Gallery explores the abstract

July 19, 2007 
MIDDLEBURY — In a near silent gallery at the Middlebury College Museum of Art, Rebecca Purdum took a step closer to see the intricate overlay of colors in paintings she completed recently. She knows a painting is good, she said, when it surprises her, when she no longer thinks of herself as the one who created it.
The three abstract oil paintings, which went up late last month, hang one to a wall — two horizontal diptychs each stretching more than 10 feet across and one massive vertical piece — filling the space between with a kind of visual noise. All three are made up of what the artist calls “non-colors,” layers of blues, grays and browns, which come together to create something akin to water.
The layers are so intricate, you’d never guess Purdum painted them with her hands in rubber gloves.
But the Ripton artist has done it that way since she was a student at Syracuse University when she threw away her brushes because she wanted to paint a bigger painting to fill the space around her.
“It wasn’t very big at first — probably 7 feet by 4 feet — but the brushes I had, it was just going to take forever to cover it up,” she said. “So I just scooped up the paint and put it on with my hands.”
Since then, her gloved hands have created hundreds of abstract paintings, which hang in private and corporate collections around the country and have been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, among others.
But in 13 years living in Addison County, she has never before had a show in Middlebury.
“It’s very exciting for me,” Purdum said of the chance to show her work at the college. “I was just really thrilled when (Emmie Donadio) invited me to show here. It’s a great opportunity,” she said.
Donadio, the museum’s chief curator, who referred to the artist as “a world-class painter who just happens to reside in our midst,” had long been familiar with Purdum’s work and helped her select the three paintings on display.
The show is concurrent with the college’s “Modern Times” installation, and will remain open through Aug. 12. Purdum will give a gallery talk on Wednesday, Aug. 8, in the museum.
Purdum and her husband, Tom Moran, a professor of Chinese at the college, came to the area in 1994 after 11 years in New York City. Purdum’s work depends on contemplation and being alone, she said, so city life wasn’t the perfect match. But it was there that her career as a painter solidified.
Purdum talks about her paintings with detachment and awe. Standing in front of one piece, aptly titled “Passenger,” she explained how her art often takes on a life of its own, carrying her along for the ride.
“Every painting starts the same way: I take whichever color I happen to have the most of — it doesn’t really matter which color it is — and I put it on, all over, equally,” she said.
When the painting calls out for more space, she adds another panel.
“There’s a point where the painting meets me halfway,” she said. “I’m really no longer in control of what’s happening on the surface and what I’m doing there. Really the painting is dictating what’s coming next.”
In that sense, she said, painting is a process of release.
“I like to call it a kind of surrender, because every painting is a battle of your own will, your own ego, your own expectations,” she said. “Even after hundreds and hundreds of paintings you still have expectations and you fight that all through the length of time it takes to do the painting, and at some point the painting really does become stronger than you and you just have to surrender.”
For Purdum, who went to college with plans to become an illustrator, abstraction was a way to get directly to the emotion of an image. ‘
“I remember whenever I was drawing a nude or a still life, there was that sense of gravity,” she said “The weight of the figure had to be real for me, so real that I felt like whatever it was, it would step off the page. Just the process of trying to get that realness brought me into abstraction because I started to take away everything that didn’t contribute to that reality.”
Still, gazing into “Passenger” at the college gallery, Purdum looked surprised to see what she had painted.
“I think for a viewer, looking at the paintings is also not an unfamiliar experience,” she said. “If you’ve ever seen something that is so marvelous that you actually stop thinking about what you’re going to do next, that you’re so into what you’re looking at that you’ve forgotten yourself — everybody’s had that feeling. It’s a unique experience and it’s one you pursue over and over again every time you start a new painting.”

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