Mystery and Ideal Form in the Paintings of Gillian Pederson-Krag

by Sarah Sutro

Viewing Gillian Pederson-Krag’s work often feels like being immersed in a world of color choices never seen or experienced before. In her staged figure paintings and muted still lifes, brilliant notes of color within a veiled palette create quiet moments when time seems to stop, giving way to a mysterious depth and poetic meaning. Representing traditional, simple collections of shells, boxes and vessels, her still-life paintings are not heroic or aggressive: they are decidedly meditative and unassuming. They seem to have no relation to the modern world. Objects one might ordinarily discard or pass by without a second glance are lingered over lovingly, as a child might with a favorite colored ball, or an apple grower with one particularly beautiful apple.

Born in New York City in 1938, Pederson-Krag lived upstate near Ithaca her whole adult life, only recently relocating to California. A long teaching career at Cornell University and multiple assignments as a visiting artist engaged her with the academic world; students emulated her work almost in the manner of a Renaissance workshop. Currently, her paintings are represented by the Winfield Gallery in Carmel, California, and her etchings by the Gross McCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia.

Death Visits the Queen, 1981 COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Pederson-Krag grew up in New York City; her extroverted psychologist-writer mother (founder of several well-known clinics) and reserved inventor father provided contrasting influences in her life. Looking back, she relates that not until she visited the Greek and Egyptian sculpture displays at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a child did she have a feeling of belonging and inspiration, a “feeling of being moved,”1 and of being outside contemporary time. These feelings continue to nourish and define her work.

During her last undergraduate year at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence, her work changed from abstract to figurative. She articulates the belief that “real painting and poetry are mystical experiences.”2 Certain qualities emerged in her mature work that have to do with the inner world—part mythological, part metaphysical, where the universal or eternal is represented, if not wholly known or understood.

In Pederson-Krag’s work, luscious sunsets, shells, flowers, letters, empty vessels and folded satin speak to the immediacy and transience of the moment. A ripple of light on the surface of an object, the gleam in a shell’s whorl, an opened letter left haphazardly on a surface—all suggest a kind of numinous presence, with evanescent beauty: a symbol for something invisible but powerfully present. The Jungian writer Thomas Moore describes this effect when he says, “…we’ve lost the capacity, as a culture, for real contemplation…soul thrives on mystery…if we are going to care for the soul and we know that the soul is nurtured by beauty, then we will have to understand beauty more deeply and give it a more relevant place in life.”3

Finding out about the existence of death was another early experience that shaped Pederson-Krag’s awareness. In the historical memento mori tradition, artists meditated on the universally mysterious passage of death. The memento mori genre began in Greece and Rome, continuing into the Renaissance and re-emerging in Dutch seventeenth-century still-life painting, where vanitas objects such as fruits, flowers, insects, skulls, ripe foods of all kinds and even human physical beauty symbolically expressed the ephemeral nature of life. Mortality in Pederson-Krag’s paintings also takes the form of ancient statues and Greek heads that echo a lost world of ritual and memory, powerful forms that once occupied a space in our consciousness.

Death Visits the Queen (1981), like Pederson-Krag’s other paintings with an angelic figure or a woman dreaming or sleeping in a desert, addresses this theme directly, offering an inner dialogue that takes an outer form. Here a seated woman in a blue gown seems to be conversing with a skeletal figure who walks towards her. There is no fear expressed, but rather a sense of negotiation. The surrounding room glows turquoise and pale green with the light from a sliver of window at left; a partly open door at center beckons—yet none of this narrative is heavy-handed or overdone. Pederson-Krag’s subtle quality of presentation pervades the scene—the pure beauty of the light, the color of the walls and the simplicity of the queen all suggest timeless questions hovering in the air between the figures. The gesture of the skeleton also reflects this silently, as does the queen’s slight motion to keep him away.

Gillian Pederson-Krag, Still Life, 2007 COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Pederson-Krag’s compositions are formal: a vase, cup, blossom, ribbons, cloth or other objects are balanced to offer a central focus. Subjects have the immediacy of crumpled paper or a half-full glass, the randomness of a cluster of objects left together on a table, with seemingly no overt meaning. Yet, at times, they seem to function as platonic forms, alluding to a time when the world was “symbolically transparent…a transparency through which eternal forms are seen.”4 In Pederson-Krag’s paintings, images prompt meditations— both in the making of the physical object of the canvas and in the contemplation of the subject. The Jungian psychologist Eric Neumann describes the way that consciousness develops in dreams or thought: “becoming conscious consists in the concentric grouping of symbols around the object, all circumscribing and describing the unknown from many sides. Each lays bare another essential side of the object to be grasped, points to another facet of meaning.… The mythological answers to these questions are symbolical, like all answers that come from the depths of the psyche…and therein lies its wealth of meanings, but also its elusiveness….”5

