Joan Waltemath: Contingencies

Peregrine Program in Chicago, IL
April 16- May 15

by Michelle Heinz

Installation view of Contingencies by Joan Waltemath

Joan Waltemath is a painter’s painter. While artistic experimentation has been a kind of tour-de-force, somewhere outside of painting, Waltemath has aggressively insisted that paint is still a frontier. It is left to wonder how obviously challenging her paintings and drawings appear to those who have no relationship with paint, given the balanced arrangement of lines and rectangles.  Yet the aesthetic discoveries in her solo show Contingencies are a delight. Joan Waltemath’s methodology of experimentation renders a subtle but riveting combination of materials that engage both optics and kinetics.

Contingencies is an exhibition so full of nuance that the desire to spend several days viewing the exhibition is a strong one. The light that pours in through the large windows of Edmund Chia’s one-room gallery has all of the peace portrayed in a Vermeer, allowing the color transitions in Waltemath’s work a chance to really pop.  The phenomenon of light is one that has been at the core of artistic production for centuries.   The light here changes softly as the overcast skies of Chicago gently release it to the river outside Chia’s windows giving the reflective metallic surfaces and transparent depths of Waltemath’s work a chance to really sing.

The paintings have the effect of continuously appearing new since each work changes significantly with the moving volume of light. The shift in appearance extends even into darkness, when some of pieces emit light that has been previously captured through the artist’s use of phosphorescent pigments. But the form and composition of each work is meticulously upheld, even during the transition of sunlight that diminishes into moonlight.

Through experimentation and tenaciousness Waltemath produces paintings that imbue feelings of freedom.  As viewers, we are not obligated to one viewing spot.  The paintings are free as well and can be hung at any height.  Perhaps, this is another reason why the exhibition begs the viewer to engage the work from different angles, leading one to move around and within the space in order to position oneself in relation to the installation.

Waltemath’s straight lines hold substance within them even if they appear as either thin slivers or more plank-like. From base to surface, the artist’s involvement with material experimentation echoes the relentless desire to create space within an irregular grid.  In odd ways she is breaking all of the rules of the narrow passageways outlined by Modernism.

It is the combination of material jurisprudence, a painting’s objectness, with a free-floating conversation on space where Waltemath stakes out her territory.  Many openings vacillate between flatness and illusionistic rendering. These imply many circulations in the narratives of position. Flatness is also an illusion, as when we look at the flat disc of the full moon. One could suggest that Waltemath’s engagement of perception, in order to reopen the visual frontier, is ultimately scientific.

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