Review: Squarecylinder, Jenn Shifflet

The Silver Morning Air with Night Behind You Oil on panel, 10x10 inches


By David M. Roth

Jenn Shifflet’s paintings are like pools of light emanating from indeterminate sources. They exist in a brackish wash of terrestrial, aquatic and celestial atmospherics. Translucent and semi-opaque circles floating amidst clouds intersect with luminous bodies of water that puddle and swirl into ‘C’ shapes, half-circles and swooshes.

The result is an evocation of things heavenly and Earthly: the jade-green dampness of the Pacific Northwest, the aquamarine vistas of the South Pacific and the pillowy recesses of cumulous clouds come together, sometimes all at once and in the same painting.

If this show (“Dream Pools, Light Drifts”) appears to be a bold appeal to our desire for transcendence – or, more specifically, to a universal longing to merge with nature – then the historical markers embedded in these paintings certainly point in all the right directions. The most obvious influences are Darren Waterston and Ross Bleckner, two practitioners of spiritual abstraction who depict deep space from ambiguous viewpoints and with a remarkable lack of visible artifice. It’s also easy to spot the imprint of Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847 – 1917) and J. M. W. Turner (1738 -1829), both of whom handled light and atmosphere abstractly, but in ways that made their subjects seem palpably real. Shifflet seems to share a penchant for their more elusive tonalities.

You can also detect, in Shifflet, the possible influence of Far Eastern techniques, like Tibetan Thangka whose repetitive forms echo in the highly stylized lines she uses to depict flowing water. Film noir’s habit of using lens flare to symbolize the subconscious disorientations of big-city life also comes to mind, but I doubt that Shifflet was thinking of Billy Wilder or Nicholas Ray when she populated these paintings with jewel-like pools of overlapping circles.

In all, 14 oil paintings are on view. They include one medium-sized (48” x 36”) canvas and 13 panels ranging from 36” x 24” to 10” x 10”. Regardless of size, these works are best seen up-close. Otherwise, you miss the artist’s key strength, which is merging light, space, water and matter; though at times this coalescence is impeded by an overuse of surface varnish. In her strongest paintings (“Jewel”, “Below the Surface”, “A Syllable of the Earth”, “The Silver Morning Air with Night Behind You”, "A Handful of Dust for You" and “Resting in a Drifting Sky”) she seamlessly unites a translucent build up of layers, and in these transitions magic occurs: We are confronted with an invisible plane or portal through which it’s difficult to know whether we’re viewing these scenes through rain-soaked glass or whether we’re bodily immersed in them. We can stare; but the stronger impulse is to dive in.