Art Review Archives:
Paul Hunter: Metal Leaf Paintings
Byron Roche Gallery
Few media are more responsive to light than these sheets of beaten gold and bronze, serving as lavish ground for Paul Hunter's minimalist landscapes. Burnished from paper-thin foil of precious metals these are surfaces exquisitely sensitive to the slightest changes in the ambient illumination. The artist works upon the reflective qualities of the leaf to invoke landscapes with the simplicity of Asian ink paintings, or, in more recent work, a series of abstract landscapes generated by oxidizing the metal leaf with an acid wash. Nineteen paintings are included in this exhibition, new work from 2007 partnered with selections from two earlier series, Dry Landscape and Cove, a welcome opportunity to see the transformation of process and imagery over time.
Hunter sets the ground for his paintings using leaf, a thin foil made from precious metals, including bronze, copper, aluminum and -- warmly and most lavishly -- gold, traditional material for gilding and for the mysterious reflective backgrounds of orthodox icons. Hammered into impossibly thin sheets that a breath can crumple, the monetary value of the gold in these paper-thin sheets is minimal; its aura, on the other hand, is fully there, rich and unmistakable. Foils of white gold, bronze and other metals are employed to define contrasting areas of the painting with differing color values; at times, two silvery metals, such as white gold and aluminum, are paired for a finish cool rather than warm. Upon this lustrous surface, the artist paints with black acrylic and often, further torn fragments of metal leaf.
The Dry Landscape and Cove paintings reference landscape features directly, with long, horizontal vistas of tree-like forms or the enclosing taper of an arm of hill or shore painted in black, simple forms on the lavish ground. Landscape Noir #EL-h.s. (gold, bronze, acrylic on canvas: 30 x 40 in.: 2003) is a striking example, a march of trees in silhouette crossing the canvas just above center, laid across the lambent ground of the metal leaf: gold above, bronze below, the difference subtle but perceptible and suggestive of sky and water. Cove #E (gold, bronze, acrylic on canvas: 30 x 40 in.: 2006) shows the similarity to Asian ink-painting in its two passages of black, laid on with a spontaneous brushstroke and framing in their simplicity the two arms of land leading toward a distant estuary. Simple positive elements -- the cove, the trees -- transform and define the entire negative space of the painting into an area rife with context. The artist described a sympathy with the Chinese brush-painting tradition, one of method and intention. After a long walk through hill and dale, the brush-painting artist would retire to a windowless room, there to deftly re-create mountains and rivers, trees and dales from memory, the intent to represent the essence of the natural scene, as these paintings do. Painting with ink and brush on silk, the brush-painting technique was done on precious materials and at the same time, required a significant level of mastery, for it admitted of no correction: a further affinity with Hunter's own work on precious metals.
At the same time these paintings reference the contemporary world. The metal leaf comes in booklets of individual sheets to facilitate handling of the fragile foils, and these are lapped edge to edge to cover the canvas. The result is a subtle, visible grid whose repeating polygonal rhythm lends a modern component to the picture.
Works such as the large Prelude #G (white gold, aluminum, acrylic on canvas" 30 x 80 in.: 2007) reveal the supple responsiveness of the various types of leaf to ambient illumination. Ask at the gallery to have the lights dimmed on this, or any of the others for that matter. The effect is remarkable, but particularly so in Prelude #G. The large, two-panel work is done in white gold and aluminum. In bright light, the flecks stand out on the gray-silver background. Dimmed to a nighttime illumination the balance reverses: the aluminum fades to black, while the white gold leaps out in the dimness to stand out in clarity on the dark ground, a complete reversal of luminescence evocative of the way in which a swirl of flurrying snow, dark on a light sky, becomes beautifully illuminate once night falls.
The artist's newer work with the metal leaf draws more intensely on his experience with printmaking and the differing susceptibilities of the various metals to chemical reaction. In the newer work the leaf ground with its inherent grid pattern is awash with free-form passages of controlled burn from an acid bath akin to that used on the plates of etching or engraving. The acid oxidizes the bronze, aluminum or copper, but leaves the gold, which is inert to such reactions, untouched. The color of the oxidized area is controlled by timing. The artist 'stops out' the acid burn with water after a particular period of exposure, ceasing the reaction. Timing determines the final color of the oxidized areas: dark at the outset, then turning pale, and if left overlong, black. In contrast to the richly marled surface of the leaf, the oxidized areas are a lush burnt brown, with here and there subtle peacock highlights of iridescence.
Earlier works such as the Barn series (not included in this exhibition) featured dark blocks of buildings, stark and isolated on large fields of gold and bronze. They show early applications of the acid-wash technique, but employed lightly, more as an accent of texture to highlight the expanses surrounding the lonely barns. In the 2007 paintings the idea receives a more central focus, and the Flash and Oxidation Landscape series delve deeply into the acid applications. Oxidation Landscape #D (bronze, acid, acrylic on canvas: 16 x 20 in.: 2007) exemplifies the series. A broad passage of oxidation dominates, reconfiguring the underlying grid and low line of tree-like daubs with patches of near-iridescent bluish-gray and burnt orange, product of the bronze leaf's chemical reactions. Flash #R (bronze, copper, acid on canvas: 30 x 40 in.: 2007) takes the same technique in a different direction, the wash burning out a long burnt-brown strip along the bottom of the painting, while flying torn bits of copper leaf scatter like leaves tumbled before a stormy scud. Different from the control inherent in the earlier paintings with their black acrylic elements, here a great deal of the finished result is depending on the artist's management of the chemical process itself: he must be alchemist, as well as artist. Each result is unique, a combination of the composition of the leaf, the coverage of the acid, and the time of exposure.
In further new work such as Sonata #N (gold, acrylic on canvas: 40 x 60: 2007) the leaf becomes an element to be applied over a painted ground. Drawing on characteristics of silk textiles, Hunter lays out a weft of variegated red, laid over and barely revealing a vertical warp of iridescent blue. Atop this visually luscious surface, patches of gold leaf fountain outward as if dispersed explosively from the bottom edge. Where the artist has been "painting on light", he notes, he is now "painting with light". The red is warm, vivacious, the gold a lavish accent: in both texture and color the impression is one of energy and opulence.
Gold itself is the one material which is "always recycled," Hunter says. "It's a mystery. It's strange stuff." Impossibly malleable, warmingly reflective, resistant to chemical reaction, precious and somehow always a shade enigmatic -- gold and other metal leafs form the grounding for a variety of intriguing explorations into light, form, and suggestive landscape. Paul Hunter: Metal Leaf Paintings is at Byron Roche Gallery through December 31, 2007.
--Katherine R. Lieber