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Ask most people what they think when they hear the word Abstract Painting, and they're likely to pause before replying. But if they thought of the work of Lila Lewis Irving they would be able to answer more quickly. Hers is the kind of painting that expresses what Abstraction is, and can be, and makes a convincing case for the emergence of individual genius.
A big surprise is how much of Irving's mission with its explicitly personal direction feels relevant, from the effort to develop colour dramatically, often through subdued earth tones set off by touches of contrasting hues, her massive shapes and her big, explosive, spontaneous effects. She's something of a harvester of process, an artist who knows how to use the accidents caused by the painting process itself creatively.
Her origins in Non-Objective painting arose in 1990 and with her lessons in 1991 from an older (and difficult) mistress in the art of Abstraction, Helen Frankenthaler, with whom Irving studied for a short period of time in Sante Fe, New Mexico, her home at the time. Over the last fifteen to twenty years of painting abstractly, Irving has discovered a new kind of liberty in art-making: it is the mainstay of her work and as she knows, nothing is more difficult. "I was pretty out of it in Frankenthaler's class," Irving writes, but in the long run she learned a great deal. "It took quite awhile to absorb it all," she concludes. "Frankenthaler told me, "You have come a long way.""
Irving initially discovered the guiding light of abstraction very early in her life. Even in kindergarten, she painted abstractly, and as a youngster, she became an avid visitor to museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York (she was born in Brooklyn), noting among the abstract work that flatness could have space, excitement and tension.
In the years following1990, as a new pluralism in the art world developed, Irving found her path, large forms that provide an imagistic armature, muted and sophisticated colour, big canvases and free-form acrylics sometimes with bumpy, textured surfaces created from the nature of the paint itself as she works directly on raw canvas. The results express her adventurous nature and recall the title of one of her paintings, "Perfect Energy."
The method Irving uses to make her art is one she learned from Frankenthaler and beyond Frankenthaler, from other exponents of the New York School such as Jackson Pollock: she lays her large canvas on the floor and rotates around it as she works, developing the painting from four directions. The results often work from different directions too, an effect she encourages. Her acrylic colours are mixed in buckets until they achieve the consistency of a very watery fluid and she likes to use one of them to create a surface colour so the raw canvas doesn't show through. In general, today, she isolates three to four colours and mixes up a gallon of each. She doesn't use brushes, but uses as painting tools any number of different implements such as squeegees, window washer scrapers and noodles (normally used as floats in pools). Irving prefers large shapes in her work with a few lines added at the end. Her textured surfaces are caused on purpose, using paint that hasn't mixed well, or textured paint. She is a highly intuitive painter, but totally in control of her effects.
Her one difference from the work of the New York School artists is that she uses canvas that has been pre-stretched and not, as with the group, raw canvas placed flat on the ground. She likes the bounce of the stretched work, she says, and taps the canvas as though it were a drum.
Hers has been a diverse career, but throughout her life, she has been able to imagine in her mind's eye the painting she wanted to paint. At 76, she is having her first full-dress retrospective, "Lila Lewis Irving: Con Spirito," at the Art Gallery of Mississauga. As befits a lifelong student of abstraction, the show celebrates her imaginative abstract work, but it also conveys her abilities as a portrait and figure painter. From the works on view in the exhibition, we sense how long it took Irving to paint non-objective works in a cohesive manner: a good ten years. Her colouring was brighter once, her forms more condensed before transformation to more spacious effects and a more muted palette. Paintings such as A Perfect Balance with its silvery paint and her big, bold, confident Breakthrough (both 2008) are proof that she is at the top of her form today. Memory Seascape and Wozzeck , with their sense of light and elegant patterning, fruitfully expand our view of where Irving came from, and is still coming from, and where she's going.
Taken together, the work of Lila Lewis Irving encourages optimism about the place of abstraction in the art of today. Taken one by one, Irving's grand spirit springs vigorously to life.
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