Swamp Water in the Veins

What's most striking about "The Water's Edge: A Painting Installation by Margaret Ross Tolbert" when you first view it is not so much the content of the exhibition as the way it's displayed. The nearly 150 six-by-eight-inch panels that make up the show, now at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, are all mounted at the same level, about five feet from the floor, on the walls of three interlocking galleries. The panels are also unframed and unevenly spaced. Some range from a few to several inches apart, while others are grouped in clusters of two to five contiguous panels. In one gallery a single panel is mounted vertically rather than horizontally -- a jarring touch that only emphasizes how similarly all the other pieces are positioned.

Although no discernible organizational scheme is at work here, I'd wager that Tolbert has specific, if slightly obscure, reasons for assembling the show the way she has. Maybe she simply wants to establish her own idiosyncratic rhythms with the irregular spacing, just as she clearly goes after certain effects by juxtaposing panels that contrast in both content and execution.

Most of the panels are two inches thick and covered completely with stretched canvas, often with the paint spilling over the edges and onto the sides. Other pieces are painted on thin plates of coated steel. Some panels are densely clotted compositions, while others have a spareness that brings to mind the elegant simplicity of traditional Asian art. All are abstract to one degree or another, though occasionally there are identifiable elements.

The overall effect is that of a seemingly endless painting that wraps around the walls of the three galleries to form a sort of sinuous Msbius strip of pigment, canvas, and steel. There's no beginning and no end, just a fluid stream of imagery that continuously refers back to itself.

How fitting, then, that Tolbert's subject matter, here and elsewhere, is water and the diverse forms of life it supports. The pieces that make up "Water's Edge" were all seen and painted at Spruce Creek in east central Florida, which runs through property owned by the Nature Conservancy and managed by the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach. During 1997 and 1998, Tolbert set out in a canoe loaded with the tools of her trade and attempted to render in paint what she found along the waterway.

In an artist's statement (posted, tellingly, both at the entrance to the exhibition and at its ostensible "end") Tolbert explains that she originally intended to paint the enormity of the area by working on large canvases, the better to capture the grandeur of the towering cypresses and palms and giant ferns found there. Then, she says, she realized that the big, showy plants "are but a sideshow to the real business of this swamp environment along the water's edge, where the black waters of Spruce Creek meet the muddy banks. The minute plant and animal life of the translucent world at the water's edge shows the elementary forces of the swamp ecosystem.

"Instead of large canvases, I changed my tack: I would study the 'electricity' that drives this enormous ecosystem by working very, very small."

The results are so dramatically different from the works for which Tolbert is best known that, at first, it's a little difficult to reconcile the two styles. For the past decade or so, the artist has worked on typically large-scale oil canvases that plumb the mysterious depths of the natural springs found in abundance in central and northern Florida.

With those images Tolbert is the painter as scuba-diving impressionist, plunging into the crystalline water, mesmerized by the radiant light that moves through it. In the "Water's Edge" installation, too, she's fascinated with light and liquid.

But here, as she acknowledges, the environment she's exploring is characterized as much by the absence of light, or at least its scarcity, as by its presence: "Even the midday light does not pierce the eternal twilight of [Spruce Creek's] jungle growth." Then she begins to take note of the subtleties of the shimmering light as it penetrates the dense foliage along the creek.

"The riverbank is a receding soft blackness, chocolate truffle earth glistens when the sunbeam hits it," she writes. "The beam of light delicately probes and passes on, picking out tiny roots, brilliant green shoots, flames in the darkness; mahogany and purple shadows in port wine waters.... I inch along in the canoe, arm's length from this water's edge where all life seems to appear and be extinguished as the slow searchlight beam of the sun passes along the bank."

I quote extensively from the artist's statement because Tolbert has a scientist's eye for detail coupled with a poet's sense of how the details add up. It's helpful to keep in mind this clarity and precision while looking at the images in the installation. There are no individual descriptive titles to the panels that make up "Water's Edge," no clues to their origins and intentions other than Tolbert's words.

It makes little sense to approach the pieces here as related-but-distinct works, the way we might think of the pieces in a more typical exhibition. Tolbert achieves her effects by accumulation. Individual panels may stand out for different reasons -- a set of especially evocative brush strokes here, a beautifully balanced composition there -- but the emphasis is always on the notion of the pieces as fragments of a much larger whole. Like the components of the ecosystem that is her subject, Tolbert's panels are inextricably linked.

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