at Artemisia, through July 31

After seeing Eileen Walter-Greene’s show at Artemisia I went to the library to learn more about the Cooper’s hawk; Walter-Greene had been given a wing by friends, and has made it the subject of her recent paintings and drawings. In a book on birds of prey I came across a photo of a Cooper’s hawk flying straight toward the camera, its wings fully outstretched. The photo’s caption–“Last view of the world for many a small bird”–indicated the brutal transformation the hawk was about to set in motion: some unsuspecting creature was fated to end one life and begin another as nourishment for the hawk and its young.

In her quiet, contemplative studies of the hawk’s wing, often shown hung by a thread from a nail and surrounded with cloth, Walter-Greene also brings about riveting transformations. Some of her paintings are simply objective studies that describe the wing’s shape, structure, and coloration. In these, the wing’s new, rather mundane role as an object for visual study seems far removed from its original powerful function. In other paintings, those that treat the wing more abstractly and expressively, it takes on a mysterious aura, transformed into a symbol of inner, spiritual movement.

Like certain Dutch still lifes immortalizing fruit, flowers, animal carcasses, and other perishables in an eternal present (while for the viewer time marches on), Walter-Greene’s paintings of the solitary wing, stripped of its glory, remind us of our mortality. But her pictures have none of the ruthless realism characteristic of such paintings, where every feather and hair of artfully arranged rabbits and hens, every glistening drop of blood and crawling fly is precisely delineated. Her approach is far more romantic. In Icon, a small-scale oil on wood panel, the hawk’s wing–a strange blue-black shape with blurred edges–hovers like a storm cloud in an overcast sky over a more thinly painted grayish brown background. Dim, soft light illuminates the feathers’ patterns of light and dark just enough to identify the shape as a wing. Small moments of drama–such as a tiny stroke of red at the wing’s right edge–reward close viewing, complicating an image that at first seems extremely reductive.

Throughout the series Walter-Greene (who lives and teaches in Savannah, Georgia) remains within certain design parameters: her compositions are invariably simple, utilizing only the Cooper’s hawk wing, lengths of cloth, and occasionally one or two other objects; with few exceptions her palette is limited to browns, blacks, grays, and white. Yet there’s no dulling sense of repetition; on the contrary, she’s achieved enviable expressive freedom within these self-imposed limitations. Consider the simplicity of Cooper Hawk Wing I, a monochrome oil painting on paper in which the centrally placed wing hangs by a thread from a tiny nail. Using the most minimal means–thinned-out burnt sienna, restless strokes of brush and rag that both apply and remove color–she creates an intriguing illusion of fluttering movement wholly at odds with our knowledge of the wing’s stilled state.

Just the opposite happens in Lightness of Being, a small painting on panel. Here the wing, attached again to a nail by a long vertical thread, rests easily at the bottom of the panel. A beautifully rendered soft yellow light flows across the cloth-covered background, picking out cottony white highlights in the wing’s short feathers. Once again, as in Icon, a tiny element is crucial: here it’s the nail and thread, which, echoed by the cloth’s vertical folds, invite the viewer’s eye to travel back and forth through the light-filled terrain. The wing seems at peace with its grounded state, transformed into a symbol of serene acceptance.

Light–from the familiar daylight of Vermeer’s interiors to the mysterious, ethereal light of Agnes Martin’s grids–is the element of painting most resistant to verbal explanation. Describing it is one thing, saying what it communicates quite another. Which makes it especially difficult to articulate the effect of Walter-Greene’s paintings–she proves herself a master of light, fully exploiting its expressive potential. In the stunning Solace the sunlight that pours through the wing and white cloth as they hang in front of a window renders the limb fragile and almost weightless, whereas the lack of light in Beyond Gravity, dominated by deep blues and blacks, gives the roughly painted wing a brooding, melancholy character. Sometimes the light Walter-Greene creates is completely inexplicable, as in Illumination, a small panel painting in which the wing, surrounded by swirling, agitated strokes of dark blue-green and black, seems caught in a futile attempt at flight. The underlying white gesso glows through the thinly painted yellow-green wing; like a firefly it appears to be its own source of illumination.

Not all of Walter-Greene’s paintings are as compelling. Some are competent, well-seen renderings but don’t progress much beyond factual recording. Others, such as A Wing and a Prayer, with its just-extinguished candle stub, strain self-consciously after poetic effects. Yet there’s something to be said for her decision to include in the show each phase in her study of the Cooper’s hawk wing–a conte crayon drawing, quick oil sketches on paper, fully fleshed out, realistic renderings in oil on canvas–for we see that without these the supremely expressive small panel paintings like Icon and Illumination wouldn’t have been possible. She generously invites the viewer into the process of creativity, showing us how through repeated study a single object can accumulate layers of meaning.

Eventually, if you stay with these paintings long enough, the cloth, the nail and thread, even the wing become unimportant. All that matters is the profound state of inner silence they produce–an unexpected and not at all unwelcome experience here amid the clatter and hustle and humidity of Chicago in July.