From Backyards to Abstractions of Time

ARTIST Ellen Wineberg's followers - familiar with her paintings of backyards with funky lawn ornaments that spin in the wind and pastels of well-kept houses perched on neat lawns dappled with dark, cool shadows - may be surprised when they view her latest work.

Paintings at her current show in Boston (at the Randall Beck Gallery through Jan. 12), demonstrate that Wineberg has left the suburbs for Pompeii.

Gone is the illusion of deep space. Her attention is now on the eroded surfaces of the walls of this ancient city.

"At first," says Wineberg, "it was very strange not to have to create a sense of spatial depth. But I found it very enjoyable working with surfaces that were totally flat, right-in-front-of-my-face surfaces."

As the art historians tell us, there were four painting styles at Pompeii: faux marbling, architectural trompe l'oeil, small still lifes (birds and landscapes in large fields of pastel colors), and last, a combination of the second and third styles, which resulted in opulent compositions. Ellen Wineberg has taken her inspiration from the small images on large walls.

The wall surfaces interested her as much as the depictions of urns and birds.

"After 2,000 years, the wall decorations are still visible as well as the effects of weather, volcanic eruptions, and even some 1,000-year-old graffiti," she says.

Just as the visitor to Pompeii can read the layers of history on these walls, the viewer of Wineberg's work can see the stages in the process of making these paintings. The refined and highly realized forms of her earlier work have given way to a loose layering of paint and pastel. In "Black Wall," we see the ghosts of an underpainting through the layers of black. Wineberg explains how her new freedom with the materials came about.

"It's because I no longer use a brush. With a brush, my work was too smooth and too tight. Now, on these paper and masonite pieces, I use the same tools and techniques I use when doing monoprints - rollers, oil sticks, rags, and fingers. The painting, 'Three Fish and an Eel,' was originally a monotype of an angel. I turned it on its side, rolled some paint over it, dashed on some gray and black, and then with pastel drew out this still life of the fish and eel."

Wineberg departs somewhat from this free, intuitive technique in "Giardino," an oil on masonite painting. In this interpretation of a wall fragment, there is more refinement and resolution, as well as exquisite color moving from smoky blue to burnt sienna.

When first working on this Pompeii series, Wineberg was uncertain of her choice of subject matter.

"I worried that these paintings might just be decorative because my subject was the decoration of that ancient time. Then I realized that the subject was actually time itself," she says. In fact, the visible journey of her picture-making, the application of layer after layer over a period of time, is a metaphor for her subject. While her early work presented a moment in a visual experience, these new pieces are abstractions of time.

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