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Nightshades highlights anxious abstractions by promising young Winnipeg painter

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/11/2014 (1009 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

One way to think of a painting is as a collection of edges, a network of intersections and boundaries. Edges distinguish forms, separating figure from ground. They occur naturally every time one brushstroke comes up against another of a different colour, thickness, texture or translucence. The handling of each edge marks a choice, conscious or unconscious, on the painter's part. Transitions can be sharp or seamless, hard or soft, and each has a different effect. For a certain kind of personality, at least, the decision-making process can be nerve-racking.

Since graduating from the University of Manitoba's School of Art in 2013, Natasha Gusta has built her practice around just that kind of artistic anxiety. Every move in Nightshades, her compact, energetic show of abstract paintings at C Space, seems to have been second-guessed, each action opposed, contradicted or reworked in some way. While that apparent indecisiveness seems like a recipe for confused, tepid painting, Gusta plays diverse forms and competing approaches off of one another deftly. Likewise, her meticulous handling keeps the chaos (mostly) contained and the waters clear.

Slippery sheets, slippery slope, 2014, oil on canvas, 122 x 61 cm.

Slippery sheets, slippery slope, 2014, oil on canvas, 122 x 61 cm.

Untitled, 2014, oil on canvas, 183 x 137 cm.

Untitled, 2014, oil on canvas, 183 x 137 cm.

Ragged, gestural swipes of paint that saturate the canvas are hemmed in place by flatly stencilled shapes whose razor-sharp edges, in turn, spontaneously erupt in flurries of whispery brushwork. Unbroken areas of solid colour or smooth gradations serve as backdrops for tangles of calligraphic gestures. The paintings are carefully composed and fully resolved but still decidedly "on edge."

Gusta takes many of her cues from painters like Helen Frankenthaler, who helped bridge the gap between Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s and the hard-edge and "post-painterly" abstraction that emerged in the '60s. Like Frankenthaler's craggy contours and luminous pools of colour, Gusta's abstractions have an elemental quality, as if both artists set out to craft miniature weather systems instead of paintings. The prevailing flatness and opacity of Gusta's work lends it a plasticky, contemporary gloss, however, in places resembling vinyl graphics or digital collage.

Nightshades' title hints at the botanical inspiration behind some of the leafier forms, alluding as well to the subtly darkish, vaguely dangerous mood of the work, which is communicated mostly through Gusta's unusual approach to colour. Sage green bleeds into dusky lavender; forest green forcibly abuts bubblegum pink. She seamlessly blends flesh tones with sickly teals, taupes and powder blues with an effect resembling bruised skin or abalone shells in low light -- many of the paintings have a peculiar, muted iridescence. Even the most lurid colours cast less light than you expect them to, like an orange-tinted street lamp or a black light bulb.

Gusta paints most fluently at larger scales. Smaller landscape-oriented canvases forgo many of the organizing structures that keep the bigger, vertical works from coming apart, but they don't have quite the physical presence needed for their unbounded atmospherics to have full impact. On occasion, too, she shows her hand a bit too readily. Several paintings feature scatterings of hard-edge stripes (the only rectangular forms to be found). They run parallel to one another or at angles that suggest lines of perspective or the barest insinuation of architectural space, and they manage to seem at once too obvious and totally out of place.

On the whole, though, Nightshades is an engaging and confident (if anxious) showing by one of a growing cohort of young, interesting abstract painters here in Winnipeg. The show is on until Nov. 20, but visiting hours can be irregular at the volunteer-staffed gallery, so check C Space's Facebook page for up-to-date times.


Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer, and educator.

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