A widely disseminated aerial photograph of a summer storm looming large over a vulnerable Manhattan served recently as a striking reminder—if one were needed—that natural forces are not only ungovernable, but also can turn violent at the drop of a millibar. In her first solo show at this pocket-sized space, local painter Karen Marston focuses on such potentially destructive events, attempting to capture something of the vast scale and frightening power of tornados and forest fires. The press release cites an anxious “post-9/11 zeitgeist” as the motivation for choosing such subjects, but as a further allusion to 19th-century landscape painting makes clear, Marston’s choices easily transcend the present. Whether or not the work itself stands alone is a harder question.
Marston’s handling is deft enough, and her compositions are nicely balanced between representation and abstraction, but there’s an overarching softness to her canvases that leaves one wishing for a little more bite; where they ought to blow the viewer away, these vortices never truly threaten. Unexpectedly, it’s a selection of small, quick studies made en plein air that are more unsettling. In Alien Green, a branch protrudes like a grasping hand from a toxic-looking pool, while Fallen Tree records, on an 18-by-14-inch panel, the tangled aftermath of some unidentified meteorological havoc. There’s an ambiguity to such scenes—and a spontaneity to their depiction—that raises questions about nature, catastrophe, humanity and the sublime more subtly and effectively than the twisters and infernos that surround them.