In Pederson-Krag’s glowing yellow and blue-green Still Life (2007), a transparent glass vitrine holds center stage along with a small white bowl, four tiny shells, a piece of folded cloth and a lemon. With Chardin-like simplicity, she lays out these objects on a folded yellow silk cloth, as if randomly. Our eye goes round and round in a spiral of looking, from the merging edge of the white bowl, to the orange stripe on a spiral shell, to the reticent lemon half hidden by cloth. The shapes of the blue-green surface, the brown horizontal background and the diamond of yellow cloth form a landscape of memory. One can get lost in the sumptuous folds of gold, or the orange highlight in the empty jar or the triangle of blue in the corner.

Another recent painting, Still Life (2014) sustains the artist’s line-up of objects/characters with a blue-and-orange Chinese cup, rutabaga, apple, cracker and wedge of cheese, sharing the table with a tiny transparent green glass and an ordinary spoon. The sheer humility of these objects invites the viewer to enter the painting, to sit and contemplate the qualities of light and color, and the play of symbols as they work on the mind and psyche.

Pederson-Krag studied at the Art Students League of New York, and at arts academies in Florence and Perugia, where she lived among the historical influences that play out in her work. In the sun-dappled warm tonality one sees traveling south from Milan to Florence, brilliant motes of color are suspended in the air. In Italy, the artist admits, she felt she was “coming home.”6 At RISD, she studied under the painter Robert Hamilton, from whom she grasped the seriousness of art. At Cornell, where she received her MFA, John Hartell impressed upon her the importance of commitment. Reading the works of Paul Brunton and Joseph Campbell influenced her both personally and artistically. At RISD, students were encouraged to make their painting “original,” but now she sees this as an “attribute,” not the main goal.

Looking over art history, Pederson-Krag has particularly admired Giorgio Morandi, Pierre Bonnard, James Ensor and Georges Seurat. In Morandi, she found her subject: the everyday cast of humble objects he painted unceasingly in his studio. From Bonnard, she learned the juxtaposition of brilliant spots of color, and also a sense of the sacred ordinary. Ensor unleashed a certain strange fantastic quality in her work, while Seurat influenced her drawing and interest in theater.

Pederson-Krag’s landscapes also celebrate color. At times, skies burst out like colored rockets in a spontaneous display of cloud and sunset—resembling Turner landscapes, melding water into atmosphere. In Seascape (1999), a hint of light at the horizon illuminates the transparent cerulean of the sea. Scraped edges of coral reef emerge as burnt red streaks in the foreground, with a jewel-like edge of white violet rock that has just dried. Edges of reef farther out contrast with the glazed blue surface of water, while yellow and white clouds erupt from where the sun has just set.

Gillian Pederson-Krag, Seascape, 1999 COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Technically speaking, Pederson-Krag’s oil paintings have a chalky surface, darkened by washes, unified by tones that envelop and just barely reveal bright highlights. The atmosphere suggests a theater’s scrim or a gray day. Surfaces are pebbly, thick or smooth, with signs of thick brushstrokes and overpainting that connect many versions of color in one overall family. Like Albert Pinkham Ryder’s unorthodox thick layering of paint on canvas, Pederson-Krag’s application is unusual, going for the effect, without concern for the sheen or shine of oil paint or varnish.

There is a sense in Pederson-Krag’s work of a pause, a meaning only alluded to and not articulated, a theater of meaning, with a mythological stance towards reality. Figures like Psyche, Persephone and Venus are suggested, as Greek sculptures gaze out at the viewer from a thicket or an abandoned ruin, or are juxtaposed with a landscape. Her paintings almost turn contemporary characters into statues as well, like Piero della Francesca’s stilled figures, archetypally placed and described. Each part of the painting can seem monumental, as if representing something infinite and important, despite its actual scale. Mysteriously assembled among fragments of still life and flowers, the muse-like figures invite epiphanies, a half-remembered, muffled reflection of another time.

Still Life (1976) features a severed Greek head in profile, a conch shell and a small white box. Here we begin to sense, uncomfortably, that the idealized past is gone, even ravaged, as once-sacred archeological sites are today. The subject is so indirect, so noiseless, we could feel we are in the presence of a cipher. As viewers, we contemplate the classical head in profile, with turquoise and green cloth, a slim band of orange and blue decoration. The beauty of the objects and their painterliness obscures the devastation of the fragmented statue. Like Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings of deserted Italian streets, Pederson-Krag’s figures evoke half-remembered associations. Through symbol and sign, the mind reaches back to an archaic time that, like a poem, can only suggest, but not describe, reality. It is irrevocably past, and one is left, like the title of the De Chirico painting, with a “nostalgia for the infinite.”7

