accurate. Like a cloud, Mt. Monadnock never looks the same way twice…the atmosphere changes and compresses its physical properties.” There is, he said, a perceptual place that is the reversal of our usual way of thinking about reality. “There is a ‘flip’ that happens. The ‘real’ flips over into the abstract, and the abstract becomes what’s ‘real'”.

Much of Aho’s inspiration derives from his New Hampshire childhood. “The way sunlight shines on pine woods doesn’t happen anywhere else.” These visual memories, fragments—”that is how we see things”—are clearly the inspiration for the “Approach to the Mountain” series, several of which were in the Currier show. The rich contrast of deep darks and searingly bright pigments evoke the experience of going from deep forest into the clearing of blue sky and distant mountain. These are among the most pictorially dramatic paintings.

While sketches are done in nature (and there were some wonderful ones included in the Currier, an intelligent curatorial decision), and the paintings may be started outside, most of the work happens in the studio these days. Aho is enjoying, he says, not being “tyrannized by the seen.” This new expressive, and even emotional freedom is, for me, the heart and soul of the new abstractions.

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Eric Aho, Small Elements, 2009, 22’’ x 24’’, oil on linen.
Image Courtesy of the Artist and DC Moore Gallery, New York. © Eric Aho.

Yet this New Hampshire native son and Vermont adoptee has no intention of being pidgeon-holed. Says Aho, “I haven’t arrived anywhere. I’m in the middle of a journey.” It’s one that could take him back to more representational work, or some other amalgam of realism/abstraction. He recalls, “In art school they’d say your work had to be cohesive, realistic or abstract. I didn’t understand why you had to choose. These terms are irrelevant. Why can’t abstract and representational work exist simultaneously?” To back up a moment to the landscapes, that duality and tension is what I love about them. Aho walks a tightrope that can be breathtaking. In Sligo Fronting Light (2004), a horizon divides the canvas by thirds: the bottom third is low-lying farmland or pasture in chartreuse, yellow, emerald greens; upper two-thirds is a display of virtuosic brushwork in the service of a stormy sky using charcoal gray, black and patches of blue. This painting, and Gjermund Hoslemo’s Field, Bykle, Norway (2003), both relatively small, are gems.

After the more traditional landscapes, there was a series of paintings in which fire is the dominant theme. Aho characterizes his fire paintings as a period of personal creative cleansing, “like a farmer burning his fields. The new paintings came in their wake.” There were only a few included in Transforming Nature: March Fires (2007), is a relatively tame example of the series. With Red Winter (2009), we have a full-fledged conflagration. I imagine these paintings, almost entirely in red, orange, black, and gray, were a cathartic release from the landscape palette, typically dominated by greens and blues.

Picture 2
Eric Aho, Ice Field, 2009, 80’’ x 100’’ (three panels), oil on linen and panel.
Image Courtesy of the Artist and DC Moore Gallery, New York. © Eric Aho.

During the “fire” series, Aho began using ice as a motif. Since his Finnish immigrant relatives made their living through the “farming” of ice, this is a natural subject and one that the artist makes compelling. The ice period, from about 2008 to 2010, is represented by a number of strong paintings, among them Ice Field, made up of three sections, oil on linen that is expanded by wood panels, in a collision of trapezoidal planes at tilted angles. Early Easter is an audacious work in which the canvas is divided in half by a birch trunk, the black cold river behind it a long irregular rectangle surrounded by blue-white snow laden banks. It defies pictorial conventions and shouldn’t work but does, it seems to me, simply because of the artist’s conviction and energy. Which brings us to the thaw of the present, the full sensuous palette and rich pictorial space of the current work…

This was a great time for a survey show of Eric Aho’s body of work, an exciting juncture in which to catch this ever-evolving, always inventive artist mid-career. He embraces a restive creative energy, stating, “Paintings are never finished…my work is something on the way to something else.”

Arlene Distler is a contributing writer to Art New England.

Really loved reading this article! I appreciate the heads up to Eric Aho, who I hadn't heard of before. What I also appreciate is Arlene's fascination and appreciation for an artist who paints with both passion and conviction. Those traits can be very difficult to find in contemporary painting! The Hoffberger Grad program at my college just opened their first painting show of the year, and it's mostly the sort of painterly abstraction you described as "self-conscious, searches for something fresh and new". I think the stuff is awful, intelligently executed, but unpleasing because it communicates nothing. And even worse, the paintings make me FEEL nothing. Hats off to Eric Aho, I'll be paying attention to him from now on!
Posted by: Chris    On: Nov 18, 2012 12:01 pm
Lovely paintings Arlene, I enjoyed reading the article. Would love to see Aho's work for real some day.
Posted by: Debora Coombs    On: Nov 4, 2012 7:31 pm

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