Molly Vidor and the Elephant in Bonnard’s Garden

What do you do with the elephant in the room? Do you feed it? Nourish it in other ways? Try to talk it down off the wall? Coax it into a deeper relation with furniture and family? You don’t ignore it, that’s for sure. You wouldn’t want it there in the first place if you could simply ignore it.

mv-elephant.jpgIn this case the “Elephant,” left, and a rather pinkish one to boot, is one of Molly Vidor’s five mostly abstract paintings in a show called “Destroyer” now at PDX Contemporary Art (February 5 – March 1, 2008). “Destroyer” is a curious title for the show given the peaceful, reflective nature of the paintings and the fact that in her artist’s statement Vidor correlates her work with that of Pierre Bonnard, who made the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen – landscapes, still lifes, and nude portraits of his wife.

But he didn’t paint one abstract that I can recall, although he eschewed naturalistic color and flattened perspective in a way that makes the composition seem like a patchwork of colors. He wanted his work to be intimate and decorative at once. The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., has an amazing number of Bonnards, and they have such presence that they create their own space in the narrow confines of the converted residence where they are housed.

I have a theory about why and how Vidor’s shimmering paintings echo Bonnard’s, but it follows from my broader theory that we enter into deeper relations with abstract paintings – or, rather, the abstract quality in painting – than we do with landscapes, or still lifes, or figurative work.

It may seem peculiar to talk of paintings having personalities, moods, and habits, but I believe they do. I’m thinking of the paintings we live with day after day. A landscape will shift prospect with a change of light. On some days it provides more cheer than on others. In time it may serve as template for our view of nature. It is a space for reverie: under that tree we rest with fresh-cut bread, a bottle of water and a book. But our flights of fancy are held in check by subject matter. The words for things flood in and narrow the range of expression. An abstract that speaks to us, on the other hand, does so because it is chameleon-like, changeable. Our relations may be combative or harmonious, but there is no fixed-figure reference, no limit to the soaring we can do with it. We may admire a landscape, the subject or how an artist treated it. But a favorite abstract painting, or one where the abstract quality predominates? That, we truly love.

Vidor seems to be experimenting with these paintings, exploring different themes, ranging from the most fully abstract, the densely black, black-and-blueish “Destroyer” and the white and red, blending-to-pink “Elephant,” to “La Jeune Fille” and “Swan Lake,” which bare a suggestion of landscape in their lower portions, to “Slush (Snowflake),” in which a slim metallic-looking figure is squeezed, almost, out of the thick pale white and cool-blue surface in the lower left portion of the canvas. An abstract figure, one might say, as if it is a totemic sculpture rather than the blurred outline of a human form. It reminded me of Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snow Man,” “the listener, who listens in the snow/ And, nothing himself, beholds/ Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

The surfaces of the paintings show a range of activity. The canvases have been painted and over-painted with broad swipes, smudges, scrapes, splotches and smears. Some of the surface is rough-brushed and some wiped slick so that as you move in relation to the painting, parts of it absorb light, other parts reflect light, and still other parts seem to shed light the way a street lamp does in the fog.

mv-la-jeune-fille.jpgVidor is experimenting with moods, too, from the almost too cheery, thickly-frosted birthday-cake “Elephant” (is that a candle in the lower right corner?), to the obsessive “Destroyer,” to the eerie loneliness in “Slush (Snowflake),” to the languorous lushness of “La Jeune Fille,” right, with its hint of Impressionist lily pond swimming at the bottom. If you don’t pause here, linger over the modulating hints of pale color – white to yellow to green – that dominate all but the very bottom, you’ll not get Vidor’s connection to Bonnard.

Vidor’s paintings of flowers – roses, peonies, hydrangeas – with their heavily-worked surfaces, are realistic in a way that drains the “realism” of the subject entirely away, so that they bear, effectively, the same abstract quality that brings the subject in and out of focus in Bonnard’s paintings of intimate interiors and lush gardens. In her current paintings, Vidor turns the process inside out. They are abstracts, with the quality, the very faintest suggestion, of landscape or figure. It will be interesting to see how Vidor’s future work develops this tension between representation and abstraction. These paintings seem transitional, revealing an artist engaged in open field work. But they do draw the imagination in, offering a space where it can soar!