Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?… Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.” – from the Salteaters, Toni Cade Bambara
Mariane Ibrahim is pleased to announce the inaugural solo exhibition with Carmen Neely entitled, Sometimes a painting is a prayer. On view from May 26 through July 8, the show is shaped through interwoven dimensions of intimacy, generosity, and risk, with Neely presenting her largest scale painting to date in conversation with lithographic prints of her personal journal pages and several works on paper.
A sharp line in dark plum traverses from the edge of the canvas and cuts through a melding of glazing brushstrokes. The emotional release of catharsis is often accompanied by an acute self-awareness, in its wake the hope of relief. Amidst this intense expulsion of feelings is a longing to regain some semblance of control. It is a part of healing. It is a part of living in a world that demands productivity while too often overlooking holistic wellbeing. It is soul work and as Bambara’s quote advises, it is difficult to hold. Carmen Neely’s paintings grapple with these interior landscapes, generating visual languages of sensuous gestures and decisive lines, while integrating asemic writing with legible text.
Neely’s exhibition Sometimes a painting is a prayer materializes the interwoven experiences of intimacy, generosity and risk that shape her interior emotional and psychic life by debuting her largest painting to date in conversation with lithographic prints of personal journal pages and several works on paper. Standing at almost 33-feet in length, and 8 feet in height, Caught a glimpse is the sole piece hung in the main gallery, establishing a space of quiet that asks the viewer to attend to the sinuous, detailed renderings spanning its five panels. The painting eschews definitive readings, much like our continuous, non-linear aspirations toward wellness and the arduous exercise of finding ourselves again after heightened emotional release. Each life is fragile, threatened by its own ever-present capacity to break, and the lurking fear that rupture may not be followed by repair. In her work, Neely explores these complex, at times competing realities.
Painting directly onto exposed canvas, in Caught a glimpse Neely has chosen a palette that both references previous work in her dialogue of muted pink, hints of sap green, vibrant magenta, burnt sienna, and bright bursts of crimson red, while also venturing into more cool and subdued tones of lavender gray and charcoal slate. She leaves swaths of the canvas bare and heavily incorporates a beige color similar to the cotton-linen surface, emphasizing her consideration of negative space while asking the viewer to face this openness with their own. These sections with no paint are not empty, but rather beckon extrapolations into the work. In our conversations, while I hesitated to characterize Neely’s palette as feminine, she countered that there is a power in identifying her color choices this way, because the expansive visual language of femininity remains both overlooked and underestimated. Her prioritization of softer tones connotes a maturity, one that invites but does not overwhelm the viewer.
Neely’s works do not seek resolution, instead creating a chorus of continuous and discontinuous gestures to negotiate uncertain realities. While writing is a vital component of her practice, the painterly marks are not structured by distinct discursive meaning, emerging alongside a constellation of characters with grammatical allusions that often appear in her work. Her lyrical overlaying gestures disrupt transparency, the intricacies at times challenging to follow. Notes of calligraphy in graphite are interspersed throughout Caught a glimpse, occasionally blurred by oil paint to create redactive moments that linger in the mind’s eye like suggestive whispers.
Neely has described her experience of painting as “permeated by eroticism.” The erotic, thinking with Audre Lorde, is a mode of consciousness and appreciation of pleasure in its varying forms, one rooted in a “deeply female and spiritual plane.” Neely’s process channels her energy into a choreography of brushstroke gestures, shifting from delicate and tenuous to densely thick. The smooth texture of the oil paint on the canvas compels closer investigation to better ascertain the depths of color. The scale of Caught a glimpse requires you to step away and view its entirety from a distance. However, the lure of Neely’s dynamic strokes incites a desire to approach the piece, tracking the movements of her gestures with your eyes, or bringing your finger near enough to hover above the canvas, and with child-like freedom, trace her marks. Where are you drawn to?
Sometimes a painting is a prayer ushers Carmen Neely into a new territory to envision the scalar expansion of her work. A long bench faces the painting which allows the viewer an opportunity for a quiet encounter, perhaps accessing possibilities through prayer or losing oneself in the vastness of the piece. She engages the frame of the canvas not as a limit but as an intentional enclosure that asks you to sit with what is found within the edges, and, perhaps, even imagine what exceeds them. In Caught a glimpse, Neely creeps towards the perimeters, signaling to the potential breach of boundaries in her future work. For the first time, Neely is also sharing her writing through a series of framed lithographic prints displayed in a smaller adjoining room. Each print is a duplicate of the original page dimensions with the faded brown color of the paper, and the left edges maintain the distinct tear marks like the originals pulled from Neely’s journal. The prints combine the poetic contemplations that enliven her work with small ink gestural drawings.
In the same room are eight oil paintings on paper, a continuation of the study in the cooler palette of grey and beige. Two pairings of the gestural paintings Neely is known for are hung beside more pronounced line works that both distinguish themselves from other pieces in the exhibition in their stark candidness, and are clearly interconnected to her larger oeuvre. With the inclusion of these pieces, the artist further illustrates her conceptual range into abstract minimalism, defying any expectations based on previous work while proposing another lens to perceive her work. She is not only concerned with gestures in elaborate entanglements, but also in its fundamental qualities, stripped down. All in conversation, these works illuminate the profound range of Neely’s intellectual and visual pursuits.
This essay opened with Toni Cade Bambara’s question on what it means to be well and the immense weight that comes with the aspiration to make oneself whole. Sometimes a painting is a prayer is an offering and an inquiry, beautifully evoking Carmen Neely’s embrace of risk and the generosity imbued in her practice.
Text by writer, curator and scholar Gervais Marsh, Ph.D., “Gestures of Interiority: Carmen Neely’s Sometimes a painting is a prayer’”