Art Review by Christina Day
Many artists find it hard to the point of impossible to show their work publicly. You have to make yourself too vulnerable, and everyone’s a critic. But if art is a means of communication, eventually you have to enter into the larger art discourse. Barbara Stanford, an artist who’s been working in Cleveland for most of her 20+ year art career, is having her first commercial solo exhibition this spring at Maria Neil Art Project, a gallery in Cleveland’s far eastern Collinwood neighborhood, a block from the Beachland Ballroom, where a bustling new art scene is on the rise. When you walk in the door, it feels like you’ve stumbled into a treasure trove in another city. Decidedly old school, high calibre work in a space that just feels established. Her work is worth that wait.
Stanford’s is concerned with the mechanisms humans use to protect themselves, even at the cost of their own captivity. Her primary focus, the rib cage, holds your organs in, holds the body together, and protects you from the outside. But as she’s quick to point out, it’s called a cage for a reason. We are trapped inside our own bodies.
Her own life’s story, like her work, has been a study in dichotomies. She went into law for a time hoping to fund her art practice. But as she put it, the law’s a jealous mistress, and she found herself more wrapped up in her cases than her paintings. It’s clear as you talk to her that in law, and in art, she finds herself drawn to rigid processes and impossible standards, even as she rails against them. And she finds beauty and humanity in the struggle.
The pieces in “Imperceptible Paradigm” sit on the fissure between abstraction and representation. Her paintings are imminently colorful, her drawings more stark and anguished in black and white. No piece is huge or tiny, they all tend to be roughly proportional to the human body. Her work is old school in this sense as well; she’s not pushing an arbitrary design parameter like size or subject or color to follow a gimmick or trend. Instead, she stretches the limits of freehand accuracy, of capturing both the joy and the struggle of living by putting down lines that are at once precise and expressive.
Her years of hard work are obvious in the maturity and subtlety of the images. Her paintings, prints, and drawings are full of vigor and expression, but a peek into her sketchbook, which is also on display, illuminates the painstaking effort she’s expelled obsessively refining the placement of each vein and artery, adding and removing layers of the body to achieve an ideal composition. She maintains it simply isn’t beautiful until it’s accurate, and her pieces certainly support that idea.
Printmaking is another of her jealous mistresses. The level of planning that goes into each print, each layer of each matrix, is something she clearly revels in and excels at. Her attention to the elegance of detail is perhaps most gracefully realized in a series of prints and a watercolor on the left wall, where many layers remain exposed to the viewer, and the beauty and fragility of the body is quietly but clearly proclaimed.
But the indirect quality of the printmaking process, an essential component to its understated and mysterious aesthetic, can compound any exacting person’s frustration and drive them to paint. The immediacy of the thick layered reds on the canvas grant a truth to the rib cages that look exposed, vulnerable, and in obvious pain. But that same searing pain is what convinces the viewer that they are still breathing, and impossibly but beautifully alive.
Imperceptible Paradigm is on view now at Maria Neil Art Project, 15813 Waterloo Rd in Cleveland through June 14th.
Christina Day is a board member at SPACES Gallery in Cleveland, and formerly co-owner/director/curator at FORUM artspace in the 78th Street Studios complex. She received her BFA in Printmaking from the Myers School of Art in 2012. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org