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The Arts

Into the abyss

Museum show charts the continuing creative evolution of Saxtons River painter Eric Aho

“Transcending Nature: Paintings by Eric Aho” runs through Sept. 9 at the Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash St., Manchester, N.H. Museum hours: Monday, Wednesday-Friday, Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information about Aho, visit his website.

SAXTONS RIVER—Back in April, I was wandering around the Armory show in New York City, an event that has become a huge and important showcase for cutting-edge art from all over the world.

A large abstract painting caught my attention among all the hundreds, maybe thousands, of self-conscious searches for something new and fresh. Among art of heightened realism in the drawing of a frying pan, brightly striped canvases, or shiny chrome objects that seek to mirror the razzamatazz of our glitzy, LCD-lit world, here was artwork by someone who simply loved paint and painting.

Now that was fresh!

The painting, “Daybreak,” at 92 inches by 80 inches — almost 52 square feet — made quite an impression. Amid the crush and chaos of the Armory, it was a breath of fresh air.

I was familiar with Eric Aho’s gorgeous, evocative landscapes, and the powerful ice paintings. But I was completely surprised by the aesthetics of this painting, a true leap into the creative abyss.

Aho has his first survey show — meaning not just new work, but a show that gives a perspective of work over time — at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H. this summer, through Sept. 8. It is not to be missed.

It turns out “Daybreak” is not so much a leap into the abyss as a graceful dive into the deep end of waters Aho has been swimming in for decades.

Some people might still prefer the landscapes, and there are some beauties here, such as “French King,” a large painting of a sweeping view of the Connecticut River valley, that provide an impressive portal into the show.

* * *

I visited Eric Aho’s studio in Saxtons River shortly after the show opened. Situated in an enclave of old brick buildings, once the campus of a private school, Aho works in the school’s old, spacious gymnasium building, whose high-arched windows allow the sun to pour through.

Paintings, those few still in the studio, are propped against the wall. No easel in sight. Tubes and small bowls of mixed oil paints are everywhere.

Aho showed me what, at present, constrains the size of his large work: the only way to get a painting out is through “the toaster,” a floor-to-ceiling slot in the wall to slide paintings through sideways. The artwork is then maneuvered through a garage-type door leading out of an adjoining space.

None of the landscapes, which were his central focus for decades, are around. The place is completely given over to the new work.

Yet nature is clearly a constant touchstone.

Aho talks about still going outdoors to do plein air painting, but notes, chuckling, that these excursions do not look like the usual outdoor painter’s: No neat painting box (or messy one, for that matter) for him.

He goes out in his truck, and basically carries his studio with him: buckets of brushes, cans and bowls of paint, some left over from previous paintings.

But the large abstract oils are an unfettering of what has always been evident in Aho’s work: a love of the medium and exploration of what a robust and lyrical approach to the laying on of paint can do. How a painting can evoke something seen or remembered and at the same time have a life of its own.

* * *

In the case of Aho, that life is akin to music or dance, with arabesques of brushwork and symphonies of color, complete with melodic violins and clashing cymbals.

In the same way that Willem de Kooning’s abstractions contained figurative elements (sometimes with bizarre results) until almost the end of his life, there has been a transitional period with Aho’s abstractions in which “vignettes” of landscape elements could still be discerned among the dabs and slashes and undefined forms.

In “Daybreak,” the painting featured at the Armory show and included in “Transcending Nature,” mountain and sky are clearly visible as such in the upper left corner. In “Kaamos,” the most all-over abstraction, with the canvas treated explicitly as a two-dimensional surface covered with jots of blue and white paint, there are sections that are clearly birches, or pieces of birches.

More recent paintings, such as “Naturalist” and “Approach” have almost entirely done away with recognizable landscape elements, yet the palette of deep umbers, cerulean blue, yellow, pink-tinged ochre, and their sense of space connect these paintings to a sensibility deeply rooted in the natural world.

Describing his work’s progression from representational to abstract, Aho says, “I started being distracted by the paint on the surface. It became a new topography with more opportunities.”

