When the Situation Feels a Little Off

Artist Allison Maletz forcibly breaks with convention and defies the observed rules of watercolor painting, working in ways that seem contrary to what the medium is capable of doing and exploring subject matter that can spark uncomfortable and often contradictory feelings in the viewer.

Hug by Allison Maletz, detail, watercolor painting.
Hug by Allison Maletz, detail, watercolor painting.

Maletz's first solo show, up through March 24 at Christopher Henry Gallery, in New York City, reveals how psychologically intense and humorous the seemingly mundane American family can be. From brothers in matching sweaters forming a human totem pole to a romantic embrace that is just this side of creepy, Maletz explores the moments when familial bonds are pulled just a little too tight and situations begin to feel a little off. In her paintings, warmth between mother and daughter, sisters, or husband and wife turns cloying, and bright moments that initially endear themselves to the viewer darken, metaphorically speaking, with more study. "I make images that are beautiful, happy, and nostalgic and push them to their possible breaking point, when their pleasantries overtake them and they reach a level that is no longer enjoyable but somewhat uncomfortable," says Maletz.  

Generation Four by Allison Maletz, detail, watercolor painting.
Generation Four by Allison Maletz, detail,
watercolor painting.

In step with the duality of her chosen subject matter, Maletz's treatment of watercolor is also a combination of contradictions. On one hand she courts the out-of-control aspects of the medium by working horizontally and allowing fluid color to pool and spill where it may. In some cases she allows the watercolor to pool in grotesque puddles or large swaths of color that dry inconsistently, as in Hug, making the environment visually foreboding and creating an almost claustrophobic feel. But in other cases the results are lovely. Sun-dappled leaves and juicy fruit appear vibrant and effortlessly drawn, as in Picking Oranges in Grandpa's Yard. Shadows on skin and highlights in a braid of hair look quite lifelike.

But Maletz also craves control in her works, otherwise there would be no explaining how she creates the subtly complex and highly patterned textiles that many of her figures are clothed in. What started as an interest in color dialogues, in which Maletz created patterns with primary colors alone, has evolved into a deeper interest in symmetry, layering, and duplication. Maletz initially took visual reference from Turkish and Art Deco patterns but has now moved on to design the patterns in her head, though many are inspired by the lives, hobbies, and pursuits of the people she paints.

"I paint people that I know (or got to know), and when I find myself struggling to create a pattern, I think about who the person is that I was painting the pattern on," says Maletz. "This idea really took shape on the painting Hug. My father is hugging his father. My father, on the right, is an accountant. His pattern became about numbers melding together into a sea of carefully constructed numerical geometry. For my grandfather, who is an excellent card player, the pattern became about diamonds, spades, hearts, and clubs."

Picking Oranges in Grandpa's Yard by Allison Maletz, watercolor painting. Braid by Allison Maletz, watercolor painting.
Picking Oranges in Grandpa's Yard
by Allison Maletz, watercolor painting.

Braid by Allison Maletz,
watercolor painting.

To create these intricate patterns on paper, Maletz starts by painting the fabric of a figure's clothing, creating wrinkles and a sense of the cloth draping with bleeding puddles of pigment. Once that dries, she draws the pattern over the folds of the clothing, dipping in and out and following the contours of the figure and how the fabric lays on his or her body. Then she paints the patterns in, always taking into consideration the highlights and shadowed areas of the clothing, as well as the ambient light in the scene.

The resulting patterns are a bit mind-boggling considering the fluidity of watercolor, but Maletz makes it seem effortless. Yet another contradiction from an artist who continues to brush off the rules of watercolor to work in her own way and create unusual and relevant works that make me want to say, "She can't do that!" Because, indeed, she can.

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

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