Nina Ozbey: Postmodern Abstraction Informed By a Sense of the Past

Written by: Wilson Wong

Aside from such notable exceptions as Joan Mitchell and Grace Hartigan, few woman artists were admitted into the boy's club that was the New York School nucleus of the Abstract Expressionist movement at its inception in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Not that worthy woman artists were not plentiful; it's just that the misogyny was such among male artists in the postwar years that they were pretty much ignored, except as wives and girlfriends unless, as in the case of Mitchell and Hartigan, their mastery of the supposedly masculine domain of so-called "action painting" made them impossible to dismiss.

There seems no doubt, however, that had the Oklahoma City painter Nina Ozbey, who now lives and works in Earlysville, Virginia, been on the scene in New York City at that time, her work would have passed muster as well. Or at least that's the impression one gets from previewing the work Ozbey will exhibit at Agora Gallery 530 West 25th Street, from July 22 through August 12. (Reception: Thursday, July 24, 6 to 8pm.)

One can only speculate that the authenticity of Ozbey's style has to do with the fact that, rather than merely imitating the mannerisms of those early New York School painters, as many others have done since, Ozbey went the whole route, evolving in a similar manner to the artists whose work she emulates, builds upon and extends into the postmodern era. For she began as painter of still life and landscape in watercolor, before she eventually switched to oils, eliminated subject matter, and took up her present gestural mode. And like many of the best of the Abstract Expressionists, though she gave up subject matter, she retained the allusiveness that lends her forms, laid down with a welter of slashing strokes of color that she layers and brings to vigorous gestural crescendo, a sense of life and movement.

In canvases such as "Royal Flush," "Tracks of Time," and "Over the Ridge," for example, Ozbey invests her compositions with a sense of natural phenomena and what the New York painter and critic Fairfield Porter once termed "the immediacy of experience." Although, as their titles indicate, such paintings do not dwell in specifics, they appear beholden to emotions and events, and seem as if inhabited by phantom presences, in much the same manner as the paintings of such second generation New York School artists as Robert Goodnough and Alfred Leslie.

Like the good abstractionist that she is, Ozbey speaks primarily in terms of form and gesture, saying, "By letting go of subject matter and switching to oil, the process of painting became more enjoyable. I take pleasure in making marks. These marks create spatial relationships by virtue of their color, weight, texture, and value. My work is intuitive; beginning with one stroke of the brush, leading to another and another. I want the opportunity to explore where the painting takes me rather than where I take the painting."

The raw, romantic energy inherent in her muscular strokes, suggesting vestiges of nature and human anatomy, hinting at a simultaneously reverent and rambunctious relationship with the great art of the past, makes Nina Ozbey seem a legitimate heir to the revolutionary movement that first put American painting on the map

Image Credits: Royal Flush, Oil on Canvas, 40" x 30"

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