Review in Artforum Magazine by Eli Bittencourt, February 2024

The relative compactness of Clare Woods’s exhibition “Silent Spring” belied an intellectual vigor and formal vitality that made it feel downright sprawling. The eight small to medium-size paintings in oil on aluminum, produced between 2020 and 2023, were all landscapes or still lifes. In its probing quality, the show hinted at an artist attuned to nature’s—and things’—instability yet skeptical of the mind’s fitness for the daunting task of accommodating itself to that flux.

The exhibition’s title may not have alluded directly to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book on environmental degradation and chemical waste, but the reference could not be easily brushed off when considering a brooding landscape such as Twice Breathed Air, 2023. In mauve, blue, and granite hues, Woods depicts an ice-capped mountain ridge, the faded sun licking it lazily while a storm brews overhead. Her mastery in maintaining a fine balance between precisely drawn shapes and loose, evocative brushwork can often be breathtaking. The painting’s title brought to mind Heraclitus’s adage about the impossibility of stepping into the same river twice, but with a somber overtone: In our postindustrial age, we can’t separate the knowledge of nature’s inconstancy from our awareness that we are standing on the brink of an ecological precipice.

“Silent Spring” also hinted at Woods’s existential concerns, not only transmuting forms by stripping down and then rebuilding images taken from photographs, as she often does, but also capturing stages of atrophy, conveying the impermanence of the material world. There is an unmistakable feeling of transience in The Sleep Walker, 2023. Woods paints a wilting bouquet whose white petals give off a deathly glow, which brings to mind her use of a camera’s flash in her earlier contrasty paintings. But the picture is subtly luminous and flowy, with wet, drippy daubs of paint, so that the whole conveys an uncanny fluidity, not to mention a sense of redolent ripeness. Another bouquet, in Garden Without Seasons, 2023, though anchored by the jutting corner of a solid table, nevertheless occasionally turns molten, suggesting the slickness with which oil paint glides on metal, offsetting opacity with sheen but also making the scene ripple before our eyes, somehow unknowable. 

A tiny painting, Soft Peaks, 2023, seems to resume the craggy pinnacle of Twice Breathed Air, but this time it’s actually the crown of a trifle topped with cream. In its tongue-in-cheek contrast, the jump cut from an ominous winter mountainscape to a lumpy foodie delight is delicious indeed. Another “confusion,” of body and landscape (or, rather, weather), plays out in the sumptuous Vagus Nerve, 2022, its title referring to part of the parasympathetic nervous system. Here, woolly clouds, ranging in hue from cobalt to coal black, menace a lick of cotton-candy skies, the horizon (if any) implied by a lime strip in the painting’s lower edge. The work makes visible the mantra that breath regulates body chakras; gazing at nature, we’re literally looking at the stuff we’re made of. 

In New Problems 8, 2020, Woods turns to homier yet no less urgent themes by using a tablecloth’s brocade as a visual Rorschach test. Captured from a bird’s-eye view, the scene flattens out; the cloth’s Prussian blues deepen to sooty blacks below a horizon line. As the eye travels up and down this homemade landscape, the geometric pattern’s color and shape correspondences unspool, resulting in a picture that’s not quite as orderly as the central motif might at first suggest. I walked away thinking that, to Woods, rendering vision in paint is a deductive riddle, a perennial problem, its proofs never guaranteed.

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