by Bruce Halpin
Mona Brody’s show “Portals, Apparitions and Other Voices" at the Watchung Arts Center presents an effulgent excursion into the Sublime. I mean this particularly in a specific formal sense as well as the more commonly understood connotation: beautiful to the point of ineffability.The beauty of the paintings is what strikes the viewer immediately and emphatically. The other sense of sublime requires some explanation.
In her seminal text on American painting of the Nineteenth Century: “Nature and Culture", Barbara Novack identifies two distinct aspects of the sublime, what she refers to as The Grand Opera and the Still Small Voice applied variously to artists such as Fredric Edwin Church and Fitz H Lane; Church obviously representing the grand opera and Lane, the still small voice. These two aspects of the sublime play back and forth throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and now into the 21st. Examples of the two might include Pollack, Rothko, on the one hand, and say, Agnes Martin or Forrest Bess on the other. Of particular significance is Bill Jensen whose early work, much influenced by Ryder, served as a jumping off point to his current painterly explorations. Mona Brody’s work is very much of the grand opera scheme, although the influence of nature in her paintings temper that. Edmund Burke, the 18th century revivalist of the sublime emphasized “Astonishment" and the transformative potential of the experience as being central to the sublime. Ms Brody’s paintings express that sentiment to the extreme. Her use of unconventional materials (shellac and raw pigments) implies a sensibility searching for extreme expression, as if mere paint and canvas could not alone supply the super charged effects she is seeking. The application of those materials also suggests a kind of “take it to the limit" feeling of these paintings. As Burke also suggested, beauty is not the proper vehicle for extreme and mysterious experience, a sense of transcendence is needed for the sublime to operate.
Viewers seeking a profound experience, touching on mystery and imagination, owe it to themselves to see this show.
Mona Brody: Portals, Apparitions and Other Voices, curated by Paul Pinkman, at Watchung Arts Center, 18 Sterling Road, Watchung, NJ, runs through October 22, 2023.