works by Berenice
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By Joe Vojtko

The early abstractions of Kandinsky, which many scholars have argued may in fact be the very first instance of completely abstract art, have remained for me, since my initial exposure to them as a teenager, quintessential examples of all the conceptually revolutionary potential that the breakthrough of abstract painting offered up to future generations. Like a brand new branch of intellectual temptation on our ancient tree of hard-won knowledge, profusely abloom with promises of so wide a variety of forbidden fruit, abstract art, it seemed to me, might unlock all the secrets the mean, mute universe had so selfishly hidden from the ever foiled and hapless human race. By the time I got into college, majoring in Art, much to the baffles horror of my long-suffering parents, you could find me staying up all night, most any night, spreading out canvases on our kitchen floor, swirling hypnotically and splattering Liquitex to the pulsating drones of The Velvet Underground. I thought I was Jackson Pollock. My mother was convinced I’d lost my mind. I felt like I was flying.

“To Paint It, She Flew Over It”, the guileless vintage headline from The New York Times soberly announced. “It” was the Florida Everglades; “She “ was painter, Berenice D’Vorzon, and she not only flew over it, she walked right into it, she strove through it, trudged through it, sat in it, touched it, felt it, sketched it, photographed it, listened to it, talked to it, and tried not to forget it. Her goal was to know it as intimately as one aspires to know oneself, to watch it up close and imagine how it feels to get close to its secrets and develop a weakness for the tendrils and excrescences of its gentle disfigurement and its monstrous beauty.

For Berenice D’Vorzon, beauty has always exuded a terrifying essence. Like the 19th century romantic painters and writers that she admires, the equation, as I believe her work attests she sees it, is a simple one. Beauty is truth, and as such it is elusive, intangible and completely invisible. It cannot and does not exist in the world of material objects, be they the creations of gifted minds or the physical expressions of the earth beneath our feet, but exclusively and emphatically in our experience of these things. This being the case, she sees all art as a process, a continuous disciplined activity terminated only by death, to invite and provoke the experience of beauty. The products or art objects function not as the goal or fulfillment of this process, but rather as documentation of the artist’s personal, ritual involvement and pursuit of a holy communion with the ferocious presence of truth.

This idea of the creative activity as a transcendental experience is one of the few aspects of D’Vorzon’s work that still links her to the New York School of Abstract Expressionism from which she emerged. She was frequently told she “painted like a man” by the likes of Pollock and deKooning, whose stylistic influences on her work are still pronounced. Back in the fabulous fifties, among the Cedar Tavern set, this was considered a compliment, but even then, as a young woman barely into her twenties, though flattered by the inclusion among the big boys, all of whom were at least a decade her senior, she was bothered by the insensitive contradictions inherent in the remark.

Now, having spent decades expanding and developing her own wholly original and (I think) groundbreaking style of painting, with her early successes fading into the territory of remote memory, she is less enthusiastic about even discussing her connection to the Abstract Expressionists. Although she has become something less that the legend that the early attention she received had promised, she takes great pleasure in knowing that she is a whole lot more than just another lady artist trying to paint like a man.

It’s the more savage aspects of the world of natural phenomena that capture D’Vorzon's heart - the darker forces: the tangled things that rot in swamps, the cruelty of ice, the unlovable grotesqueries that wriggle about on the ocean floor, the angry passion of volcanic eruption, the scum on the pond, the slimy protrusions of decomposing undergrowth, the foetid emissions, the thick viscous fluids, the gnarled and knobby limbs,
the roots not the roses. Much of this side of the living planet is hidden from view. We’ve designed our world specifically to conceal it. D’Vorzon seeks out what’s left of this untamed world because she senses a deep connection to it. The really important things she has to teach us can be found in her paintings and are of an entirely neta-linquistic nature. She allows herself time to foment and ferment what she’s learned, to distill and decoct her experiences of the earth’s last wild places. Her creative process is studied and elaborates - half science, half sorcery. And it’s all just the set-up for the main event: the translation into painted imagery of all that she’s absorbed, sensually, emotionally, cerebrally; complete and unexpurgated, with all the permutations, distortions and bizarre associations that sculpt the ghost and scar the empirical flesh of experience remembered.

