Reviews

John Blee at Cross MacKenzie

by Ari Post, The Georgetowner

For John Blee, painting is poetry and color is its language.

“Color determines the voice of each painting,” he says. “It can never be exactly repeated. So when I find the right colors in the process of painting, they are like keys that open the works for me.”

His recent work, on view at Cross MacKenzie Gallery, 1675 Wisconsin Ave. NW, expands his “Orchard” series, which began in 2007. These lush, atmospheric environments of color and delicate shapes are a sensory envelopment, recalling the painterly geometric abstraction of Hans Hofmann and the alluring garden scenes of Pierre Bonnard.

Yet Blee finds much of his inspiration in poetry. The origin of this series is connected to the late French poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, specifically his collection “Vergers,” (French for “Orchards”).

Regardless, his paintings are for those among us who adore the secret life of paint itself. They are for those who lean in close to explore the trails of the brush, tracing its path and listening for the echo of colors scratched gently across the taut canvas. For this writer, paintings do not get much better. These are paintings I would like to live with.

John Blee at Cross MacKenzie

by Mark Jenkins, Washington Post

Veteran D.C. painter John Blee calls his recent paintings “The Orchard Series,” a reference to a Rainer Maria Rilke poem that exclaims “we want to ripen.” Another influence on the color-field abstractions, at Cross MacKenzie Gallery, is a childhood spent mostly in India. The subcontinent’s heat radiates from Blee canvases that favor red and orange.

The paintings feature squares and rectangles, loosely and thickly rendered, on expanses of a dominant color. The juxtapositions range from subtle to brash, as when a lime-green block infiltrates the mostly scarlet “Anton’sOrchard.” One thing these pictures don’t evoke literally is an orchard, with its splashes of fruit colors against a leaf-green backdrop. That would be too pastoral for Blee, whose compositions have an urban energy.

 

Orchard Suite

by Anastasya Partan

They wanted to bloom
and to bloom is to be beautiful.
But we want to ripen,
and for that we open ourselves to darkness and travail.
– Rainer Maria Rilke

In his latest series, Orchard Suite, Washington artist John Blee explores new spatial and emotional dimensions. The works vibrate with Blee’s signature palette, composed primarily of life-affirming, spring blossom hues – although several of the works dive into deeper, nocturnal shades, reflecting a darker, profoundly sensual state. Each canvas is a testament to Blee’s ability to use form and color to build perfect tension: in the end, all the actors on his stage – no matter how diverse, numerous or unexpectedly arranged – balance and create an unlikely harmony that keeps the eyes engaged, alert, amused. The compositions themselves are more geometric than Blee’s work to date, experimenting with linear forms and nearly cubist elements – yet retaining Blee’s otherwise organic foundation with its asymmetry and playfulness. In a sense: playful geometrics against a backdrop of abstract, luminous sky-and-earth-scapes.

Visually striking and magnetic, the Orchard Suite commands the viewer’s full attention. The series’ more geometric aspects and the movement from smaller (and at times nearly disguised) to more dominant elements create a new level of depth and dynamism in Blee’s oeuvre, enticing the eyes to dance back and forth, delving deep into the details of the abstract landscape, then quickly zooming out again to take in the seemingly moving whole – and guess at the artist’s vision and intent. One cannot seem to stop gazing and searching. The varied parts of each canvas tug at one another to create an unlikely balance and playfulness, leaving the viewer uplifted and fulfilled, with an unmistakable joie de vivre.

Of the process of creating the Orchard Suite and the new direction in which it has taken his work, Blee says: “I am here with the work and it ‘comes’ to me. I am the recipient as much as anyone else.” This sense of unplanned urgency and spontaneity is integral to the series. Like spring blossoms, the moment of creation is fleeting – and the result unpredictable and beautiful. Emotionally and aesthetically, Blee creates something that seems fresh and new – yet we are aware of feeling something we’ve felt before, seeing something that reminds us of what we already know.

Not surprisingly for an artist who has always found great inspiration in the works of poets like H.D., the Orchard Suite series began with a reading of Rainer Maria Rilke’s orchard poems. Rilke wrote: “Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night.” That sound and sense of release carries through the Orchard Suite, as the works deal with the process of transformation that occurs both in life and in art, from dormancy to flowering and ripening. Other influences on Blee’s recent work include Paul Klee’s Magic Squares, Hans Hofmann, Pierre Bonnard, as well as Helen Frankenthaler. The Orchard Suite’s vibrant, contrasting color composition is in part drawn from Indian miniatures.

Blee spent a significant and formative part of his childhood in India – an experience that has permeated and defined the way he views the world around him and, in turn, how he expresses his experience through painting.

 

John Blee

by F. Lennox Campello

Some of our area artists need little introduction, either by the number of years that they have been leaving a powerful footprint upon our area (giants like Manon Cleary, Joe Shannon, Sam Gilliam, William Christenberry and others), or by the sheer power and magnitude of their recent accomplishments (such as same building neighbors Dan Steinhilber and Tim Tate).

And then there are artists, whose accomplishments and skill and creativity, rather than their “fame,” make them a significant part of our area’s brilliant cultural tapestry.

One such artist is John Blee.

Before I discuss Blee’s current exhibition (titled Fragments and closing this Saturday at Susan Calloway Fine Art in Georgetown), let me tell you a bit about this talented and valued member of our area’s art tapestry.

John Blee has exhibited his work widely in New York, Boston, and in Washington, D.C. (where he used to exhibit at the Jack Rasmussen Gallery, back when Jack had one in the last century, so you know that Blee has been around and paid his dues).

He studied with Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Moskowitz, and Blee’s art is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others.

For many years Blee was the fire and fuel behind Georgetown’s Spectrum Gallery, and his guidance and influence have been in no small part responsible for Spectrum’s success over the years that it has been a Georgetown fixture. Furthermore, a few years ago, Blee became the galleries art critic for the influential Georgetowner weekly newspaper, whose coverage of DC area galleries, incredibly enough, now outnumbers the Washington Post’s by two to one.

Fragments is Blee’s second solo in the last two years, following an exceptional show in 2004 at One World, and Fragments reaffirms Blee’s position as one of the leading abstract painters in our region.

And how is F. Lennox Campello, leading defender of figurative art and long-winded aficionado of all painted things, come to this conclusion?

Part one is a decade of observing this (and dozens and dozens of other artists’ works though countless gallery visits). Part two is realizing that although Blee is an abstract painter at a first glance, experienced eyes nonetheless can readily see where he intelligently employs an illusion of figuration in his color rich world. Part three is being seduced, little by little over the years, by a sensual brushstroke that shouts out the true power of painting.

Study Duo and River Games and Still Life Sketch and discover the ties that bind this exceptional painter to the never ending army of defenders of the genre. Blee is a painter’s painter and it is because of work like his, that we will never ceased to be seduced by what a talented brush can do to a blank canvas.

Bravo John!


Fragments

by Anne Surak

John Blee brings many facets of understanding to the world of art. He is a painter, teacher, critic, and writer. In this most recent body of work, Fragments, he has drawn upon the literary inspiration of such poets as Saint John Perse, Sappho, and Hilda Morley, whose poem “Autobiography,” describes the way the author sees and interprets the world as if through “windows” of reality and abstraction throughout life.

Blee writes, “Knowledge comes through the fragmentary experience of life itself. This same momentary realization can be found in the openness and reflection in the act of painting. Painting is a search for knowledge.”

Blee’s artistic references are as far reaching as the words that inspire him. He calls upon art ranging from Indian miniatures he saw as a child growing up in Southeast Asia to the paintings of Bonnard and Matisse, both of whom used the window as a device to create an interior break in space in their compositions.

Each intimate work evokes emotion by juxtaposing expressiveness and softness through the colors and forms. The uniform sizes of the canvases act as windows themselves, which direct the eye towards the shades and textures that are central to each composition and set the tone for each piece. Though a singular canvas often evolves over a period of months, each work captures a fleeting moment that also compels contemplation.

In his criticisms, Baudelaire emphasized that all art, whether it is painting, poetry or music, springs from the memory of the artist and speaks to the memory of the viewer. John Blee touches upon this notion through his series of thoughtful and expressive abstract works. The layered compositions resonate with moods and feelings that are as richly ambiguous as the textured color spectrum from which they are made – visual poetry that plays directly on the observer’s emotions.

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