What Lies Beneath

Sydney Yeager finally brings abstractions to the surface in her art

<i>Ordered Suspension</i>, 2001
Ordered Suspension, 2001

The faint whiff of the studio permeates the D Berman Gallery, where Sydney Yeager's paintings ring the walls. These eight paintings are new for Yeager, and not just because the vapors of oil paint still smell so fresh. They represent a departure in the artist's work, a potential turning point.

The new paintings are full-blown abstractions, without the drawing scrim of figurative images that made Yeager's work instantly recognizable for nearly a decade. Floating on the surface of the paintings, the light, linear drawings at times obscured the real strength of the paintings: the abstraction beneath.

The 1985 painting <i>Big Catch</i>, with fish shapes that prefigure the abstract shapes in Yeager's 2001 paintings.
The 1985 painting Big Catch, with fish shapes that prefigure the abstract shapes in Yeager's 2001 paintings.

The new paintings pulse with life, as squiggle forms, cloud puffs, or oyster shell-shapes dance, mass together, and jostle about, teeming with a sense of purpose. These paintings no longer flirt with the decorative and no longer demand to be read from the drawings.

The drawing scrim Yeager relied on always resolved the paintings, pulling them in from varying degrees of chaos beneath. Yeager says that an underlying theme to her paintings is the ever-shifting balances between order and chaos, representing a metaphor for life. This artist is not interested in the illusion of an orderly life that does not admit to chaotic forces at work in the world. Order and chaos are always in dialogue with each other, with order having the tougher row to hoe.

In past paintings, order is threatened by the forces of chaos; at times order is "on the brink of disintegrating," as Yeager puts it. Now, a delicate balance is reached in which order and chaos are even, and life is at work, unselfconsciously producing the next step. It is these moments that many of the new paintings seem to be about: one thing on its way to becoming another, as the crest defines a wave before it breaks and rejoins the sea.


In the new work, the focus has shifted from gazing about, where one sees things from a distance, to seeing things close up or experiencing something in close proximity. In Ordered Suspension, little golden, glowing squiggly forms cover the canvas in an organic mesh. The marks generate from the movement of the wrist painting and are a cross between punctuation marks -- commas and apostrophes -- and baby caterpillars. They could be something we view under a microscope, something that might be growing on rocks in a grotto, writ large. The forms are unaware we are watching, not in a voyeuristic way, but in the way we encounter the secrets of nature as they occur.

Another painting, Translocation, contains a sense of natural processes we can't quite see, like water evaporating, or tides shifting. Here the palette, ranging from creamy whites to deeper green-grays, combine with the forms, soft swirly shapes massing in an upward, vertical movement, suggesting watery references -- sea foam, or clouds coalescing, changing from one substance to another.

"Paintings," says Yeager, "are never one thing or another. It's a piece of cloth with color and pattern on it, but it is something more than that."

Natural Progression

While this exhibition marks a shift in Yeager's work, entailing a departure from a way of making images that has sustained her for nearly a decade, it all feels like a natural progression. Much is still familiar. Yeager loves pushing paint around. The action is still on top of a heavily worked, textured surface, as Yeager has painted out more paintings on each canvas than you see in the entire exhibition. There are many layers of paint you can still see through, but space is still shallow. You can't see far through the opaque thicket. Instead of a drawing scrim, there is a field of forms. Yet the experience for the viewer is different, and the painter has opened up a new set of options for herself.
<i>Wish</i>, 1996
Wish, 1996

In a way, Yeager doesn't leave things behind, she transforms them. Take for instance Yeager's wriggly apostrophes, commas, and question marks. One could see them as a vestige of her interest in literature, or her childhood, which was peppered with stories and tall tales. Yeager grew up in East Texas, and she remembers "being able to tell stories was a social must." She surprised herself, while looking at slides of older work for this article, by seeing the relationship between the little fish in Big Catch, dating from around 1985, and the wriggling forms in Ordered Suspension.

While earning her MFA at UT-Austin, narrative and figurative art were flourishing in Texas. She was influenced by the Southern Gothic writers she studied in college and painted stories about growing up in East Texas. Figurative artists from Breughel to Max Beckmann, Melissa Miller to the Neo-Expressionists in the mid-Eighties were influences. After graduation, her work became less narrative. A show at Women & Their Work found her pushing for a change. "From that point," Yeager remembers, "the figure started getting lost."

Her father's death and the effects of her mother's aging underscored the frailty of the human body. She saw the patterns of their lives starting to break down as their physical selves began to give way. In her paintings, Yeager worked the balance between figuration and abstraction, without a direct or intentional narrative. She began finding visual expressions for order on the edge of chaos.

Now, as Yeager drives from Austin to her studio in Elgin, she sees order in the patterns of the birds flying in the sky. Her memories include a visit with her sister and their kids to an East Texas pond, where they discovered a round, gray ball in the water. Looking closer, they found it was alive, made up of baby catfish huddled together, camouflaged. When you clapped your hands, the ball dispersed, startled by the sound. When they felt safe, the catfish would reform into a single ball. One wonders if the glowing forms in Ordered Suspension would disperse and reassemble if we clap loud enough for them to hear. end story

New paintings by Sydney Yeager are on view through Feb. 23 at D Berman Gallery, 1701 Guadalupe. Call 477-8877 for information.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Madeline Irvine
CAMIBAart Gallery's Troy Campa
CAMIBAart Gallery's Troy Campa
This local gallerist left behind a successful career in architecture to develop a new creative life in the art world

Nov. 18, 2016

"Seth Orion Schwaiger: Complex I" at Pump Project
This vast, ambitious solo show transforms the gallery space into a maze and a temple to art past and future

Feb. 19, 2016


Sydney Yeager, D Berman Gallery, Ordered Suspension, Translocation, Big Catch, Melissa Miller, Women & Their Work

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle