Do artists ask too much of their art? The question came to mind during my recent visit to the Laura Myntti exhibit at Epiphany Center.
Step inside most contemporary art spaces and you’ll find artists (and curators) asserting the work on display interrogates weighty social issues, such as entrenched power structures. Too often, the artwork falls short of its aspirations. This is not a criticism of the work so much as recognition that societal challenges are complex and intractable.
Myntti makes no similarly ambitious claims with her latest body of work, opting instead to probe the Modernist landscape canon via Milton Avery and the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela, both of whose shapes, colors and methods of paint application she references liberally. The project feels quixotic but also quietly subversive.
Places Myntti has lived or frequently visited are the subject matter of her paintings: Alaska, Idaho, Salt Lake and the northern woods of Minnesota and Wisconsin. “Chippewa River Flowage (No. 6),” for example, shows a stretch of the Wisconsin river at twilight. The sky’s yellow-orange hues repeat in the placid waters, while black and gray-green trees line the riverbanks in successive, vertical brushstrokes that bisect the work. Collectively, the paintings pay homage to the places that hold meaning at different stages of her life: as a child, young adult, mother.
Myntti is a painter’s painter who prompts respect (and envy) in anyone who has tried putting pigment on canvas. She applies her paint in confident, energetic strokes. Her marks are most interesting when viewed from a middle distance, where they hover between material and image. It is from that vantage point that one can best assess whether the artist has achieved her stated goal: generating maximal impact with minimal marks, an endeavor she describes as “terrifying work.”
Myntti’s frugal mark-making stands in contrast to her discordant palette. Pastels, earth tones and chalky whites jostle with synthetic and industrial hues, setting aside the harmony of Avery’s or Gallen-Kallela’s palette in favor of dissonance. Her marks appear to levitate off her beige linen surfaces, creating a strange sense of augmented reality. “After Milton Avery (No. 7),” with its web of radioactive red lines snaking past a blanched waterfall toward a phosphorescent pink sky, typifies this effect.
It is Myntti’s color choices, and her willingness to jolt lyrical passages with atonality, that move her project beyond technical showmanship and situate it in a contemporary context. Disquiet lurks in her palette, possibly a reaction to the anthropogenic effects that permeate even our most remote and beloved landscapes.
Myntti doesn’t speak to any of this in her statement, so is the read valid? Or does my interpretation come from living in a chronic state of environmental anxiety—amplified this month by the raging Canadian wildfires that have turned our skies a pallid yellow like that in some of Myntti’s paintings?
Not everything is perfect about this show. There are too many works installed too close together. Some would benefit from a boost in size; others begin to list from aimless mark-making. But I give Myntti credit for embracing what she loves—landscape painting—when much of the art world has moved on. I also appreciate her decision to resist boxing in her works. Given our penchant for obsessively curating even mundane moments, it takes courage to relinquish control of your narrative. That, too, is terrifying work.
“Laura Myntti: New Work” at Epiphany Center for the Arts, 201 South Ashland, on view through July 15.