A Frenzy of Color, Shape, and Gesture

By Arlene Distler

"Translation" by Eric Aho, 48" x 60"

“Translation” by Eric Aho, 48″ x 60″

On a recent trip to painter Eric Aho’s studio in Saxtons River, I spoke with the artist about his new work and his upcoming show at DC Moore Gallery in Manhattan.

A year ago I had visited Aho shortly after the opening of a large survey show at the Currier Museum in Manchester, N.H., which covered his work from 2003-2012. Work at the Currier went from sweeping, lyrical landscapes anchored by defined horizon line, earth and sky, to the paintings I called at the time a leap into the creative abyss.

The new, abstract paintings were a shock to those who’d been following Aho’s work. These new pieces brought forth waves of dismay and delight.

In his paintings of 2010 and since, Aho has let go of traditional landscape reference points. His pieces now delve with extraordinary energy and prodigious brushwork into what may at first seem pure abstraction: the surface of the canvas a frenzy of color, shape, and gesture.

As it happens, the artist has not abandoned his love of nature and landscape painting. The difference, as Aho says of his work for the upcoming show, is that painting is “less and less about what it is of, and more and more what it is.

The topography of the painting, to use a favorite term of Aho, has become for him as compelling as the experience of the thing seen.

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Eric Aho pauses in his studio

Fortunately, the exploration of that place, where the laying on of paint and the artist’s visual experience collide, forms a potent brew and a large new body of work — the inspiration remaining the natural world.

As with Aho’s terrific painting “Daybreak” (2011), featured at The Armory Show in 2012, several of the new paintings incorporate motifs of the artist’s beloved Mount Monadnock, in New Hampshire, where he grew up.

“Translation” boasts both daytime and evening versions of the mountain, which itself has many faces, many moods.

The new paintings continue to employ a palette of blues, greens, ochre, bright yellow, and near-white, evoking deep dark woods, sunlit clearing, or both within the same painting.

I tend to gravitate toward the paintings of whitened, bright pigments (think “Descendant”) that read like ecstatic explosions of joy and wonder. But the darker paintings, “Ravine Pool,” for instance, with its near-black greens filling most of the canvas, the bottom lit with a gorgeous blue swath, have a brooding quality that is both lovely and seems personal.

As I entered Aho’s studio, with the August sun filtering through floor to ceiling arched windows, I saw he’d set up 12 canvases, each about two feet square, that comprise, collectively “Twilight.” Many of the panels depict a treeline silhouetted against a blazing sunset.

The group is inspired by a Frederick Church painting, “Twilight in the Wilderness,” done shortly before the advent of the Civil War. In that painting, the crimson sky is generally seen as foreshadowing the war’s outbreak. Church is one of Aho’s favorite painters, one whom he loves to “quote” within his own work.

The motif was gripping, said Aho, then added, “Besides, I’d never painted a sunset before.”

The grouping prompts discussion: Why paint multiple versions of the same subject? Here, Aho brings out two large paintings from a series of three titled “Wilderness Studio.”

Multiple versions of a painting strengthen an idea, he says, and points out changes to the second oil painting: “If I had made the change I wanted to, in that corner, I would have had to change everything else. And by the second painting, the brushwork is looser,” he explains.

Now, Aho recounts the story of the paintings’ namesake, Wilderness Studio. This studio had belonged to a famous Finnish painter known for a certain wistfulness.

“He built a magnificent studio in the forest to be able to paint the forest: a pretty magical thing,” Aho says.

Though Aho referred to a postcard of the studio to stay true to the building’s bones, he painted the house in such a way that prevents it from appearing too well formed, “so it doesn’t tip into sentimentality. I want it to reside in a more rigorous place in the imagination,” Aho explains.

Many of the paintings of the past few years are based on places Aho has hiked or skied, such as “Trail,” yet literal references have been obliterated. “I seek to paint a tree without painting a tree,” he says.

The only way in, the only trail, I infer, is through the paint. Here, as with many of the paintings, the viewer is challenged to go beyond the literal. Now the artist cites the last line of a Wallace Stevens poem, “The Snow Man” (1921): “I seek to paint ‘[n]othing that is not there and the nothing that is.’”

With his rich background in painting’s history, Aho finds compelling and applicable ideas from some surprising sources. He takes out a reproduction Titian painting in which allegorical figures — lust, slumber, and so forth — are “fused with the landscape.”

“Human presence in the natural world is important to me,” Aho says, and while Titian doesn’t depict the figure outright, Aho points out that the figure is inferred by the use of pinks and ochres among the greens, blues, reds, and yellows.

The sensuous painting “Antonello” is backed by the story of an extraordinary man Aho met on a trip to Grenada, a self-appointed caretaker of an abandoned monastery who sought to live in harmony with the land.

Aho’s recent paintings have propelled him into the top ranks of artists, those willing to follow their vision wherever it leads. At a time in the art world when anything goes, integrity, so intrinsic to great art, is a rare bird. Aho shows me he achieves that status through his consistently breathtaking paintings, and by sharing with us his sublime connection to their source.

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