If you’re put off by the serial self-portraiture for which Susanna Coffey is best known, the body of paintings now on display at PEREGRINEPROGRAM should come as a relief and a revelation. Coffey’s technical facility and feel for color are evident in this “Night Painting” series, but these landscapes in oil are unpopulated, quiet, and diminutive, sometimes just the size of an index card. They carry all the emotion of her portraits but lack foregrounded faces, and they also convey something at once more abstract and affecting. Millet’s “Starry Night,” a painting admired by Van Gogh, is an inspiration for Coffey, who wants to “observe the appearance of darkness.” The “color of night,” as she calls it, is investigated in “Main Street Moon, Johnson Vermont,” an homage to Millet through Van Gogh, in which stars appear as bright jagged tears in a sky awash with blues and grays. In “Skowhegan,” meanwhile, deep blue hues differentiate themselves in Rothkoesque auras, both subtle and expressive. Though their tones are mostly quiet, these paintings are not quietistic; there’s too much drama in the painterly gestures and voluptuous application of oils to suggest detachment or passivity. The artist’s hand remains conspicuous, and the surfaces of the paintings abound with action. In “Chicago River,” for instance, thick daubs of color are stacked, scratched and pulled across the panel, while elsewhere a smattering of pebbles adheres to the sinewy strokes of rushing waters. Coffey’s night paintings thus convey solitude but not loneliness, as the brush animates everything from pastoral terrains to lit-up cityscapes—excerpts of Grant Park or the minuscule dazzles of McCormick Place seen from afar. And though such perspectives suggest distance, the dimensions and textures of these paintings draw viewers in for closer inspection, engendering the intimacy of a face-to-face encounter. In this series, Coffey demonstrates that darkness is not so much an absence of light as a quality of color, tone and energy; the night reveals a world of temperatures and textures all its own. (Jeremy Biles)
Susanna Coffey’s “Night Painting 1995-2010” shows at PEREGRINEPROGRAM, 500 W. Cermak, #727, through May 7.