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Chaos and Clarity

by Kate Brock

Elexis Van Reen holds the tension between chaos and clarity in her abstract paintings of layered densities. In two paintings she made in 2021 UNTITLED (#0101), her gestures are large and lyric, strokes of cerulean blues and graphite line dance around inky thick black in aqueous space. Promises of pink show through a whitewashed ground, echoes from an earlier painting. The work is charged up with her reflections on the cataclysmic weather systems that visit her Rhode Island studio. They hum with the energy of an active mind that has reigned in its vitality to hold to a structure. UNTITLED (#0101) are culminations of her long exploration of color and line across different bodies of work. Her marks change with the method of her making, becoming broad and open on large pieces of paper and canvas, or more tightly controlled in her dense prismatic drawings of smaller scale. 

Van Reen mines psychology, sociology, and genealogy, as well as her own memory, to saturate her mind and hand when approaching a painting. Contemporary patterns of communication, cultural images, and news cycles become generative material for her process. Although the work is abstract, Van Reen talks about discovering patterns of her previous emotive states in her paintings. During the onslaught of hurricane rains on her window, she noticed the diaphanous lines created by the water and light mirrored her own marks in UNTITLED (#02), a series of carbon drawings of thin lines that overlap and repeat to create spaces of shimmering gradation. The work is permeable, both in its psychological and atmospheric climates. Van Reen swims regularly, and often has paintings begin or resolve during her time in the water. Swimming contains an analogous fluidity to the paintings; wherein inner and outer worlds comingle in submersion. 

In UNTITLED (#0402), thin graphite lines create an architectural framework for vibrant pink and violet pastel, layered with light cadmium reds and dark purple, scraped away to reveal peach and blue beneath. At the bottom of the paper sit patches of yellow ink and blue grey, arranged to keep the high intensity of scrawled marks above, restrained. In all her work, Van Reen zeroes in on the moment of perfect torque, wherein explosive movement or color is brought back into subtle alignment. Her technical attention creates a sense of internal rigor that reflects the degree of her self and social examination.

From the same series, UNTITLED (#0401) a loose grid of thick black marks pulls the eye across the surface with lateral movement. The wide, transparent black reveals passages of neon yellow, smeared electric blue, and vibrating green. The blue and green meld as in a tropical landscape, cut across by lines in orange pastel. The bright chroma against the black and the history of the white page create a sense of inner light, or light within the pigment. 

In the series UNTITLED (#0403), layered colors are pushed and removed to reveal moments of emanating light, a singular clarity drawn out of the cacophony of marks. This series further reflects the mark making of the natural world: radial lines like the cross section of a tree, or woven plant fibers of a bird’s nest. The intersecting marks create environments like vacuole structures, cellular movements across lines trafficking in blues and lavender, visions of lime green surface across layers that both reveal and obscure. 

Van Reen has built a visual language for herself through technical rigor, without sacrificing the momentum of constant exploration. Her willingness to reach for a painting beyond the moment of its awkwardness, to push it further into development, shows a hand capable of arranging the forces of material while remaining ever open to their unpredictable nature. Like weather systems or cyclic growth, hers is a practice of chaos structured into lucidity. 

Kate Brock

Kate Brock is a writer working out of Philadelphia, PA. She obtained an MFA at the School of Visual Arts, where she received the Paula Rhodes award for exceptional contribution to the discipline of art writing. She has written hybrid essays on painting for the Royal College of Art, Soloway Gallery, and Degree Critical.