July 13, 2020
JENNY ML WANTUCH: Sound of Water
Avenue 12 Gallery,
The landscape paintings of Jenny ML Wantuch are quiet evocations of place that derive from Impressionism, Fauvism and Abstract Expressionism. Her work continues the Bay Area Figurative tradition, which synthesized traditional subject matter—figures, landscapes, still life’‑—with painterly impulse and improvisation. In addition, her paintings lack of the self-conscious irony that characterizes so much contemporary art; possibly the isolation imposed on us by the pandemic will lead to a new appreciation for seriousness and sincerity, too long out of fashion for some.
Wantuch grew up in rural Sweden, and worked in California as an environmental engineer before deciding to pursue her longtime love of art. She has thus has a deep appreciation of nature. She takes hikes and paints both small works on panel on location, and larger works, later, in the studio. The twenty-two paintings that comprise “Sound of Water” (named after the largest work in the show) depict northern California, primarily, with the exception of a pair of casein paintings—in the tall, vertical format of Japanese scroll paintings—depicting Monet’s Garden at Giverny, the result of a 2019 pilgrimage to that living shrine after Wantuch saw the San Francisco retrospective of the Impressionist’s work at the de Young Museum. The vertical format, a departure from Monet’s panoramic “Water Lilies,” was a compositional challenge to which she rose. The two paintings, which can be appreciated either together, as a diptych, or as separate works, depict a waterscape of lily pads, willow leaves, rushes, and a reflected blue sky dappled by clouds: the floating natural paradise.
Wantuch has always been interested in capturing the emotion of a posing model, or at least the implicit emotion; now she employs the observational skills of an artist and a scientist to reflect the cultural, historical and environmental moment. In an e-mail, she wrote: “Munch is one of my favorite painters. His authenticity and the difficult emotions that he expressed so well inspire me to be more open, honest and bold. ... [T]here is a melancholy that I empathize with and I think part of it comes from growing up in Sweden (or Norway, in Munch’s case); long, dark winters do that to you.”
The longing for a return to normalcy appears in several paintings of figures in the landscape, which, a motif in the existentially inflected Bay Area Figuration of Diebenkorn, Oliveira, Park and Bischoff. “Solstice Dream,” inspired by the artist’s memories of enjoying long summer days above the Arctic Circle, depicts a long-haired nude, almost an allegorical emanation of the sunny meadow in which she luxuriates. “A Moment in the Sun” depicts another nude in nature, caught between, “lethargy and lonely emptiness” and “longing for freedom and connection.”
An art-historical anecdote comes to mind. Georges Rouault and Henri Matisse, his onetime student, were once asked if artists required an audience. Rouault, the religious expressionist, said he would do what he was doing out of internal necessity, or compulsion, even in nobody ever saw his work. Matisse, the creator of pictorial beauty—of restful, refreshing armchairs for tired businessmen—said an artist must be able to share his vision. Wantuch’s landscapes share both Rouault’s determined work ethic and Matisse’s generous grace. — DeWitt Cheng