By Michael O'Sullivan, Published: November 14  2013


The elements are astir at the Athenaeum, where a five-artist exhibition offers up an array of images of earth, air, fire and water aroused. Tornadoes, volcanoes, storm-tossed seas, flame and smoke — these are the subjects of “Portent,” a fine little showcase of work by Sukey Bryan, Freya Grand,  Kate Kretz , amy Marx and Ryan McCoy.

It is not, however, a show about nature. Or rather, it is not only about nature.

Take, for example, what may be the most dramatic work in a show that’s all about drama: Marx’s virtuosic rendering of storm clouds, called “Clitoris of the Goddess Kali.”


Best known for her paintings of storms, which have been featured on the Weather Channel, Marx is interested in both physical energy and something more ineffable. Kali, a Hindu deity often depicted as violent and angry, represents both destructive and creative potential. Marx seems to suggest that terrible storms, like the goddess Kali, are double-edged swords that both cut down and clear the way for change. Marx also contributes “The Dark Fantastic,” a painting of a black twister, and “Impending,” an image of ocean surf before a storm. Rendered in simple bands of horizontal color, that last piece is almost pure abstraction, but it evokes a real sense of awe.

Less overtly poetic is the work of Grand, a painter who dominates the show with 12 pieces, ranging in size from six inches square to 40 by 68 inches. Her theme, for the most part, is water, with one exception:Ecuador’s Tungurahua volcano, which has popped off several times this year, as recently as this month.

As a portrait of nature’s power, “Tungurahua” is not the show’s strongest candidate. Bryan’s four volcano-themed images convey more raw emotion, particularly her “Lava and Storm Cloud 2,” which features expressionistic spatters of bright orange lava flung, Jackson Pollock-style, against a violet-gray backdrop of roiling clouds.

Grand, on the other hand, knows water. Her large-canvas “Storm” — featuring angry waves crashing on black rocks — is one of the show’s most feeling-ful scenes.

Kretz is in a category by herself. Working in silverpoint, an archaic drawing technique that leaves fine, ghostly metallic lines on a gessoed surface, the artist has created miniature pictures of tornadoes on the concave surface of two ordinary tablespoons. The images are barely an inch wide (you have to get right on top of them to see them), but their message packs a punch. That’s because of Kretz’s delivery, which harnesses the metaphorical power of an ordinary household object to domesticate nature’s fury.

The artist’s point is less representational than conceptual. She’s interested in disturbances that aren’t atmospheric so much as familial: divorce, death, dysfunction and other transformative dynamics.

For Kretz, a tempest in a teapot can be just as devastating as one on the open prairie.

The Story Behind the Work

Ryan McCoy is the only photographer in “Portent,” but, like Kate Kretz’s work, his pictures aren’t exactly straightforward.

Known as a painter of large, mixed-media works that incorporate such unorthodox materials as ash, seawater, rust, pine needles and baby powder (as well as paint), McCoy is interested in the emotional associations viewers take away from his abstractions — associations that arise not only through texture, smell and color, but also through knowing or sensing where his materials come from.

The four photos in “Portent’ come from McCoy’s “Burn” series, which documents the artist’s ash-creation process, conducted through controlled burns in a pine forest. McCoy also recorded sound and video of the process, which he used in earlier art installations. For him, the acts of destruction and creation are intertwined. 

The works at the Athenaeum are nice, but they’re only part of the story. To see examples of McCoy’s finished paintings, check out his excellent solo show, on view through Sunday at Long View Gallery.

— Michael O’Sullivan