Shelly Malkin’s first New York solo show, Mind Journeys, reflects the artist’s “hands-on” engagement with nature. Her confident, large-scale watercolors offer a bold new interpretation of the American painting tradition that seeks to express a transcendental attachment to the sublime in nature.
Malkin’s artistic vision has its roots in her New York City childhood. She grew up frequenting museums and galleries with her parents—dedicated collectors whose interests ranged from Greco-Roman antiquities to Impressionist and Modern paintings. Malkin was also stimulated by the cacophony of “neo-isms,” of the heady East Village art scene in the mid-1980s. As an Art History Major at Princeton University, Malkin studied the great painters, immersing herself in the formal tensions, brushwork, and compositions that gave their work weight. Her admiration of American painters ranging from Thomas Cole to Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper, inspired the young artist to focus on landscape.
After graduating from Princeton, Malkin moved back to New York to continue her studies, first at the School of Visual Arts and then at the National Academy of Design. At the Academy, she studied with Serge Hollerbach. A Russian émigré and figurative painter with a strong expressionist style, he encouraged Malkin’s free, confident use of paint and color. Of Hollerbach, she says, “He increased my visual sensitivity; the way I experience the colors, shapes, textures, and patterns necessary for the effective creation, evaluation, and aesthetic appreciation of art.”
In 1993, Malkin moved to Connecticut where she continued to study painting, first at the Silvermine Arts Center and then at the Renaissance Workshop of Dmitri Wright, an American Impressionist and member of the Cos Cob Art Colony. Malkin credits Wright with teaching her how to capture the atmospheric effects of light, as well as master what he refers to as “aqua-essence” techniques, which involve the layering of water soluble paints for different effects. Malkin continues to be drawn to the quick, spontaneous qualities of watercolor and is fascinated by its potential to become more and more luminous with each successive application of color wash.
Watercolor is the ideal medium to complement Malkin’s “hands-on” engagement with nature . An accomplished technical rock climber, Malkin travels the world in search of challenging cliffs and sheer rock walls to scale. Her point of view as an artist is influenced by her climbing practice; while holding her body at extraordinary angles, she looks down from dizzying heights and unorthodox vantages onto stunning vistas.
Chasm (2012) typifies the artist’s exhilarating bird’s eye view of the world—seemingly suspended between two giant rock faces, the tension is palpable in the narrow crevice. Malkin describes the experience of climbing as, “…getting out of your comfort zone. It requires total concentration and being in the moment…it is mentally and physically difficult.” She also admits, “When I am climbing, I can’t focus on scenery. So my watercolors are ‘flashbacks’ influenced by what I have seen. I want the works to have their own sense of equanimity and inner illumination. That is why I call them ‘mindscapes.’”
In works such as Light in the Fjord (2012), Malkin begins with the natural world, but then departs dramatically; first filtering experience through memory, and then further transforming it with her use of light and color. The result is a dream-like alternative reality. Malkin compares the act of climbing to that of creating a watercolor. For her, both activities involve courage and clear thinking. When climbing, quick, confident decisions are vital just like the swift, sure brush-marks that working in watercolor requires. In either case, a mistake can be catastrophic.
Turquoise Glacier (2011) is a more emphatic example of the artist’s distinct method of transforming her subject by merging bold technique and memory. Here, in a sweeping panorama, she moves away from straight representation. Boldly painted with a dazzling fluidity and in many variations of azure blue, Malkin creates a heraldic image by pushing her work into the realm of abstraction.
Malkin’s particular combination of the imagined and the real is also evident in her self-described series of “mystical” leaves. Clearly referencing nature, they are nonetheless a product of the artist’s imagination. Despite Malkin’s careful consideration of positive and negative space and the unique qualities of her materials, each leaf appears to be the product of sheer joy and spontaneity. Using iridescent pigments, Malkin captures light particles and energy through her seemingly effortless layering of translucent color washes. Her intent—“to create work that glows with inner illumination, and to illustrate the aesthetic, emotional and spiritual significance of light in our lives”—is deftly demonstrated in these elegant and animated works.
In both her intimate still-lives and wide panoramas, Malkin guides us willingly along her Mind Journeys.