The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2021

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SEPT 2021 Issue

Donna Moylan: Take Shelter

Donna Moylan, <em>Birdman</em>, 2021. Oil and acrylic on linen. 58 x 48 in. Courtesy the artist.
Donna Moylan, Birdman, 2021. Oil and acrylic on linen. 58 x 48 in. Courtesy the artist.

Tanja Grunert
Take Shelter
September 7 – October 5, 2020

For Donna Moylan, the wild is the norm. At Tanja Gunert’s Hudson gallery, Moylan’s paintings point to a surrealist revival in recent art though she claims a long history in this genre. As a young artist living in Rome for 20 years she developed a signature style that incorporated abstract shapes and caricatures inhabiting otherworldly landscapes. Her narratives became by turns whimsical and apocalyptic, a phrase once ascribed to the work of William Blake. In Moylan’s signature works, thin washes sweep the canvas and bands of color are overlaid by figures: human, animal, mythic, the figures themselves nearly transparent.

Now she paints panoramic landscapes and Vuillard-like interiors populated by small humans bewildered by their dire predicaments. This is a new surrealism attuned to post truth, climatic disruption, and pandemic. The pandemic fostered a culture of loneliness. Global fires point to the irrefutability of climate change and anything else is an alternative reality. In these works humans are seen in tight spaces or vast meadows that reminds me of Moylan’s own backyard in Kinderhook, NY. All the paintings are thematically unique involving different sets of players, like characters in an inner drama. The large paintings unfold like narratives on a stage, somewhere between the Commedia Dell’arte and a Danse Macabre. She pictures a world too strange to conform to any place we know.

How weird it all is and how uncanny. In the country where Donna Moylan and I are neighbors—we are witnessing a sliding toward extinction; fewer insects, fewer animals like deer or turkey. Where are the fireflies? There was no hard frost last year. It’s both a crisis of consciousness and the crisis of the human imagination. Moylan’s are the first paintings I’ve seen that explicitly address this as narrative.

Moylan’s studio in Kinderhook, New York sits on a broad meadow four miles to the east of the Hudson River. Beyond the river loom the Catskill Mountains. Hudson River painter Thomas Cole (1801-1848) had a similar view 20 miles to the south in Catskill, NY. Cole, an early environmentalist, fought against deforestation at a time when hemlocks were being harvested for lumber and tannin. The very particular way the Hudson River plain stretches flat against the mountains has echoes in Moylan’s paintings. Floral bouquets sometimes appear in her still lifes—the bouquets painted from the flowers growing outside her studio.

All Moylan’s paintings are thematically unique involving different sets of characters in specific scenarios. Painting Of Painter’s Painting (2020) features tiny figures in wide and boundless landscapes akin to her own. Painters are dutifully engaged in portraying the reality that they think they see, while at the far left three billboard sized paintings show us the conventions of landscape they believe to be true. Above it all hovers an energy field invisible to them. It’s like a crystalline grid network, a 5D template for a new earth, “an etheric network of faceted light, portals, vortexes covering the earth’s energy field.” The whole enterprise is a kind of Magrittean paradox. We humans look at this painting and view everything they don’t see, all those multiple levels of “seeing” and “not seeing” that once constituted the conventions of landscape painting.

Donna Moylan, <em>The Saddest Boy in the World</em>, 2021. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 22 x 24 in. Courtesy the artist.
Donna Moylan, The Saddest Boy in the World, 2021. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 22 x 24 in. Courtesy the artist.

A small work, The Saddest Boy in the World (2020), pictures a black sky, blue earth, and a solitary boy stretched out limp atop a lit house. The lit woman inside, unable to comfort him, speaks to the isolation we’ve powerfully felt in our own lives.

The most moving painting is also the simplest, Birdman (2020) pictures, modern Noah as an American cowboy. Startled, guant, lurching forward, he’s carrying birds in multiple fragile cages in a futile attempt to capture one of each kind on earth. He looks to the side in disbelief facing the unseen hazard that’s creating a storm. Horizontal washes that constitute ground, sea, sunset, dust, sweep across the field.  

These are very dark works. In some we see the living dead in garish tones of red and green reinhabiting landscapes of their past lives. All of these paintings are powerful indicators of where the artist thinks “nature” may be going.


Lenore Malen

Lenore Malen is an artist and writer who draws on mythic stories interpreted through installation, performance and film. She received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow and a NYFA award in interdisciplinary art in 2001. She has exhibited in NY and in Europe and performed for the BBC. She teaches in the MFA Fine Arts Program at Parsons The New School.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2021

All Issues