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The love of significant form

The paintings of Cathy Noto

I reviewed a group show more than a year ago at AFA called “Locus Focus.” It was my first review as an art critic. All of the artists shown were students or former students at Marywood University. I got one of the artists works named wrong and have been embarrassed about that ever since. Cathy Noto was one of the six artists in the show.

I have often remembered the quality of all those artists’ creations, and maybe my favorite work of the show was Noto’s “Caitlin Sondej.” So when I ran into her at a professor’s house for an art party and saw one of her works there that I again liked so much, I told her I would review her paintings sometime. Now is that time. She is a very bright and interesting young person with a developed vocabulary; she responded instantly to my proffered “omnipresence” with her own “ubiquitous”!

First a little background on this interesting and talented artist. Cathy was born in Scranton and has a bachelors of fine arts from Marywood and is applying to graduate schools. She studied under Professors Steven Alexander and Mark Webber — who also writes in this space — at Marywood. They are both very fine artists, and from the quality of their students and reports, they must both be great teachers as well. Her work, superficially at least, resembles Mark’s work more, since Mr. Alexander’s work is more geometrically abstract than Cathy’s. Some textural aspects of her work might refer to Alexander’s indirectly, though.

Ms. Noto also lists some of her influences on her Web site ( cathynotopaintings.blogspot.com) as Joanna Catalfo, Nava Lubelski, Ceasar van Everdingen and Claerwen James. Cathy is also influenced by the Bay Area Figurative Painters.

She spent the summer of 2006 studying fresco-style painting in Florence, Italy, but oils are still her first love. In addition to figural work she also does pure abstracts and is a talented photographer to boot. She has shown her work at Mahady Gallery at Marywood, AFA and in New York City at Prince Street Gallery. There will no doubt be many more superb galleries to come.

She has split her recent time in Sweden as well as in America.

She is very interested in the aesthetic theories of both Clive Bell and Roger Fry, who were friends with Virginia Woolf. Both emphasized pure form and the relationship of forms to each other and color as an instantly intuitive way of understanding the problem of art. Bell called this “significant form.” In other words, in a historical work like Grunewald’s “Crucifixion,” it is not the fact that it is about Jesus Christ that made it great at all, only the proportions between the forms and colors. Although I am very much in harmony with this idea up to a point, I will return to it later in regard to her own work, which I think is often deeper with meaning than a purely formalist interpretation would allow or simply account for. Deeper than the artist might, herself, be aware of consciously.

She states that she “is primarily interested in color relationships.” To me, this seems only part of the truth of her work. She also states that she works from photographs of her family and friends but does not think of her work as portraits. I understand why; it is a limitation often on art unless one is given great freedom as in Schiele’s “portraits.”

Her best work, I think, is her figurative work, but her abstracts are also very good, and some are reminiscent of Arshile Gorky. Her work, I would say, is in the expressionist tradition, at least in part. So Van Gogh and Munch must be rattling around in her work somewhere.

Her work also can be quite realistic in a way, too, as with her “Caitlin Sondej” (see online article). At least realistic compared to someone like my work, for example, though not to Richter’s photorealistic paintings. And this is true of much of her other work, too. “Caitlin Sondej” is realistic in that it is obviously a man and woman at a wedding with a bridesmaid. And in “The Forester” it is obviously a wonderfully executed painting of a man sitting and having a meal.

The Caitlin Sondej painting stuck in my mind unlike many paintings one sees and quickly forgets. However, after looking at more of her work, I decided I like some of her even stranger pieces even better yet. I say “stranger,” for I feel that even in her more clearly figurative work there is a lot going on — more than just colors and shapes. A feeling of time passing, of minds present, sometimes possibly touches of angst even. Moods, I mean — not just gorgeous oranges and blues and fine textures though, those are all there in an abundance of riches.

This is even more obvious, however, in the two paintings I have chosen here, where I think she expertly synthesizes her abstract and figural work to a near perfection. I have often in my reviews suggested that artists who do both abstract and figural work should attempt a synthesis of both types of work. The two works shown here are great examples of what I mean and have often hoped for.

Both work superbly as formalist works, and the colors, as in so much of her work, are really fantastic, too, especially in her “Cyclops.” But what feeling do you get from those eyes looking at you from both of these paintings? Or should I say “eye,” for you can only clearly see one in “Lotus Eater.” And “Cyclops,” of course, only has one, but not an obvious one in the middle. In fact it looks like maybe he even could have two, or one is blind, or maybe “cyclops” refers to something more than just visual sight. Maybe it means more of a spiritual vision. Maybe even a positive single vision.

I like the ambiguity of the background shapes in both of the images, especially in “Cyclops” in the upper left. Is that a dark, spiritual being of sorts rising up?

Her textures are powerfully graphic, too; you can even see them on the computer with rich impasto at times. She is very assured and therefore can risk a lot in some of her last powerful brush strokes — or in some cases I suspect that she is dragging paint across the canvas with palette knives, trowels or her hands. She paints with passion and I assume would be uncomfortable having people observe her in this most intimate of mergings with her own deeper self.

Her work is literally evocative. I spent some time going through histories of art to find associations on the edge of my consciousness that I could not quite get at. In all her various works, and maybe in just one particular abstraction of a single work, I was reminded of radically different types of artists she never mentioned online or in our hour-plus-long interesting talk.

So here goes, maybe some of this will resonate with Ms. Noto, her teachers or readers: Cezanne, Derain, Otto Dix, Van Dongen, Gorky and Frankenthaler (only for her pure abstracts!), Seurat, Degas, David Hockney, and most important is the feeling I get, say, from Balthus’ 1968-76 work “Katia Reading,” but that would only be in her most detailed work, like “Caitlin Sondej”. That’s a lot of evocation from the relatively few works of art I have seen of hers. And that evocation is what makes art great and mysterious, and yes, plain fun even!

Cathy Noto is a great painter and no doubt will be a greater one still. Push the envelope, Cathy. A lot of people wouldn’t want a “Cyclops” over their couch, because it might scare them, but they’d love “Caitlin Sondej.” Heck, a cyclops might scare me! But that’s why your (and others) work, though significant, is more than Bell and Fry’s theories of significant form can allow or account for.

Your work is very significant and has great forms — not only those of shape, texture and color, for I think you have really painted forms of mind.


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