Shelly Malkin’s recent work spans worlds of place, scope, and scale—of locus and focus—encompassing the familiar and the exotic, the local and the global, the large and small, the close up and the pulled back. Created over the last half decade, the luminous watercolors comprising her second solo exhibition bridge not just geographic and compositional realms but also conceptual ones, from limpid Far Eastern reveries to dusky Eastern Seaboard elegies to fantastical Lepidoptera—butterflies—of her own imagining, artifacts of a keenly observed journey through a world at once entrancing and embattled.
Disparate as the components of Malkin’s work may seem, they are cohered by a common concern for the places and things they envision. A passionate environmentalist, Malkin understands the radical interconnectivity of nature and its systems, and the real and present implications of their mishandling. In portraying both ends of the continuum from placid tropical paradise to the home front ravages of a hurricane intensified by global warming, her imagery underscores the essential truth that each is but part of a larger whole which we as custodians have both a practical and an ethical obligation to protect.
An assured watercolorist, expert rock climber, and devoted environmental activist, Malkin’s commitment to all three is telling, and despite appearances similarly of a piece. Watercolor, the most challenging artistic medium, whose transparency makes overpainting impossible even as its fluidity renders it difficult to control, is a pursuit that demands exceptional concentration and allows no mistakes—much like advanced technical climbing. Moreover each brings the practitioner into intense engagement with the physical world, a communion in Malkin’s case fostered by broad travels in search of rock faces to climb, and paint, and thereby to care for and about. Avocation, art, and advocacy thus combine, one inflecting and reinforcing the other in a synchronous, virtuous cycle.
The title of this exhibition and the layout of its catalogue, each of the artist’s devising, seems likewise expressive of something larger—a worldview, perhaps. Of Paradise, Storms & Butterflies begins in utopia, in Thailand on the Andaman Sea, where Malkin traveled recently to climb, including at Ao Nang Tower—a “stack” or steep rock column isolated by erosion from the coastline. Ao Nang Tower at the Summit deftly captures the vertiginous view from the top, looking down to azure water. A nearby beach supplies the subject of Phra Nang Daze , whose title and fluid execution evoke the dreamy escapism induced by exotic locales. Yet there is an underlying structure and logic at work in the near imperceptible division of natural elements—sand, sea, sky—into ascending layers of aqueous wash, whose similarity offers a metaphor for their essential union in an ecological totality, with interdependent systems of evaporation and humidification, carbon absorption, and partly shared compositional structures.
Malkin takes us from paradise to another, more dystopian world in the After Sandy series, which along with other works produced in the aftermath of that anthropogenically Supercharged storm brings us emphatically back home. The artist’s extended meditation on broken trees as symbols of environmental disequilibrium in these darker, more tonal images contrasts poignantly with the preceding tropical hues. After Sandy #10 depicts a storm-blasted trunk of the sort Thomas Cole painted to evoke nature’s sublimity, but here it takes on a different cast as evidence of natural systems gone awry, dominating the composition to the complete exclusion of the ameliorating signs of living nature that Cole inserted into his designs. Yet there remains an appreciation for the beauty and regenerative capability of even this compromised world, in the color and calligraphic energy of In the Woods, or the way the delicate shoots in The Wrath of Extreme Weather seem as much roots as branches, reaching back to rejoin and reanimate the severed trunk. Ablaze and Mist and Wildfires, evoking recent conflagrations in Yosemite National Park where Malkin has also climbed, push this symbolism further, as fire traditionally connotes not only destruction but also regeneration and renewal.
With Look It in the Eye , whose double-entendre title introduces us to imagery inspired by satellite photographs, we are encouraged to focus on extreme weather in a global sense. Eliciting, like the Sandy series, both appreciation and concern, these paintings are at once alluring and foreboding. The same could not be said of the butterflies with which Malkin concludes her sequence of works. Plausibly real, they are in fact the product of her creative fancy, celebrations of diversity and possibility. The whorls of color on many of their wings relate to the churning swirl of the images preceding them, just as their collective title, Butterfly Effect, refers to the notion that a small thing—the flap of a butterfly’s wings—can result in large effects elsewhere, even a hurricane. Everything is connected, and actions matter, the juxtaposition seems to say. Indeed, this is the larger message immanent in Malkin’s intentional concatenation of works. That it ends in butterflies, symbols of transformation and rebirth, injects a note of future hope, just as the images before express appreciation, awareness, and concern for the natural world.
“Eventually all things merge into one,” Norman Maclean ends his lyric novella about family and fishing in Montana, another destination for the artist, “and a river runs through it.” Malkin understands the deep unity of matter and spirit that Maclean is here evoking. A river of sorts runs through her work as well, and we as beholders of it in some ineffable way understand this, too.
— KARL KUSSEROW
Karl Kusserow is the John Wilmerding Curator of American Art at the Princeton University Art Museum. He is currently working on Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment (2018), a traveling exhibition reexamining 18th-21st century American art in relation to issues of ecology and environmental history, as well as preparing a catalogue of Princeton’s American paintings and sculpture. He attended Wesleyan University and received his Ph.D. from Yale University.