The eight large canvases and twenty smaller works on paper that constitute D’Vorzon’s Underwater Series, opening this month at Nabi Gallery in Sag Harbor, reveal a world as decidedly alien as it is naggingly familiar. There’s something disconcerting about the way in which these weird aquatic evocations toy with the confidence you place in your own ability to identify what you’re looking at. Some of these paintings seem to shift in and out of focus before your very eyes, whereas in others, the portrayal of movement feels so real you’re almost convinced you can see the dribbly spots and trails of splattered paint continuing to leak and crawl across the surfaces, where effervescent dissolutions of brilliant pigment seem to be still in the process of active discharge. Many of the compositions are inhabited by biomorphic forms that seem to be fluctuating at the point-point between two states of some generative cycle, tuned -in as it were, as if on a kind of metaphysically sensitive short-wave, and captured through the mediumistic stenography of this shamanic painter’s masterful style. The metaphors begin to become infinite at this point. The similes explode into a chain reaction of expanding awareness. The artist likes the fine line between subjective abstraction and objective representation specifically because it triggers this kind of thinking. The forms and markings on her canvases suggest a vacillating movement between internal and external modes of perception, for brief moments appearing to possess the detailed exactness of photography, and then rapidly dissolving into radiant concurrences of gestures as intrinsically abstract as music. In having developed a method of portraying the poetic distillations of her experience of nature, D’Vorzon’s art defines the essences, the elemental correspondences, and above all else the fierce, relentless pulse of the sexual imperative, beating at the center of this ancient, sacred, proto-pornographic wet-dream that we call the world.

Private visions of our prehistoric past that seem to rise from the land and impact on the mind with all the lucidity of personal memory abounding D’Vorzon’s work. Tick Island Genesis, 1991, a diptych measuring 68”X120”, possesses all of the titanic, transcendental majesty of the supernaturally charged panoramas of 19th century American landscape painter, Thomas Cole, while still holding onto its essential integrity as a primarily abstract painting. Its utter disregard for the specificity of its own details, and its bold articulation of an aggressively feminine, mystical cadence, are certainly enough to completely satisfy the Kandinskian demand for the dematerialization of the object. The painting was suggested by the artist’s experiences fly8ng over Accabonic Harbor in her brother’s plane, resulting in a canvas in which, because of the odd perspective as well as the ambiguous treatment of the delineations of sky and sea, leaves the viewer sort of swimming in the air.

In Underwater Flying, 1995, another massive diptych in the series, D’Vorzon explores another conjuration of the same sensory anomaly that she reports now often invades both her dreams and her meditational inquiries into the mysteries of our collective biological past. This strange apparition of vaguely Lovecraftian delirium bursting with lights and colors of an other-worldly origin, simulates and eerie state of perceptual confusion, in which it would seem the laws of physics have been both relaxed and reformulated. The enormous size of this work places the viewer right into the midst of things. But where exactly are we? And what on earth are we up to? Are we somehow swimming beneath a reef above the clouds in a salty firmament of flagellating creatures from the bottom of the sea? Or are we flying through the ocean depths? Disorientations of this kind are a prominent feature in D’Vorzon’s work. Add to this the degree of chromatic intensity she usually insists on, and an uncanny ability to come with what seem to be colors from outer space, and one might make the leap and call these pieces psychedelic, but in a manner fully its own and devoid of any nostalgia for what I’ve come to think of as the decades of America’s cultural revolution.

