Non Finito

Lois Walsh
November 15th, 2017 – December 9th, 2017 to 5 pm
Marist College Art Gallery

Curated by Ed Smith
Essay by Anne Bertrand-Dewsnap

Non Finito or the Seemingly Unfinished

The 2017 Paintings of Lois Walsh

Only recently has Lois Walsh used the broad concept of non finito (not finished) to describe her paintings. Walsh, who teaches art history, knew of this idea in connection to Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures. However, the recent trigger was the exhibition (and its catalogue) entitled Unfinished (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2016). For Walsh, the concept of non finito involves a conscious and deliberate way of creating paintings that invites the viewer into an interpretative dialogue with the work. This dialogue occurs on five broad and distinct levels — iconographical sources, formal aspects, artistic process, emotional quality and intellectual component — which the viewer can address together or separately and in any order without compromising the integrity of the work because of its “unfinishedness.”

All the paintings exhibited here are interpretations of specific works by two French Old Masters, Antoine Watteau, the 18th-century Rococo painter, and Nicolas Poussin, the 17th-century peintre-philosophe, for Walsh a more recent interest. She works from color reproductions of their paintings, most of which she has studied in museums in Europe and the United States. For instance, Gathering in a Wood (2011 and 2017, oil on canvas, 30×24 inches) is based on a section of Watteau’s Les Champs Élisées (c.1720-21, oil on mahogany panel, 31×41 inches, The Wallace Collection, London), while her Orpheus (2017, oil on canvas, 30×40 inches) comes from Poussin’s Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice (c.1650-53, oil on canvas, 79×49 inches, Musée du Louvre, Paris). To anyone familiar with French painting, Watteau and Poussin can appear as antagonistic artists. Watteau’s warm and romantic Fêtes Galantes show elegantly dressed couples engaged in the activities of carefree aristocrats represented in idyllic park-like settings. Poussin’s paintings, far more staged and intellectual, are based on classical stories from antiquity. While Watteau used pastel colors and loose brushstrokes, Poussin favored primary colors meticulously applied to the canvas with great attention to composition. According to Walsh, it is the relationship between the figure and nature that attracts her to these painters as well as the representation of a world that no longer exists. Watteau painted a world of pleasure and love but with the certainty that all pleasures are transient. Poussin, immersed in the world of antiquity, reinvented Arcadia in his paintings. Walsh’s paintings address the mystery of not only the relationship between figure and nature but also the essence of this harmony.

The relationship between the formal qualities and the concept of non finito in Walsh’s work in this show might be best exemplified by Orpheus, which was painted in one day. The definite elements of Poussin’s Louvre version of the same subject seem to appear and disappear at the same time. The red passage on the right middle ground, nearly above the figure of Orpheus, also in red and holding his lyre, is not Poussin’s red fabric, but has become in Walsh’s painting a formal element designed to bring the viewer’s eye to a cave like structure formed by trees. The looseness of the brushstrokes creates an image that takes time to decipher. Forms seem to emerge and to dissolve all at once. This is particularly clear in the broad strokes used in Orpheus and in Sleeping Muse (2017, oil on canvas, 30×24 inches). They are both fluid and solid. For these passages, she used a flat brush heavily dipped into more than one color to build up the form with what the artist refers to as a wet into wet technique. The effect is dazzling because of both the richness of her palette and the application of the paint. This technique involves an element of chance, important to consider. By dipping a brush in different colors the result is unpredictable. Lois Walsh enjoys this element of chance as she finds it freeing, while allowing control of the painterly surface through revisions.

