When I first encountered Louisa Chase’s work, it reminded me of something Franz Kline always used to argue (out of legitimate belief or just to be contrarian): that his massive, nearly monochrome canvases didn’t consist of black painted on white, but the other way around, a kind of erasure of the black spines and spindles flexing through Kline’s paintings with white that was the true subject/foreground. I’m mentioning this because Chase’s work was an astonishing ongoing project of the act of mark-making as an act of erasure. We normally associate art in general and painting in particular with a building up of color and line and gesture and form, that there may be hesitation and changes of mind during the way but what we’re seeing in a gallery or museum is the end of a more or less linear process that begins with a blank (white) canvas and ends with a finished, fixed image.
Chase gleefully rejected the idea of the finished, fixed image, and either through specific gestures toward art-historical eras or styles, or else out of pure manic dismantling of the clean picture plane, Chase leaves us with an understanding that notions such as “correct” or “final” are not simple things when it comes to art. The most emphatic example here of this kind of overrun of addition as subtraction is in an untitled painting from 1988 in which hard-edged, Mondrian-recalling red, yellow and blue blocks form small bits of architecture that float on a pristine white surface––or at least that possibly was the case until a second approach to the painting led to thin black lines scribbled over the entire picture plane, partially obscuring the color blocks and, with each added black line, erasing not only the “painting” underneath it but the notion accompanying certain strains of modernist painting that precision and clarity were virtues outside of any context. Context means everything in Chase’s work, though, because not only do we see an eagerly defaced modernism, we see the tool with which Chase accomplished it, namely a kind of highly fluid gestural abstraction that recalls painters like Pollock and Mitchell, artists chasing an altogether different kind of purity, a purity of expression. But Chase doesn’t allow us that either; her tangles of black, or of vibrant colors in other drawings and paintings here, demonstrate that, as much as painting might be an attempt at establishing order out of the chaos of the world, it’s also a way of emphasizing the chaos that lies underneath the control and order we like to ascribe to our everyday world, micro and macro.
Again, though, this isn’t heavy-handed; instead it’s playful and inviting, and if anything the marks recall a slipping in and out of writing in Cy Twombly’s work more than that of any other painter mentioned here. And, remember, these erasures, especially evident in the frantic white on black of Pines, are simultaneously negations of our attempts to reduce the world to order and affirmations of the amazement and pure joy of spontaneous creativity.
This isn’t to say that in the two brilliantly colored untitled drawings here that Chase is simply doodling––close inspection reveals the precision and control of each “wild” mark she made––but that the building of a painting, the joy and pull and wonder of it, lies not in the finished product but, as Kline suggested, in a push and pull between addition and subtraction, between finality and chaos, and it’s this joy, the joy of the process of making (and sharing) art, that makes Chase such a singular artist. Neither are the paintings relics of past activity, either, because they both still activate the eye to try to follow the swirls and they remind us of the great care and effort that spontaneity and celebration require.