As a child growing up in the fifties and sixties, the times when, as you might recall progress was our most important product, I was conditioned to believe in everything modern. But like many of my peers aboard the Starship Enterprise, thrust suddenly into a middle-age reality we ultra-modern boomers somehow never thought would happen to us, and with the millennium approaching like a ruthless, science-fiction Armageddon, it has now begun to appear to me that our tireless commitment “to bravely go where no man’s gone before” has led us really to no place very special. From consciousness-expanding ingestibles to sex in cyberspace, from Abstract Expressionism to rock’n’roll as religious experience, we have pushed the limitations of both self reinvention and social reconfiguration, fecklessly hoping some magic combination of our efforts might one day soon suddenly catapult us into that famous great leap forward. But the doors of perception have refused to budge so mach as an inch, and the world we wished to radically improve and more fully understand through our social, spiritual and aesthetic experiments, has of late begun to exhibit every malignant sign and symptom of a suffering organism in the final throes of terminal disease.

Berenice D’Vorzon has developed an interesting take on the collapse of our natural environment. “I seem to have accepted the task of trying to remind people of what we are in danger of losing,” D’Vorzon writes. “We are not destroying the world; we are destroying ourselves. The world, as Lewis Thomas has pointed out, will continue to exist in a different form; with our necessary environment to survive gone, we will be extinct.”

One of the more remarkable aspects of D’Vorzon’s art is that, even thought these luminously beautiful paintings are of a wholly non-literal nature, the finer points of the religio-sexual, psycho-social and bio-political concepts the artist speaks and writes about are actually present, portrayed in paint and completely available to the receptive viewer. But don’t get me wrong; this work has nothing in common with any the usual, finger wagging, ‘save our planet’ agitprop. That’s probably why it’s so powerful. There is no need to preach about the world, as it should be, when one has found a way to reveal it as it is.

In the world as it is, as D’Vorzon sees it, new life is constantly springing up from old. In several large drawings pulled from her Roots Series and included in this show because they were inspired by studying roots under water, tangled masses of tubular channels wind all over the compositions creating graceful, flowing lines and forms like art nouveau jewelry - a feminine loveliness soured by a dark subtext of suggested intimate relations between life and death, fertility and decay. The ancient magical concept of the Ouroboros - the serpent eating its own tail - slathers across these drawings.

In many pieces in this exhibit I see the ghost of Jackson Pollock twisting all over her style. In other isolated paintings, one can still identify something more that coincidental references to Hofmann and Kline and her old friend and mentor, Willem deKooning. But D’Vorzon is not an Abstract Expressionist. Although because she found her wings on the cusp of that movement, she is the legitimate inheritor of that tradition, and as such, she is really the first to take its essentials to the next logically organic phase.

AS Pollock and Kline were the fulfillment of the ideas of Kandinsky, D’Vorzon is the reformulation of the impulses of Pollack and Kline. With a certain brand of self-serving interests that every great artist must possess, D’Vorzon rescued what she needed, salvaged what she wanted, changed what she had to and tossed the rest away. Be all that as it may, more than imitation or the creation of fan clubs, cults or rigid cannons, to build something new on men’s ideas of the past pays the memory of the men and their ideas so much higher a compliment. It’s all process and we’re all part of it, the dead, the living and the yet to be born. It’s all part of the experience.

BereniceD’Vorzon’s Experientialist Art has made me believe all over again that there just may be such a thing as a great leap forward. While all the boys were busy banging and pounding on those redoubtable Huxleyan doors, Berenice figured maybe it would take a woman to just sort of coax them open. And she did. And what she saw behind them is spectacular and formidable.

Although she goes at her work with all the laborious method of a trained scientist out in the field collecting data, sometimes I see D’Vorzon as a brewer of spells - a conjure woman - a swamp witch. The way she views the world is complex and intellectual and very much of the here and now, but the central activity of her art lies in the invocation of the past tense. the summoning up of the forces of nature inside her, the spirits and demons, the holy guardian angels of memory, the ancient elementals who lift her up and back across the landscapes of experience. She paints like a woman. She flies over it.

--Joe Vojtko