by Stephen Maine

Lake Union

In her synecdochic paintings of the restless surfaces of rivers, lakes and seas, Fredericka Foster construes water in motion as all that is vital to the living world. Those surfaces—whether turbulent, languid, or something between—recede into pictorial space as the viewer’s eye moves from the bottom edge of the painting toward the top, exerting a dynamic counterpoint to the picture plane itself. But whatever the character of the waves, ripples and eddies that fill the frame, they are invariably populated by eccentric shapes born of the irregular, often kaleidoscopic reflection of ambient light. Though she has studied the behavior of light on the surface of water for some years, Foster brings a heightened intensity to her most recent work. The eight canvases in “Water Way” attest that this artist’s command of painterly craft achieves the level of mastery even as the allegorical potential of her project continues to deepen.

Adopting the modernist strategy of all-over composition, Foster fits the means of abstraction to depictive ends. Movement and rhythm—certain signs of life—feed this artist’s visual imagination and lead her to uncover in the waves’ structure a wealth of figurative suggestion, from shimmying, oozing loops to barbed, shrapnel-like shards. These musical paintings mark time, vary their theme, wash over the viewer, and seemingly could continue to expand ad infinitum.

An accomplished colorist, Foster maintains that “water is colored grays,” and attributes her eye for neutralized hues to her formative years in the Pacific Northwest: “Growing up in Seattle, you get a lifetime supply of grays.” She applies her oil paint in a straightforward manner, not relying upon glazes or varnishes or tricky metallic pigments. The smooth matte surfaces and sober brushwork imply a surrender of the painter’s ego to the task at hand, and absorption in the motif rather than theatrical “self-expression.” A powerfully understated emotional charge emerges, for example, in The Golden Hour, in which a gently roiling expanse of lake water in a muted, Morandi-esque palette resolves into gathering violet shadows along the painting’s upper edge, suggesting a far shore just out of view, out of reach.

The mystery of what lies beyond the boundary of the frame is the invisible complement to Foster’s ostensible subject matter. Lavishing attention on the character of water rather than forces acting on it—the wind, one supposes, or the tide, or perhaps the wake of a passing craft—she provides contextual information only via suggestion. The device arises naturally from her practice of selecting, from the many thousands of photographs she has taken to work from, those that include few or no peripheral features. In paintings such as Lake Union, this uncommonly resourceful artist turns what might have been a limitation to her advantage, immersing the viewer in an environment both familiar and alien.

Its steel-blue waves shot through with fragments of yellow and green, this is not a reassuringly cozy picture of a sun-dappled aquatic playground, but rather a disquieting visual essay on the inscrutability of that which is nearest to us, and the foreignness (and, perhaps, the ultimate unknowability) of our immediate surroundings. When she paints, Foster wants “the anchor of something outside of my own mind,” and indeed the specific structural oddities that make the subject of Lake Union believable as water are counterintuitive to spontaneous invention. Working in the romantic landscape tradition of Dove, Hartley, Burchfield and O’Keeffe, Fredericka Foster uncovers the radiant strangeness of everyday experience.

Stephen Maine