Abrams' Flora Yields Secrets

by Wesley Pulkka

January 25, 2009 | Albuquerque Journal

The first time I visited Jane Abrams' North Valley studio, I was treated to an array of potted flowers and herbs, apothecary jars on shelves, paintings and drawings scattered about in what I was convinced was an alchemist's secret laboratory.

Abrams' solo show titled "Feral Flora" at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History reflects and blends her interest in plants for medicinal and aesthetic purposes with her impressive skills as an artist. The exhibition consists of several large-scale mural paintings and a handful of small woodcarvings. Abrams is a natural artist who moves seamlessly among mediums. Her paintings and carvings are cut from the same stylistic bolt of cloth and share a common source of content.

The subjects of Abrams' art spring from her complex life experiences as a now-retired college art professor at the University of New Mexico, world traveler including Central America and Asia and her keen attunement to the living Earth, human politics, spirituality and our collective relationship with the universe.

Some of her works are self-referential, like her "Self Portrait," a bas relief carving depicting Abrams suffering one wound for every year she spent at UNM.

On a lighter note, Abrams' "Duranes Pond" is covered in pastel-colored water lilies that form an almost musical horizontal movement across the vast 64- by 80-inch surface. The sunny color, rippled surface and underwater layers work together to form a spiritually uplifting atmosphere.

Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh would have been pleased with Abrams' "Duranes Pond" because it bridges both of their styles and echoes their appreciation for natural forms and light. Even Abrams' energetic brushwork in the background has links to Van Gogh's intuitive understanding of the Einsteinian relationship between energy and matter.

Catalog essayist Peter S. Briggs did a nice job exploring the anthropomorphic aspects of Abrams' plant forms, so I won't expand on that line of reasoning.

I also see a kinship between Abrams' breathless compulsion for detail and her travels in India that put her in direct contact with Hindu and Buddhist architecture, sacred art and religious philosophies. These paintings are affirmations of American Indian beliefs in the inseparable interconnectedness of all life forms and the Hindu view that essence of God is in everything as the moon's reflection is in every drop of midnight dew. Abrams' travel in the tropics of Central America gave her an understanding of the chaos and order found in raw living matter. The writhing vines, slithering serpents, aggressive jaguars and screeching monkeys represent some of the turmoil found in the life begetting life cacophony of the rain forest.

Through works like "Lata/Rakta" from 2008, Abrams echoes her tropical voice by producing harmonic balance and a sense of order out of apparent randomness. There is a firm abstract design created by the positioning of stems and leaves that carry the eye through all of Abrams' compositions.

What appears to be stochastic mark making is actually the result of a series of choices as to placement, shape, color intensity, hue and classical aesthetics. Abrams did not arrange these plants in a vase like her 19th-century counterparts might have done, but once at the easel she did take control of the canvas in front of her. The largest painting is "Beyul" from 2008, at 58 by 104 inches. It is a close-up view of leafy fronds covering the surface of a hidden ground. Through its density this mural alludes to hidden secrets and the possibility of intriguing discoveries if only those feral plants hadn't been so successful at covering everything.

"Feral Flora" is one of Abrams' best local shows to date and truly celebrates the talent and intelligence of a postmodernist realist. I wish the show was larger to include more pieces. On the other hand, every good performer knows it's best to leave your audience wanting more.