A Better Place

Marcia Goldenstein's new work combines the best of many worlds

Marcia Goldenstein has been teaching painting and watercolor at the University of Tennessee for more than 30 years. Her aerie office studio on the fourth floor of the school's Art and Architecture building has a pleasant, lived-in feel. She stores work there, although she paints mostly at a home studio in Fountain City. Goldenstein's large personal archive is full of wonders. With subjects ranging from landscapes to figures to streetlights to maps, most recently, she manages to make what might otherwise be mundane seem intimate and personal. She reveals and withholds just enough details to make a passer-by break stride and become involved.

"I like to work in series," Goldenstein says. "Here's a series I painted last year of streetlights in my neighborhood."

The oil paintings are 10 by 12 inches, and capture a dreamy twilight that is most assuredly Fountain City in 2007 but could be almost anywhere in America during the last half-century. They are slightly nostalgic and slightly romantic. The poet Lisel Mueller wrote, "The world is flux, and light becomes what it touches." Goldenstein's gloaming night lights demonstrate that nicely.

"Once I was able to hang these together, they looked to me like a constellation," Goldenstein says.

Nearby hang variations of the same works—which bear no resemblance.

"What I've done is put them in Photoshop and inverted the colors," Goldenstein says. What were once mercury vapor flares in limb-shadowed skies are now cool cobalt galaxies spinning out and away from muted abstract nebulae. If they weren't hanging in an artist's studio, they might pass for microscopic medical photography, or those slides physicists project when they say, "We've never seen a neutrino, but we can see where they've been."

The room illustrates what we might as well call the Goldenstein Effect: Each painting is lovely alone. It takes on added meaning by being near others of the same series. And two related series together can fairly mesmerize the viewer. The introduction of computer manipulation into her oil painting appears to be representative of Goldenstein's process. Sometimes she has very precise results in mind; other times she just wants to see what will happen.

The series currently on display at Bennett Galleries began with hand-me-down maps. In between the gift of maps and the delightful works on show there has been screen-printing, photography, creasing, computer manipulation, Xerox, and oil painting.

"Someone had given me a bunch of maps after I'd been to Bratislava," Goldenstein says. "I didn't know where these places were. Some of the places have German names. Some have Italian-sounding names. Rather than trying to relate to the actual places, I made them fictional places."

The maps have been processed by Xerography or photography or computer color tricks. Added are the odd koi or fighting fish or warbler or floral detail, copped from classical art or more pedestrian handbooks and encyclopedias. If a favorite detail is diminished or lost, Goldenstein replaces it or enhances it with brush and oil.

"It's a heat-activated printing process," she says of the foundation. "The surface is very plasticy. I couldn't draw back onto them, so I had to paint back onto them."

The result is a wonderful combination of color, imagery, and negative spaces. These pieces might be time-lapse ultrasound images of Earth collected by satellites. They might be representative of the way the brain files related but dissimilar visual information. It's a collage process, but these things undeniably belong together, and gain power by association. They are lively and festive, and remind the viewer of that outermost layer of tissue in which cheap Chinese firecrackers are wrapped.

Goldenstein has already completed a collection of larger oil paintings which will exhibit at Bennett in May. Technically landscapes, they might usher into use the term skyscape. She photographs (from airplanes) and paints topographical contours from all over, giving them something very close to anatomy. Above those, using the vast majority of any canvas, she paints fantastic skies, from photographs and memories of her native Nebraska. (She met her husband, Tom Riesing, who also teaches painting at UT, there.)

She accomplishes through art what every imagination strives to do—be where you are, see what is there, then add with your own sensitivity and intellect whatever is required to make it ideal for you.

Showing concurrently at Bennett through Nov. 29 is terrific new work by Robin Surber and Andrew Saftel. If Bearden is not part of your daily travels, consider this uncommonly fine group show cause for diversion in the next few days.