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Christine Sellman and the Character of an Authentic Gesture

Fire, Paintings63 x 39.5

Once our stereotype of Australian painting was the rough and ready yet slyly sophisticated folkloric faux-primitivism of Sidney Nolan, one of the country’s most famous artists. But in actual fact there are all manner of innovative painters at work today in Australia, where one of the most impressive exponents of what Clement Greenberg once chauvinistically termed “American-Type Painting” is Christine Sellman.
    Although she started out as a figurative artist, Sellman, who has been widely exhibited in galleries in Melbourne, Victoria, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and Cologne, eventually found more freedom in a spontaneous gestural style that springs from Abstract Expressionism. Working in acrylic on canvas, she creates large, vigorous compositions marked by improvisation. She eschews the limitations of a so-called “signature style,” preferring to let each painting dictate its own forms and colors. Yet an overriding consistency comes across in her work, given the distinctive character of her painterly “handwriting.” This can be seen by comparing even ostensibly disparate large canvases that vary greatly in color and form, such as “Eye of the Storm” and “Summer Blaze.” In the former work yellow and blue hues dominate and the shapes are shard-like –– almost like the jagged fragments of Clyfford Still –– and are closely clustered in a vertical composition, covering the entire surface of the canvas. The latter painting, however, is a horizontal composition, with most of the larger forms in red and yellow, centrally located on a subtly modulated light-colored field. Here, too, Sellman employs a spatter technique, splashing dark dots and drips over the mass of reds and yellows. While “Eye of the Storm” suggests a nocturnal hurricane and “Summer Blaze” evokes a sense of daylight heat, both are possessed of an identifying gestural thrust that appears to emanate directly from the artist’s nervous system.
    Perhaps diverse elements converge most harmoniously in another large canvas by Sellman called “Whimsical Flight,” in which she combines vibrant yellow hues with darkly spattered spots that appear to fly up like charred embers from a flame amid sinuous strokes of variegated purplish hues enlivening the bottom of the canvas. By contrast, Sellman comes closest to literal scenic description without crossing the line into realism in the atmospherically evocative large canvas entitled “City Nights.” For without verging on fussy specifics, this poetic abstraction in a horizontal format, with its palette of deep blues and brilliant yellows, conjures up a panoramic vista of bridges, highways, darkly looming buildings, bright lights and all the vast mystery of a modern metropolis.   
    Also allusive after a more totally abstract manner is “Hearts of Love,”one of Sellman’s boldest compositions, with its large red main form simultaneously suggesting a Valentine and curvaceous contours of feminine anatomy. Red also figures prominently in the canvas Sellman calls “Hurt,” where it serves as a signifier at once emotional and visceral, with the impact of an open wound. By contrast, another large acrylic painting called “Admist” features an ethereal color field in delicately pale blue, softer yellow, and rosy pink hues with a decidedly lyrical quality, onto which the artist, unwilling to lull the viewer with too serene an overall mood, has splashed some lively spatters and drips down along the lower edge of the composition. As all good painters, style for Christine Sellman is clearly a function of character, rather than of a contrived strategy.                             –– Wilson Wong

Christine Sellman, Agora Gallery, 530 West 25th Street,  February 7 – 27, 2013 Reception: Thursday, February 7, 6 – 8pm

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