a review of Eva Bovenzi's "Just Look"

By Genevra Peyser

Come on, take a look
It would be so much easier if all art were either good or bad. The problem is that most is somewhere between the two. Sometimes you even want to praise it and to trash it at the same time. This struggle for standards or a way of seeing makes you question what you see and what you believe about art. It is a debate that can drive you out of your mind. And if that’s not enough, there are certain types of art that are especially hard to judge.

Abstract painting is a prime example. I’m continually struck by the difference between abstraction that is thought provoking and striking and abstraction that is profoundly limiting—the fact that this can happen in the same show or even the same painting can cause fits. Now throw in minimal and plain, maybe simple, and it becomes even harder to make judgments. What is one even judging when there’s so little there? We can recognize an artist as being a good painter, artfully doing something, but it is harder to come to terms with the effects of the paintings themselves. I encountered almost all of these confounding problems at Eve Bovenzi’s show, “Just Look,” at the Transmissions Gallery in Oakland.
The subject: Eyes
Bovenzi is a Bay Area based artist with a long exhibition history in California and across the county. She received her MFA from CCA in 1975, but only began to participate in solo and group exhibitions after 2000. Bovenzi’s work plays with abstraction geometric form and color. “Just Look” is a collection of paintings that looks at (sorry about the pun) eyes, in both the natural world and the history of art. I guess you could say the show is both obsessive and historical. Bovenzi mentions studying pre-Renaissance European depictions of eyes: Byzantine icons and mosaics; Romanesque frescoes and illuminated manuscripts. The historical references that influence the paintings in “Just Look” come directly from the Beatus manuscripts, 10th century Spanish paintings depicting the Apocalypse. Bovenzi connects these images to her paintings by taking what one might call a pan-historical concern for the fate the earth:
As a citizen of the twenty-first century, I am as concerned with the imbalance of the present moment as the medieval churchmen were with theirs. Global warming, overpopulation, depletion of resources, and the destruction of species and eco systems form our coming apocalypse. I take the long view, though, in terms of a righting of imbalance…. The eyes in these paintings hint at this implacability in nature, its sheer, relentless persistence and its beauty, no matter what we humans might do.
This is all insightful and I can appreciate her concern for a possible coming apocalypse; however, I just don’t see any of these ideas in her paintings. The work comes off as playful, fun, energetic and lighthearted, but also calculated in ways that diminish the work.

Intense (2012)
Intense (2012) is one of the series of paintings she made with acrylic on canvas. The painting is not large, 16 x 20, and feels both direct and simple. It appears she uses one continuous flat pink dry brush stroke on top of a lighter pink background. This thoughtful dragging of color leaves a textured stroke that creates a half oval shape that drags over the surface. This approach should imply movement and give the painting a sense of forward energy. However, here that movement feels forced, more thought out than instinctual. What should come off as alive and open-ended feels overly resolved. I felt this way about most of the acrylics on canvas—they just didn’t hold my attention as they should have. I wanted to open up to questions, both of form and subject matter, and what I get here feels more like a punch line without a joke. It’s as if Bovenzi is too caught up in her studies to paint.

In her diptych, Cockeyed, she paints on both canvas and Yupo paper. Yupo paper is waterproof, tree-free synthetic paper that can look like clear, thin plastic. She clearly used acrylics to paint the bulk of the diptych, but then placed large geometric Yupo paper cut outs on top of the painted surface. These painted shapes are transparent and pull the color from the canvas through the top layers of paint. This technique creates delicate forms that resemble insect wings, although in a colorful abstracted way. It’s a stunning effect and skillfully deployed, but similar to Bovenzi’s painting Intense, the abstractions in Cockeyed feel resolved, done before she starts. For a show about eyes, she just doesn’t allow your eye any room to wander, to allow the painting to come alive past her global, but narrow agenda.

In the painting, Don’t Blink, we can see how thinly and expertly Bovenzi uses her washes of acrylic, as you can see watermarks scattered across the Yupo. Thin, vibrant layers of color reveal the papers’ color and vibrancy below. Still, despite the thoughtfulness that went into executing Don’t Blink and the many paintings like it, they come off as precious. They lack complexity and visual content and instead, as I’ve said before, feel resolved. You want to participate in art, not receive a thesis. Driven by ideas and art history, Bovenzi’s work feels strangely incomplete.

Don't Blink
Abstraction is all about the unknown, discovery and a powerful sense of feeling. While artistically Bovenzi’s show is thoughtful and reveals a strong sense of craft and artistic ability, that’s all there is. Strangely, for such an academic-minded painter, the show left me confused and frustrated. Almost by definition, art must be visually appealing, but should it stop there? Art should inspire us to ask questions and not look away, whether we like it or not. For an artist so passionate about the world, I feel almost no passion in her work. Silly, fun, comical, yes, but a sense of passion that forces you to look, well, that just doesn’t happen here.

©Genevera Peyser and the CCA Arts Review

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