Color exists on a spectrum—a prism of infinite shades from the deepest crimson to the softest yellow. It is up to the artist, the architects of color, to manipulate these hues to construct or even deconstruct the paradigm to create meaning, whether of the real or abstract.
Nancy Tuttle May and Bruce Bowan tend to prefer the more abstract. Now showing at downtown’s New Elements Gallery through Sept. 19, recent works by the artists are hanging side-by-side in an exhibition titled, “The Architecture of Color.”
Bowman, a Wilmington resident, is also an architect. A principal at Bowman Murray Hemingway Architects, the artist spends his days painstakingly drawing up plans and crunching numbers.
“I would say part of the reason I do the artwork is to keep everything in balance because the vast majority of what I do in my day job is not really creative—or it’s creative in the sense that it’s troubleshooting,” Bowman remarks. “My artwork is the antithesis. There are no rules that go with painting unless you want to make up your own rules.”
One rule Bowman has set for himself: Work quickly. The artist works wet on wet, and uses palette knives to scrupulously juxtapose blocks of primary and secondary colors in the same way Picasso famously used geometrics during his Cubism period.
“I don’t use a lot of intensity in my colors,” Bowman says. “There are not a lot of grey to blacks or browns—the pollution of other colors. I prefer to either use two primaries together or two secondaries but seldom three together.”
This calculated approach results in colorful representations of iconic Wilmington buildings and New York cityscapes, including those of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Bowman’s smaller rendering of the famous Upper East Side art museum, titled, “Guggenheim II” (18 inches x 18 inches, oil on canvas), features blocks of bright cobalt contrasted against the fleshy pinks and sandy ochre that construct the museum.
“When I finished my larger version of the Guggenheim, I felt like there was some unfinished business,” Bowman states. “I can’t remember a time where I painted the same thing twice, much less in the same show. I feel like the smaller version settled all of my unfinished business. I was able to capture the idea of the building in the least amount of lines and colors possible.”
Despite his modest opinion of the larger rendering (30 inches x 30 inches), both paintings of the Guggenheim are entrancing. The black line ties the two together.
“I typically put line work on at end,” he states. “It brings a whole piece into focus, like putting on glasses for the first time. The piece is now vibrant and even with a little tension.”
Tension, though, does not seem befit the work of May, who will often blend colors seamlessly across the canvas. This creates movement without the restrictions of precision or line work.
The Durham artist is a self-titled abstract expressionist whose use of color largely spans the spectrum, from blushes and muted aquas, to pulsating shades of vermilion and gold. While May’s work is not by definition representational, it’s not hard to find the influence of NC’s coastal scenery. “It’s Always Ourselves…We Find in the Sea…” (40 inches x 30 inches, acrylic and mixed media) was inspired by the famous E.E. Cummings poem “maggy and milly and molly and may.” It can be found on a yellowed ripped page, deftly breaking a wave of soft colors over what loosely represents a shoreline.
A devotee of the late American artist Helen Frankenthaler, May borrowed her idea of keeping a book of favorite quotes and phrases, sometimes even tearing the versus from books, magazines and sheets of music. May uses the scraps to create texture and depth, as well as to title her work.
“I like to go back to these quotes as a method of titling so I’m not too descriptive,” she explains. “When you look at abstract, I like people to see what they see and not be influenced by what I see. The completion of a piece is when a viewer sees something and they connect with it.”
New Elements Gallery owner Miriam Oehrlein agrees. The way you receive the work of Bowman and May is all a matter of perspective. “Both artists use color in completely different ways, but to pair them together really brings out the colorful nature of their work,” Oehrlein says.