Three years after starting her tenure as Second Street Gallery’s executive director and chief curator, Kristen Chiacchia says she feels at home. For the next month, when she enters the gallery, among the works greeting her are a watercolor and oil painting by celebrated mid-century abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell. The untitled works from 1957 form the pièce de résistance in Second Street’s “Lady Painters: Inspired by Joan Mitchell” exhibition. Joining Mitchell in the show are five female artists from Virginia—Isabelle Abbot, Karen Blair, Janet Bruce, Molly Herman, and Priscilla Long Whitlock.
“I wanted to show that I’m taking a step forward and am doing things in Charlottesville and curatorially that I didn’t have the opportunity to do in New York—and that I’m still able to bring a Joan Mitchell into [Second Street],” Chiacchia says.
During her 14 years as director at Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art in New York, Chiacchia estimates that over 50 of Mitchell’s top-tier works came through the gallery. With this proximity to one of the 20th century’s premier abstract artists, Chiacchia developed a respect for Mitchell and her groundbreaking work. After an introduction to Abbot, Blair, Bruce, and Whitlock through Les Yeux du Monde, and meeting Herman while in New York, Chiacchia noticed a connection between Mitchell’s work and that of the five women in “Lady Painters.”
“These women have been inspired by Joan Mitchell throughout their career, but none have exhibited alongside her work,” says Chiacchia. “You can see the similarities in brushstroke and color.”
And there are even similarities in framing. Herman’s diptych “Montserrat Field” features the same frame that New York’s Robert Miller Gallery would often choose for one of the many Mitchell works that entered its doors. Herman refers to her work as an exploration of figurative measurement, rather than of figures themselves. She says she feels “flattered” to be associated with Mitchell.
“My work is about a connection to flesh and the body,” Herman says. “Even standing in front of a painting is a relationship. It’s a reflection, or you dive into it.”
Dive into the gallery after a Saturday morning at the farmers’ market, as Chiacchia suggests, and the connection between the exhibition’s vibrant palate and that of early summer’s bounty becomes undeniable. Chiacchia speaks of the importance of the color blue to Mitchell, and indeed, the pieces flanking Mitchell’s two “Untitled” works celebrate the cool color.
On the gallery’s back wall is Whitlock’s “High Water, Marks.” It’s an abstracted landscape that portrays a gestural, expansive scene that is a symphony of exacted mark- making.
Upon encountering her first Mitchell in Norfolk’s Chrysler Museum of Art, Whitlock says “it was love at first sight—the big slashes of paint, the energy behind her marks.” In preparation for the exhibition, Whitlock incorporated more mixed-media and looser mark-making in her work. “I love the expressive marks and energy that can be distilled into line; it’s jazzy, hopping, it’s music,” she says.
Karen Blair’s “Blue Iris” energetically conveys joy and excitement. Displaying her painting next to Mitchell’s watercolor made her realize how much of Mitchell’s aesthetic became part of her own.
“Abstract marks can convey an entire world,” Blair says. “As an artist, if you walk into a gallery, the thing that you’re looking for is whether or not the show is more than the sum of its parts,” says Blair. “The energy in [Second Street] knocks you off your feet. Kristen did that. Having a painting next to Joan Mitchell does that.”
Flanking a few of Blair’s works are those belonging to Abbot, who shares a studio with Blair. Abbot’s “The Beach in Summer” subtly nods to the color field aesthetic of Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman, whose work was concurrent to Mitchell’s abstractions. Abbot’s “Summer” is freer, though. It revels in repetitive brushstroke and explores variations in texture and line—perhaps akin to navigating beach towels on a crowded seashore.
On the gallery’s right wall, viewers encounter Bruce’s seven-by-four-and-a-half-foot “Charlottesville, August 12, 2017.” Awash in iron and gold hues, the painting overflows with collage-like figures finished with jagged, puzzle piecemealed edges that don’t quite fit together.
Bruce quotes Robert Motherwell—another of Mitchell’s contemporaries—in his “Elegies to the Spanish Republic”: “‘A terrible death happened that should not be forgot.’ It’s important to find expression for horror. Red is the color of blood, rage, organs, lipstick.”
Just behind “Charlottesville,” in the exhibition’s entrance, there is a phrase uttered by Mitchell during her 1988 retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Art: “Not bad for a lady painter.”
“Mitchell called herself that sarcastically to show that she wasn’t just a lady painter,” says Chiacchia. “She was one of the most important American painters of the 20th century—not just female painters, but one of the most important painters. The opportunity we have to show her at Second Street and alongside women we know in our community…that’s something really special.”
Second Street Gallery’s “Lady Painters: Inspired by Joan Mitchell,” on view until July 19.