From Petri Dish to Painter’s Brush

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Organella by Stephanie Hargrave

At Shift Gallery through Jan. 30

by Cynthia Hibbard

The lush and lyrical strokes, marks and surfaces of Stephanie Hargrave’s encaustic paintings are testament to the dozen years she’s spent burnishing her waxy medium.

The 27 works in her show Organella are also consistently hued in some of Hargrave’s favorite colors—choices that play well against the woodsy backdrop of the Northwest landscape—deep reds, purples, blacks and charcoals applied to discretely tinted, textured and mostly linen-colored fields that are touched with paler colors, graphite and encaustic pen—and then layered and buffed to a deep luminosity.

The impulse to understand how she does it all is paramount in the viewer because the effects she achieves are so intriguing and hypnotic.  At her Shift opening, viewers peered in closely as if to learn her secrets.  They needn’t have bothered because Hargrave generously talks and writes about her work and process.

“The impulse to understand how she does it all is paramount in the viewer because the effects she achieves are so intriguing and hypnotic.”

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She said the chief satisfaction she had with this particular show, her first for an artist-run gallery, was the freedom from expectations she felt to both expand her grab bag of techniques and to follow her intuitions down new pathways to create a body of work that’s more abstract and painterly than what she’s produced previously.

“I had less care as to whether the work was appealing, and more focus on how I was feeling as the painter,” she said.  “I held a handful of objectives in mind as I worked—to combine transparency and opacity effectively, to be mindful of lightness and richness, and to utilize with I call ‘aggregate masses’ in conjunction with quiet line work in order to find balance compositionally and stay direct with my intended meaning for the work.”

As usual, her subject matter is the microscopic level of the natural world.  She doesn’t as much study as she relates to organisms that might be swimming in a Petri dish—extrapolating and abstracting from that influence in her studio.  Her aim is to present imagery that “isn’t quite knowable but still makes sense.”

“I strive to create imagery that relays my idea of something lovely, like a glowing cell membrane for example, even if it is also slightly disturbing,” she said.  “I want to make work that is beautiful, always, but work that has depth of meaning as well, and not just prettiness.”

In the four “Organella 11-14 “ hung together at the entrance to her show, we can see right away how Hargrave’s organic emphasis is in direct correlation to her raw materials of beeswax, resin and the pigments of her handmade paints.  We can also see how she employs graphite touches or scores lines with pottery and dental tools.  Her process is naturally etched into her work.

“I strive to create imagery that relays my idea of something lovely, like a glowing cell membrane for example, even if it is also slightly disturbing,”

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Throughout the show, her applications range from spare or pale touches of graphite onto snowy surfaces to dense, aggregated drops of deep color built up into vibrantly textured fields, as shown in the edges of her show image “Capra Hircus 6.”

As well, several of her larger, 36 x 36 paintings, such as “Capria Hircus 1,” are dominated by dense and dreamy brushwork that moves her preoccupation with organic forms deeper into the mysteries of abstraction.

Hargrave writes that her world of organella—the organic subsets of a cell—has been “permeating” out of her for the past few years.  The result of her steadfast focus over time is to flood our senses with the strong and pulsating impact of her efforts.