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‘Unsatisfied in the greatest way’

Mary Weatherford, “Ruby I (Thriftimart),” 2012, Flashe and neon on linen, 93×79 inches. (Courtesy of Site Santa Fe)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

From targets to the neon lights of Bakersfield, Mary Weatherford honed a unique practice fueled by overwhelming curiosity.

Open at SITE Santa Fe, “Mary Weatherford: Canyon – Daisy – Eden” is the first solo survey exhibition of the California artist’s work created between 1989 and 2017. As constant experiments in color, scale and materials, her paintings reveal the continuity of an obsession with memory and experience.

Weatherford’s expansive, gestural canvases overlaid with neon glass tubing first drew admirers to her work in the 2010s.

The artist places her large canvases on the floor, painting them from above à la the abstract expressionists Helen Frankenthaler and Jackson Pollock.

Weatherford screwed the rods directly into the canvas, connecting them with thin wires and creating a three-dimensional drawing on top of the painted background.

Weatherford’s 2014 painting “Canyon” features custom-made neon tubes bisecting the bottom of a canvas painted in a wash of vinyl paint.

“These came from a moment when she was making works in Bakersfield,” (California) co-curator Ian Berry of the Tang Teaching Museum and Gallery at Skidmore College said.

At the time, Weatherford was teaching, driving between Bakersfield’s California State University and her Los Angeles studio.

“She was reflecting on the neon lights of Bakersfield – the honky tonks,” Berry continued, “reflecting on the neon lights while she was driving around at dusk. The addition of neon really clicked for her.

“These neon lights are like another brushstroke or another pencil line,” he said. “She can move them around the canvas like another line. They make her work very unique in the world of painting.”

Weatherford’s earlier work of the late 1980s consisted of target-like imagery.

“They’re very large (82 inches square) circular paintings,” Berry said. “You really feel them in your body. They look like targets, but they come from her thinking about the circular timelines of tree rings.

“She was really fascinated by how these trees grow and keep a record of a forest fire or a drought,” Berry said.

Originally from Ojai, California, Weatherford earned a bachelor’s degree in art history and visual arts at Princeton University, and her master’s in fine art degree at Bard College. In 1985, she took part in the Whitney Independent Study Program, where she developed her earliest paintings. Some of these consisted of colored targets, and silkscreened images of flowers, vines and female figures named after literary heroines. In 2005, she started a pivotal series of paintings based on plein air (outdoor) drawings she made of a sea cave on Pismo Beach, a coastal area a few hours north of Los Angeles.

In 2012, she began the Bakersfield Project, her first series incorporating neon tubing, a new style that occupies her today. The colors and textures indicate shifting sights, atmosphere and mood, often evoking a specific time, locale and temperature, such as Greek seafood restaurant murals and liquor store neon signs seen while driving through the dusk.

“I think Mary is a great example of an artist who is unsatisfied in the greatest way,” Berry said, “an artist who is always looking to reinvent. I think that is a trait of a great artist. You can see that glorious unsatisfied-ness. It’s what I’m looking for when I’m looking for artwork I can look at over and over again. It rewards repeated viewings.”

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