Eric Aho, Ice Cuts

Hood Museum, Dartmouth College • Hanover, NH • • January 9–March 16, 2016

By: Christopher Volpe

20150611224805 Eric Aho Ice Cut Arctic Sky  2015
Eric Aho, Ice Cut (Arctic Sky), 2015, oil on linen. Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery.
© Eric Aho. Photo: Rachel Portesi.

A stark, angular void edges out the largely blank, skewed border of remaining white space in the canvases of Vermont painter Eric Aho’s series of Ice Cut paintings. To call these paintings abstractions would not be incorrect, nor would it be accurate.

The paintings depict the hole cut in ice, or avanto, as it’s called in Finnish, intended for the bracing plunge following the heat of a Finnish sauna. Aho, of Finnish descent, first painted the motif (to scale) in 2008, during his family’s regular recreational outings to a frozen pond in New Hampshire. Since then, he has immersed himself in a multifaceted investigation of the dark void produced by sawing into the thick ice. Recalling stories his father told him on his deathbed, Aho has completed one large Ice Cut painting a year, one for every year his father harvested ice as a boy during the Depression.

This exhibition is the first to assemble the major paintings in the series to date along with numerous smaller, related works on paper exploring nuances of color, geometry and perspective. Although representational, the works impose a layer of minimalist abstraction between nature and its reimagination in paint. Like Courbet’s open grave in Burial at Ornans, the geometry of Aho’s central, reduced shape, extending impossibly past the canvas’s edge, purposefully departs from reality. Other art-historical echoes include Kazimir Malevich’s seminal 1915 Black Square and Ellsworth Kelly’s explorations of black-and-white shapes during the 1950s.

Preceding these in time is an ink drawing by Goya that has fascinated Aho for years, in which nocturnal figures cautiously gather before a mysterious, brightly lit opening. Aho’s similar geometric shape, like that in Goya’s Two Figures Pointing to a Bright Opening (1815–24), can suggest both void and presence, attraction and danger.
If for Malevich white denoted infinite space, in Aho’s paintings, whiteness, whether of ice or piles of snow, usually functions as the material, while the black shape evokes absence, the void. And yet, Aho’s chromatic blacks assert a strong physical presence through thickly brushed paint and variations of hue, texture, and surface quality. Ultimately, Aho’s expressionistic handling emphasizes the paint’s ability to involve the viewer through the material itself.

Aho’s boldly pared-down Ice Cut series offers a rich, sustained meditation compounded of personal narrative, cultural history, and the history of painting. Aho’s work has long married abstraction and experience of the natural world, but rarely with such austerity and suggestion.

©2018 Art New England, All Rights Reserved
Designed and Developed By: T. Montgomery