Northern California-based oil painter Sandy Ostrau doesn't want to create a narrative with her work. "I incorporate design, composition, and figurative elements to support a feeling and a time and a place, but it's not too descriptive," she says. "The viewer reads what they want into my art."
The West Coaster first connected with the Meyer Vogl Gallery — owned by Marrisa Vogl and Laurie Meyer and run by Meyer's daughter, Katie Geer — via Instagram. "Katie messaged me and asked if I'd be a part of the gallery's abstract show. I'm not an abstract painter — I'm very much on the fence between representational and abstract work. Plus, I didn't think I'd be able to turn around a whole new body of work between November and March. But I said, let's do it."
The Meyer Vogl Gallery is a relatively new face in the Charleston gallery scene, but Vogl and Meyer have been active in the Lowcountry arts scene for 32 years, collectively. "Our goal going into this was to create a space for all kinds of art," says Vogl. "We don't feel the need to stick to one genre of painting; we want to include work in the gallery that excites all of us." Tucked into the French Quarter on Meeting Street the gallery space, albeit airy and bright, is not very large. "We have to be selective with guest artists," says Vogl, "and we knew we wanted Sandy." Ostrau's paintings were exactly what they envisioned for the gallery's first abstract show. "She's used to taking a very physical thing, like people in the landscape, and trying to reduce that and scale that down to something for the viewer," notes Vogl.
This reductive technique is the backbone of the RAW exhibit. Vogl, who paints both impressionist and abstract works, says that to get to that intuitive abstraction, she often uses her plein air paintings as a starting place. She points to a plein air painting of camellias in her garden as an example. "So in this corner, here, we have cools, warms, lights. That was the composition I wanted to capture." Her final abstract piece looks nothing like the reddish pink camellias; the organic shapes are given a geometric, hard edge, and the warmth of the original is now transmuted to a deep, purplish blue. But the feeling of the piece is the same, like a petal from the camellia floated off, landed in another time and place, and took on a life of its own. "We titled the show RAW because that's what I'm doing. I'm taking something very physical and trying to strip it down as much as possible so we can expose that raw beauty."
The rawness doesn't have to be harsh or empty says Ostrau, it's the vulnerability that matters, "I don't want to see pretty, glossy, refined. I want each of my pieces to show a struggle. But still, there's a calmness." For Ostrau, evincing raw emotion, which may happen frenetically or very carefully, is the end goal of her process. "Paint application is a huge part of my work, I want there to be imperfections, bumpy paint, spots that look too thick. I want it to feel like maybe I could work on it more. I want the viewer to see the struggle, that it's not precise."
Precision, though, can be hard to shake, says Vogl. "[Abstraction] allows us to loosen up and break the rules. But when I paint abstractly those rules are still ingrained in my head. We know what's going to happen when we put certain colors together, what atmosphere we're going to create. The struggle is how do you let go of that control."
For participating artist Susan Altman, letting go of that control has become easier and easier with time. "When you stand before a canvas and you take the risk of putting something on that canvas for all to see, it's a big risk." The late William Halsey, a famed Charleston abstract expressionist, was a friend and mentor to Altman; "he taught me that there are no rules. Just enjoy yourself. He didn't encumber me with the fear of failure, which we are all paralyzed by. He reduced that fear." Altman, who left the world of art for 25 years to pursue a successful career as a realtor, has returned, and with a fury. "My risk-taking is at an all time high," she laughs, "I only want to tackle something if it's a challenge." The artist, who loves German expressionism, often uses collage and the juxtaposition of "unlike things" in her pieces, sometimes creating three different works that she paints over, "many times I'll decide 'well, I learned a lot, but this is not where I want to be,' and that comes out in the final painting."
Altman says she has had arthritis since her 20s, but she's never let that stop her from painting. "When my friends lament, oh I'm sore, I'm hurting, I tell them well, I'm celebrating." Altman's abstract work for RAW taps into this celebratory attitude, "I've become more comfortable with color, and you see that in my new pieces. I still have perspective, angle, juxtaposition, but there's a lot more frivolity, playfulness. It's raw in terms of being emotionally honest. When people see it I don't need for them to understand something about me, I hope they will understand something about themselves."