Aeqai Review: Frank Herrmann at the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery

Frank Herrmann, Slayer of Dragons Solo Exhibition, “New Works”, Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery in the Aronoff Center for the Arts

December 23rd, 2017 | Published in *, December 2017 | Cynthia M. Kukla

Buoyant-26, watercolor, 10″ x 7 ½,” 2016

Painter extraordinaire Frank Herrmann means what he says. In a 2016 interview, Herrmann stated: “Never wait for the great idea or wait for the perfect moment when the work has stalled. You have to work through those moments, that may be depressing but just keep working.”1

Herrmann takes his own advice; his vivid new exhibition of paintings on canvas and small watercolors on paper directly evolve from a critical juncture in his art making. It was 2011 and Frank felt he had fully explored a particular theme in his paintings to which he was committed for a number of years. Walking outside of his studio one day, he realized it was time to take a radically different path and so he doggedly began painting small watercolors in great number, freeing up with a medium that is both daunting, as it is fresh and spontaneous. “Watercolors got me back on track.”2

In these essential early watercolors, the wonderful shapes and symbols from his long and well-known Asmat series, loosened, opened up, swirled and drifted into the distance; the water as much a vehicle for change as the paint was a vehicle for intention. From the puddles and pools of color that naturally formed in these tiny watercolors, the artist developed his current buoyant series. A pool, a droplet of water, a vessel, a pod – each viewer brings her or his own interpretation of what the central form of his paintings is, or could become.

Bouyant-11, acrylic, sand, brick dust & soot on canvas, 75″ x 60,” 2017

The paintings are varied in chromatic complexity and thus in tone. There is the crazy colorful Buoyant-13 (“Sometimes I Clown” James Brown) with hot red jagged borders barely holding in the vessel/pod/droplet with its goofy thick circles of color – Picasso’s Harlequins on steroids. There is Buoyant-14, all early morning misty pinks, blues, grays and a subdued vessel/pod/droplet a subtle blue, still holding in its tender body the moisture of the night that has just passed. Buoyant-10 and 11 have the same striking azure-hued vessel/pod/droplet, but in each painting, the background is so different, we can imagine that this magical form is a giver of life (or primordial water?) to distant parched landscapes.

So Herrmann is back to landscapes, whence he came. In our interview, he conveyed that he really never strayed far from his undergraduate landscape sensibility, always imagined abstractly, but landscapes as his governing form. Figure. Ground. Sky. By the time he was in graduate school, in the early 1970’s, he took the plunge into using acrylics, which at the time were hot hot hot and new new new. He never turned back. He paints aggressively with acrylics, like St. George battling the Dragon. It is evident as you view the paintings. The paint does not seduce us. Herrmann is not trying to coax the fast drying paint into tender blends and soft gradations as one might easily do with the more malleable medium of oil paint. He knows the toughness of acrylics, the fast drying capacity, useful only if you can wield your brush fast enough. Fast enough to make the paint dizzy and magical. This he does.

Buoyant-13 (“Sometimes I Clown” James Brown,) acrylic on canvas, 81 1/2″ x 69,” 2017

Buoyant-13 (“Sometimes I Clown” James Brown) demonstrates Herrmann’s ongoing studio discipline and his humor. Over time, he saved the dried paint at the bottom of jars of acrylic paint. He just couldn’t pitch these circular pads of dried-out pure color. Because he always takes risks with his paintings, he had a “why not?” moment and made this 81 ½ by 69 inch canvas full of thick circles of dried acrylic color that he collaged on top of the painted forms. The painting is pure fun yet, as you look closely, you notice that the casual thick circles of color are smaller at the top of the vessel/pod/droplet just as the design on an ancient vase would be more delicate at the neck of the vase than it would be on the body of the vase. The change in scale of the circles of color further is suggesting that the vessel/pod/droplet is shifting slightly back into space, the kind of warped space of Surrealism. This gives this fun and aggressive form movement as well as vividness. The red jagged shapes flanking the central form seem to be breaking up as the form rises to the surface, kissing the air above earth’s magma. In his new Buoyant Series, Herrmann flirts with the placement of the top of the vessel/pod/droplet. Mostly, it rigidly hits the horizon line. In a few paintings, like the watercolors Buoyant-1 and Buoyant-37, the central form hovers below the strict horizon line. In one of the acrylic paintings, like Buoyant-7 (The Slippage) the central form likewise is a whisper below the horizon. I wish he would play more with this placement, which too often is exactly at the horizon line. Yet, if it broke the horizon line, the central form could read too much like a buoy at sea. Below the horizon line, the central form can have a very varied life in its aquatic or terrestrial home.

Buoyant-12 (Chrysalis and Shafts) acrylic & oil on canvas, 90″ x 72″, 2017