Inflection Point

“What credit would snow deserve for being white if its matter were not black, if it did not come from the depths of its being to crystallize into whiteness?”
—Gaston Bachelard

MAYBE IT WAS THE SHOCK OF REPEATED PLUNGES INTO THE ICY WATER of a frozen New Hampshire pond, but standing there, gasping at the edge of the open hole I’d cut that morning, I found myself suddenly transfixed by this extraordinary black trapezoid. I’ve been cutting holes in ice like this for years, but for whatever reason that moment was the first time I really saw it. And I recognized this familiar shape suddenly in many different and new ways. Mesmerized by the kaleidoscopic colors of refracted light at the sawn edges of this blackish hole, I recalled my father, just hours before he died, sharing his vivid memories of harvesting ice as a young boy in the 1930s on a similar New England pond. I saw it too as an element of painting—a neural branching of a painter’s family tree of works beginning with those of Gustave Courbet, extending to Kasimir Malevich, Agnes Martin, and ultimately to Ellsworth Kelly, whose liminal drawings and vivid shapes had already grafted themselves onto my mind. Finally, I saw it for what it was—a hole in a lake.

This avanto—a hole cut into the ice, the opening for a bracing plunge into the frigid water following the extreme heat of the Finnish sauna—now seemed impossibly rich. It was beautiful, but replete with all the contradictions that word has come to connote: simple and deep; protean and manmade; darkly black and filled with color; concrete and transitory; real and symbolic. This moment clarified something I’d already known for years: trying to affix beauty to any meaning was a misguided endeavor. When confronted with such an elemental shape, plunge into it—literally, of course—and then paint it. Confront its meanings and contradictions. Investigate its striking contrast and endless dialogue with an icy landscape within which it is at once so rigidly fixed, and yet of the moment, destined to melt away.

Then—it’s over. Winter, that most fragile of seasons, isn’t long enough. And therein lies the problem with painting snow and ice: seasons change. My subjects disappear just as I’m hitting a stride and the season’s work starts to cohere. It seems winter, in all its forms­—ice, snow, and cold—can only be understood during winter, when the extremes of contrast insist on a strange marriage of naturalism with something quite the opposite of real. Snow is the key element in this equation, where details of familiar places, textures, and colors are lost to a new and unstable surface. If the Ice Cuts explore an opening in the veneer that separates an inside and an outside world, another on-going series—Mountains—limns a further expanse of our fragile outer world. One that is as tenuous in our minds as it is in actuality. The Mountain paintings aim to “unfix” beauty and the sublime by loosening them from their mooring in reality with the intervention of another topography—expanses of white paint.

In the warmer months, as I work through paintings of other subjects, my curiosity for the Ice Cuts and the Mountains lingers. When I return to these subjects anew each winter, as I have for ten years, my process and approach grow increasingly specific. I now tend to stare at the avanto for a long while.  The prismatic effects of light and reflection change from moment to moment over the course of the afternoon. These shifts reveal how, at certain times and under particular conditions, one described thing is simultaneously itself and its opposite. It’s an inflection point, an exchange—that moment when a curve, or form, shifts from convex to concave, or vice versa.

Last winter, the Ice Cut paintings hung together for the first time at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art. The exhibition gave me the unusual opportunity to reflect on the progression of this series from their experimental beginnings and over the decade that followed. Though captivated by the varied colors in the ice, it is the dominance and absoluteness of that shape that still hypnotizes me.

These subjects have brought about an attempt to mediate the tension and sensation between the viewer’s relationship to the painted world and within the physical world. Pursuing this tension requires a manipulation of the observed, an intervention to the very moment, where what is seen and what is imagined are one in the same—the point of inflection. Seen together the Ice Cuts and Mountains register two physical and imaginative extremes—one outwards and the other inwards—and converge at yet another inflection point.

Lingering recollections of my father’s ice harvesting stories, compelled me to include the date of the Great Depression in the parenthetical titles of the Ice Cuts (1929, 1930, 1931, and so on). Simultaneously, these titles become a reference to that same period in the timeline of Modernist art in which similar shapes were also becoming liberated from their sources in nature. These broad personal and art historical narratives merge with an exploration of extreme environments, in which landscape, employed as a trope, forms an extended tableau reflecting on time, observer effects, and the extremes of contrast embodied in open shapes and expanses of white—those strange interstices where naturalism and the unreal cleave to one another. Like a painted mountain, or a hole in a lake.

Eric Aho

December 17, 2016