Concordance amidst variety, paintings by Dona Nelson, Emily Davidson and Zachary Rawe at Atelier Art Gallery

Kate Brock reviews "House and Travels," paintings by Dona Nelson, Emily Davidson and Zachary Rawe. Though each artist's painting style and subject matter is distinct, their handling of color and paint reveals their connection: Davidson and Rawe both studied under Nelson at Tyler School of Art, and they all share an interest in breaking down the hidebound categories of "abstraction" and "representation." Organized by the artists themselves, Kate Brock says this is a "stubborn, delightful group of paintings," on view at Atelier Art Gallery through April 15th.

Landscape painting of a tree-lined railroad leading into hills, which are stylized as flat textured planes of color, on a washy blue-white sky.
Donna Nelson, “Mountain Road” (2003), included in “House and Travels – Dona Nelson, Emily Davidson and Zachary Rawe” at Atelier Art Gallery. Courtesy the artists.

On view at Atelier Art Gallery is a stubborn, delightful group of paintings undergirded by mutuality in a time of collective uncertainty. House and Travels is an artist-organized show of paintings by Dona Nelson, Emily Davidson, and Zachary Rawe. Though comparatively wild in their variety—Rawe’s text-based works next to Davidson’s abstract-architecture next to Nelson’s homage to her mother—the 26 paintings have real chemistry.

Rawe and Davidson both connected with Nelson at Tyler School of Art, where she has taught since 1992. The artists share a concern with how the fold between abstraction and figuration might be undone and revealed to be part of the same cloth. They are also generous with the conversations they’re having with theory, or other artists, mentors and mothers, fungi, and modernism. These borrowings become itineraries from which to depart or float around in while absorbing the range of painted responses across each of their bodies of work.

Nelson’s career-long push at painting’s formal and material edges is a thru-line in her three works included in the show. In ‘Mountain Road,’ thick pinkish marks glint along a lumpy road. The shapes of an autumn landscape, simplified and strong, frame a large blue mountain in the distance. The painting is a transcription of a much smaller painting by the artist’s mother, Opal. The original hangs next to Nelson’s version, which functions as a kind of riff on modernist master-copies but also as an earnest study of her mother’s work. In Opal Nelson’s paintings, the gray and blue, and yellowish strokes are more diffused; it’s a gentle mountain, framed by gradations of trees.

On the left, four paintings hang on a gallery wall, featuring scenes of barns, wood work, and trees at night and during the day; on the right an abstract colorful two-sided painting hangs on a metal stretcher, with purples, yellows, green, on raw canvas.
Installation view, “House and Travels – Dona Nelson, Emily Davidson and Zachary Rawe” at Atelier Art Gallery. Courtesy the artists.

‘House and Travels,’ Nelson’s two-sided gestural abstract canvas (and the show’s namesake) cuts through the second room in the gallery at a diagonal. Like many of her two-sided works it sits on a steel stand. Yellow and red-violet pool around blues and greens, layered with opaque white medium. On one side, cheese-cloth ridges have been glued to the canvas, outlining a structure of seams that read like a house, a window, a frame.

Directly across from it are Davidson’s two 2021 paintings, ‘House Construction’ and ‘House Window Frame,’ in dialogue with Nelson. They are two views of a house part-ways open to the sky behind, the wooden frames forming a grid within the rectangle of the painting.

The construction of a painting—its body, stretcher or cradle, brushwork—often gets lost in the language around image. It’s clear that for Nelson, Davidson, and Rawe’s respective trajectories, building with precision allows for spontaneity later down the line.

Landscape painting of a tree plotted in grass that's contained inside of a square cement barrier, with gestural suggestions of a red-roofed house and trees in the background.
Emily Davidson, “Mercado” (2021), included in “House and Travels – Dona Nelson, Emily Davidson and Zachary Rawe” at Atelier Art Gallery. Courtesy the artists.

Many of Davidson’s paintings have fluid boundaries between recognizable forms and much murkier territories of color and brushwork. In ‘Mercado’ (2021), a large tree penned in by ironwork is surrounded by pockets of careful, lush strokes. The architectural logic of boundaries holds in her more vegetal paintings, in surprise inversions of transparent yellow green space as in ‘Macedonia Road’ (2021), or in fleshy branches surrounding white blooms in ‘Ghost Flowers’ (2021).

Moving between internal and environmental space, Rawe’s paintings often end up somewhere that isn’t quite either. In the case of the series, ‘A Dialogue on Growth (with R. Morton and J. Halberstam)’ that space might be nothing. The phrase—“UNRULY NOTHING MIXTURES”—repeats on gray grounds framed by motifs Rawe cites as borrowed from a Ree Morton drawing. There’s a subtle sheen to the thickness of the oil paint in the nothing-paintings that reminds me of the mica dust from Wissahickon schist.

Abstract painting of a textured gray square on a black background; inside of the square says "UNRULY NOTHING MIXTURES" in blocky black text.
Zachary Rawe, from the series “A Dialogue on Growth (with R. Morton and J. Halberstam),” included in “House and Travels – Dona Nelson, Emily Davidson and Zachary Rawe” at Atelier Art Gallery. Courtesy the artists.

As a declaration, or invitation, the nothingness is appealing. Paintings are themselves unruly mixtures, nothing direct in the sense of value. Rawe’s second set of work is a series of 2020 paintings: scrappy mulberry trees, an owl against gridded dense foliage, or a cat with a bloody mouth. They are small panels, speaking to the intimate slowness of work made during a pandemic.

House and Travels unfolds incrementally, with the connections between paintings emerging subtly through the handling of paint, color. The show is paced by the sentiment or hope that in ‘unruly nothing mixtures’ there might be a kind of composite squishiness between worn out binaries i.e. artist/outsider, abstract/figure, painting/surface, front/back, borrowed/original.

If there were a house of painting, its rooms are as spacious and multiple as we can imagine.

“House and Travels – Dona Nelson, Emily Davidson and Zachary Rawe,” March 18th – April 15th, 2022 at Atelier Art Gallery, 1301 N 31st St Suite 2, Philadelphia, PA 19121. Closing Reception: April 15th. Gallery Hours: 12:00 – 4:30pm Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays