Lisa Lyskava’s Sizzling, Visceral, Visual Jazz at Gelabert Studios

Gelabert Studios International Art Gallery, New York (USA), 2000

The relationship between Abstract Expressionist painting and jazz is a logical one, since both rely to a large extent on improvisation. It began in New York City in the nineteen forties and fifties, when there was a lively interplay between so called “action painters” and bebop musicians although the influence tended to flow more from music to painting, rather than the other way around. While jazz musicians had been improvising for decades, spontaneous expression was relatively new to painting, and artists such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline could often be found at night clubs like the Five Spot and the Village Gate, where they sought inspiration in the music of jazz performers such as John Coltrane, Theolonius Monk, and Charles Mingus.

The musical link carries over into the present in the work of the contemporary German painter Lisa Lyskava, who often listens to jazz while painting in her studio, and whose solo exhibition, “The Sound of Color,” can be seen at Gelabert Studios International Art Gallery, 255 West 86th Street (at Broadway), from November 10 through December 2. (There will be a reception for the artist on November 10 from 6 to 9 PM.)

In a time when other German Neo Expressionists such as Jorg Immendorf and A. R. Penck have returned to their roots in the figure, Lisa Lyskava has kept the faith of abstraction. Although she began exhibiting only a little over a decade ago, she has since had more than forty solo shows and been included in numerous group shows in Europe and the United States. In the latter regard, one of her most impressive exhibitions was in 1998, when the Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany opened its new residence at UN Plaza with an exhibition of her paintings.

In her new solo show at the elegant Gelabert Studios, Lyskava’s relationship to jazz is obvious in both the exuberance of her compositions and many of her titles, such as the large canvas called “jazzing Up.” Like all of Lyskava’s paintings, it is executed in mixed media; working primarily with acrylics, she often mixes in collage elements, such as bits of painted canvas torn from other paintings that she rejected and has “recycled,” or the kind of gauzy material that is used to make plaster casts, which hardens when water is added to it. She also occasionally mixes oil paints in with her acrylics to create especially rich tonal and textural effects.

Just as the working process she employs involves improvisation, along with more deliberate techniques, in compositions that often evolve over a period of months or even years, Lyskava has essentially two modes of painting: She alternates between gestural canvases notable for their energetic rhythms and color field compositions in which chromatic subtlety takes precedence over formal definition. “Jazzing Up” belongs to the former mode, with its bold white and yellow linear forms flowing over a deep blue and purple ground in what appears to be a poured paint technique akin to that of Jackson Pollock. Lyskava’s forms, however, are discrete rather than over all; they stand out distinctly and dramatically against the granular textures of the dark ground, twisting and turning in sinuous configurations that project a joyous sense of energy.

A splendid example of Lyskava’s opposite mode is the slightly smaller painting entitled “Flourish,” in which a radiant yellow field is enlivened by tiny red and blue strokes that create a dazzling neo pointillistic effect. In this canvas, Lyskava sets up an exquisite tension between the material and the ethereal, employing thick, tactile concentrations of pigment to project a shimmering sense of fight. The textural field appears to deny its own physicality, resulting in one of those magical contradictions that make the art of painting so endlessly fascinating.

Lisa Lyskava is especially adept at this kind of visual sleight of hand, for she is an adventurous experimenter whose risk taking often results in intuitive discoveries that can be startlingly beautiful, as in another large canvas called “Indian Summer,” where she combines elements of both her modes to create a composition of remarkable luminosity. While “Indian Summer” is primarily a feast of high frequency chromatic razzle dazzle involving the interaction of various fluorescent hues on a strident yellow field fiery reds, oranges, violets, and blues that fairly make one’s molars tingle with their electric intensity! it is also an energetically thrusting composition, as notable for its rhythmical power as for its coloristic qualities.

Created with acrylics, oils, and touches of crayon, its surface is scraped and scumbled to reveal layered complexities: delicious contrasts of transparency and opacity, of impenetrability and pentimento that engage the viewer on a sensual, almost visceral level. With its sizzlingly hot hues, boldly expansive composition, and various textural elements including large chunks of a sponge that the artist used to apply paint and then surrendered to the surface (as though they were literally yanked from her hands and claimed by the canvas in the act of painting!), this is an especially impressive tour de force.

By contrast, “From Time to Time” is a tribute to the late, great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, limned in subdued blue hues, with a horizontal composition that could almost suggests a landscape but escapes any such specific designation by virtue of its formal amorphousness. Like the music of the man who inspired it, this painting is possessed of an exquisite spareness and a poetic lyricism that contrasts sharply with some of Lyskava’s more frenzied canvases, even as it complements them.

Other paintings such as “Song of Venus,” “Time Out,” and “Crossing the Line,” display various other facets of Lisa Lyskava’s virtuoso visual musicianship. While her painterly pyrotechnics range from angular gestural strokes reminiscent of Kline or de Kooning, to juicy impastos and vibrant colors akin to Hans Hofmann, her sheer joy in improvising, as well as her melodic way with form and color, also calls to mind the work of musical artists such as Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, and Eric Dolphy. Indeed, “The Sound of Color” is an apt title for this exhibition by a painter whose musical inspiration appears to inform and enrich her every stroke.

J. Sanders Eaton, Gallery & Studio, New York (USA) 2000