“I feel the abstractions are still sensorily accurate,” he says. “Like a cloud, Mt. Monadnock never looks the same way twice the atmosphere changes and compresses its physical properties.”

There is, he says, a perceptual place that is the reversal of our usual way of thinking about reality. “There is a ‘flip’ that happens — the ‘real’ flips over into the abstract, and the abstract becomes what’s ‘real.’”

* * *

Much of Ahos inspiration comes from his New Hampshire childhood.

“The way sunlight shines on pine woods doesn’t happen anywhere else,” he says.

These visual memories, fragments –– “that is how we see things,” he says — are clearly the inspiration for the “Approach to the Mountain” series, several of which are in the Currier show.

The rich contrast of deep darks and searingly bright pigments evoke the experience of going from deep forest into the clearing of blue sky and distant mountain. These are among the most pictorially dramatic paintings in the show.

While sketches are done in nature (and there are some wonderful ones included in this show, a delightful curatorial decision), and paintings may be started outside, most of his work happens in the studio these days. He is enjoying, he says, not being “tyrannized by the seen.”

This new expressive, and, even emotional freedom, is for me the heart and soul of the new abstractions.

* * *

But this New Hampshire native son and Vermont adoptee has no intention of being pigeonholed.

“I haven’t arrived anywhere,” he says. “I’m in the middle of a journey.”

This journey could take him back to more representational work, or some other amalgam of realistic/abstract. “In art school they’d say your work had to be cohesive,” he says. “Realistic or abstract.”

“I didn’t understand why you had to choose. These terms are irrelevant. Why can’t abstract and representational work exist simultaneously?” he asks.

This duality is what I love about the landscapes: there is a tension between the representational and abstract, a tightrope walk that can be breathtaking.

In “Sligo Fronting Light,” from 2004, a horizon divides the canvas by thirds: the bottom third is low-lying farmland or pasture in chartreuse, yellow, emerald greens. The upper two-thirds is a display of virtuosic brushwork in the service of a stormy sky using charcoal gray, black, and patches of blue.

This painting, and “Gjermund Hoslemo’s Field, Bykle, Norway,” from 2003, both relatively small, are gems.

* * *

After the more traditional landscapes (which crop up throughout the time period covered by the Currier show), there was a series of paintings in which fire was a dominant theme.

Aho characterizes his “fire paintings” as a period of personal creative cleansing, “like a farmer burning his fields. The new paintings came in their wake.”

There are only two included in Transforming Nature: “March Fires,” 2007, a relatively tame example of the series, and “Red Winter,” 2009, in which we have a full-fledged conflagration.

I imagine these paintings, almost entirely in red, orange, black, and gray tones, were a cathartic release from the landscape palette, necessarily dominated by greens and blues.

During the “fire” series, Aho started using ice as a motif, maybe an intuitive balancing of the elements. Since his Finnish immigrant relatives made their living through the farming of ice, this is a natural subject and one that the artist makes compelling.

The ice period, from about 2008 to 2010, is represented by a number of strong paintings, among them: “Ice Field,” made up of three sections, oil on linen (like all the paintings in the show, save a group of sketches). The painting is expanded by wood panels in a colliding cacophony of trapezoidal planes at tilted angles.

“Early Easter” is a wonderfully audacious work, in which the canvas is divided in half by a birch trunk, the black cold river behind it a long, irregular rectangle surrounded by blue-white snow laden banks. This painting defies pictorial conventions and shouldn’t work. But it does, simply because of the artist’s conviction and energy.

* * *

Which brings us to the thaw of the present, the full sensuous palette, and rich pictorial space of the current work.

This is a great time for a survey show of Eric Aho’s body of work, an exciting time to catch this ever-evolving, always inventive artist mid-career. Embracing a restive creative energy, he says that his paintings “are never finished...my work is something on the way to something else."

“Transcending Nature” is one of the most exhilarating painting shows I’ve seen in many years. The Currier Museum of Art is to be commended for mounting a show by an artist who should be considered one of the modern masters.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #164 (Wednesday, August 8, 2012).

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