In Pederson-Krag’s paintings, the juxtaposition of a statue’s head with a snail shell, or the otherworldly quality in a vase of flowers, is poised in a timeless netherworld. Donald Kuspit’s description of one category of realist art is highly pertinent here: “the spiritual realist, at his best, has the creative capacity to establish a kind of immersive intimacy with the object, the necessary emotional condition for it to tell the truth about itself, which makes it unquestionably real and numinously present. It…stands out of time and does not fade into oblivion, but remains eternally itself….”8

Gillian Pederson-Krag, Painter’s Diary, 2008 COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Pederson-Krag is not only a painter, but also an etcher. In her varied prints, we find similar themes: from natural scenes with a powerful aura, to landscapes with figures, statues, temples or remnants of totemic animal sculptures, like the lions in Delos (1984). Seen from above and afar, the ruins of Delos are littered with lion forms in formal rows, as if awaiting a procession. The figures are worn and broken by time and weather, resonant in their stoic resilience. In another etched landscape, two large olive trees in the foreground are animated, turning and twisting like figures in the Greek myth of Daphne and Apollo, where Daphne becomes a laurel tree as a result of Apollo’s pursuit. Like the seventeenth-century Dutch etcher Hercules Seghers with his grainy, heavily bitten aquatints, Pederson-Krag describes these twisting trees and earth forms as if the trees were anthropomorphic, changing the small landscape into a nearly human drama of enlarged scale. Both Seghers and Pederson-Krag use hand-coloring to infuse their prints with a soft glaze of color that wraps images in a diaphanous, atmospheric veil.

When she writes about painting, Pederson-Krag focuses on process and intention: the purpose of art, the use of the ordinary as symbol. She writes: “The process of painting is about relating to the two-dimensional surface, expressing the mysterious way something can be both particular and universal at the same time.”9 The work alludes to states of being, moments of acute reflection, muted joy in observation, while also exploring the play of shape, light and color in objects on a surface.

In a similar vein, the poet H.D. writes: “we are the keepers of the secret…of the rare, intangible thread/that binds all humanity/to ancient wisdom,/to antiquity;/…and every concrete object/has abstract value, is timeless/in the dream parallel.”10 Both painter and poet refer to ancient Greece philosophically and artistically. Then the stage was central, and works were experienced communally: plays were performed in amphitheaters throughout the Greek world, and the lyre accompanied performances of poetry. The arts co-existed, integrated into architecture as if the sculpture were in some sense alive, joining with philosophy, government and literature. In some ways, this interconnection is what has been lost: the whole expression of an age. In our own scattered culture, fragments reflect a distant memory of an ancient time.

In one of Pederson-Krag’s studio paintings, Painter’s Diary (2008), a figure sits on a daybed, surrounded by postcards and images on the walls, an easel, a light. The viewer immediately grasps the enormity of the process of painting and the loneliness of the job. This is the inner experience of making art, the opposite of the external theatrical stage. Sitting in paint-stained clothes, rifling through a diary, the artist spends time looking, thinking and putting ideas together.

Pederson-Krag specifically leaves most of her creations untitled, except for generic labels like Landscape and Still Life. This adds a deliberate obscurity and mystery to her work. Where statues and states of mind might be identified with specific myths, the reference is left unsaid. Where figures might be put together or included with architectural references, the architecture is absent. Her work is not personal, anecdotal or revealing. Rather, it aspires to detachment, coming through with reserve and possibly shyness. What is left is a yearning for the type of world we envision the Greeks might have had, an idealization of ancient form and understanding of reality, a nostalgia for the ancient. The reference is to a slower, less calculating world—where contemplation of color, form and beauty is a matter of course, and reflects the luminous life within.

 

Notes

1. Gillian Pederson-Krag, written statement, 2015.

2. Telephone interview with the artist, May 6, 2015. Unless otherwise noted, Pederson- Krag’s remarks are taken from this interview.

3. Thomas Moore, interview, “The Liminal Zones of Soul,” in Suzi Gablik, Conversations before the End of Time (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997), 407; 395–96.

4. C. Kerenyi, The Religion of the Greeks and Romans (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1962), 121, 143.

5. Eric Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), 7–8.

6. Gillian Pederson-Krag, letter, June 27, 2015.

7. Giorgio de Chirico’s painting Nostalgia for the Infinite (1911).

8. Donald Kuspit, “Realms of Realism: A General Theory,” American Arts Quarterly (Winter 2015), 13.

9. Gillian Pederson-Krag: Paintings and Etchings 1970–2011 (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications, 2011), 21.

10. H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), in “The Walls Do Not Fall,” Trilogy (New York: New Directions, 1973), 24.

 

 American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2015, Volume 35, Number 4