While considering the process of revision and reworking a canvas, the viewer again encounters non finito artworks. For instance, Gathering in a Wood was first painted in 2011 and reworked six years later in 2017. During a recent visit to her studio, I asked the artist “why six years later?” Her answer was fascinating as we tend to overlook the relationship that an artist has with each painting. She stated that the first reason for reworking that canvas was to add the painterly effects (particularly the brushstrokes mentioned in the previous paragraph) that she has developed more recently. However, in the words of the artist “the touch of the brush summons a painting back to life.” Old Masters worked mostly on commission and their work left the studio sometimes even before the paint was fully dry. Since the nineteenth century, artists live surrounded by their work and are able to rework them. Walsh continues producing new work for the sake of progression but she also wants to bring her recent artistic developments to older works still in her studio. Gathering in a Wood was “finished” in 2011 but six years later it became an “unfinished” work and as I write it is again “finished”; will Walsh still consider it as “finished” in six more years? Painting is organic but in the case of Walsh, the traditional concept of a beginning and an end defies time and space as we understand them. Henri Matisse once said “a work is finished when it represents my emotion very precisely and when I feel that there is nothing more to be added” (Peter Parshall, Stacey Sell, and Judith Brodie, The Unfinished Print, exh. cat, Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art in association with Lund Humphries, 2001, p.18).

For Matisse, a painting is finished when he perfectly and fully captured the emotion he wanted to portray; however, emotions are not static but changeable. In Walsh’s Polyphemus (2017, oil on canvas, 30×40 inches) based on Poussin’s Landscape with Polyphemus (1649, oil on canvas, 59×78 inches, The State Hermitage Museum, Moscow), emotions are expressed through formal means. In Poussin’s work, the Cyclops Polyphemus has withdrawn to a high mountain to play the flute after Galatea’s rejection. He dominates the composition despite appearing in the background. In Walsh’s painting, the large rock formation appearing on the left of the Old Master painting has been transformed into an abstract form that she describes as “taking the shape of a surreal flower, a blossoming form.” This form, which in Poussin’s work serves only to balance his majestic composition, became in Walsh’s painting an object of emotional reflection. It evokes the meaning of Poussin’s painting – Polyphemus’ music, through its harmony, has charmed nymphs, satyrs as well as a ploughman who have all stopped their activities to listen. Harmony has been restored over nature. In Walsh’s painting, the “blossoming form” symbolizes the restored harmonious relationship between figures and nature. It is formally speaking a bold shape of rich green and yellow pigments painted with an unusual linear and hence forceful appearance that contrasts with the rest of the composition consisting of gently curving strokes. It must stand out formally to express its emotional meaning.

While Walsh’s Polyphemus is rooted in emotion, The Exposition (2017, oil on canvas, 30×40 inches) not only displays a decisive intellectual component but is also a rare painting in her oeuvre because of its religious iconography. It is based on Poussin’s The Exposition of Moses, sometimes called The Exposing of Moses (1654, oil on canvas, 41×80 inches, The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford). Both shows Moses’ mother hiding him in a basket among the reeds of the Nile, after the pharaoh’s order that all newborn Israelite males must die. In her version, Walsh’s figures appear more concrete and we see more details, particularly in the facial features. The landscape, dotted with classical buildings, is far more abstracted than the figures with its pattern of horizontal and vertical blocked strokes reminiscent of Paul Cézanne’s work who also admired Poussin. However, the palette of this painting has a warmth not present in Poussin’s version. The paint, rich and saturated, is layered, making the canvas vibrant.

Among the paintings shown at the Marist Art Gallery this Fall, Flora (2017, oil on canvas, 30×40 inches) stands out because of its true non finito quality. When I visited the artist’s studio in late October, she was still working on Flora and the attentive viewer should see slight differences between the painting in the gallery and the photograph illustrated here. The composition and color scheme are sufficiently laid out to see what is being represented and to associate it with its source, Poussin’s The Realm of Flora (1631, oil on canvas, 71×51 inches, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden). However, it still lacks the resolution so clearly visible in the other paintings of the show. Flora does not have yet Walsh’s typical building up of the paint through elaborate brushstroke work; visually the paint is not as saturated and is thinner in its application. Non finito is a fluid concept — ranging from clearly non-finished works of art to those that are only seemingly unfinished.

Dr. Anne Bertrand-Dewsnap
Marist College
October 2017