by Stephen Maine
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. Read More
Rhythms fill Fredericka Foster’s paintings of water. Or that is what I am tempted to say after a glance around a roomful of her paintings. Then, when I focus on a single canvas and look for its defining pattern, I see none—no equivalent to the strict regularities of a Minimalist grid or an Op Art design. In short, no rigidity. These are pictures of flow, of current and cross-current. Their rhythms are liquid, which is to say: the moment a rhythm begins, it reaches beyond itself. To see Foster’s art in full is to see just how far her images reach beyond the immediacies of their subject matter. Readily labeled a realist, a recorder of visible facts, she turns out to be a visionary.
Baywater, the title of several recent works, refers to Elliott Bay, in Seattle, the city where Foster was born. When she was still young, she moved with her family to Toledo, Ohio. Near her home was the Toledo Museum of Art, where she had her first immersion in painting. After a few years, the family returned to Seattle and she got to know the collection of the city’s art museum, which includes canvases by such West Coast modernists as Mark Tobey and Morris Graves. Though Foster praises them now as “mystic painters,” she did not at first respond to their quasi-abstract intimations of Northwestern skies and the Pacific Ocean. She was, however, keenly alive to her surroundings, an environment she describes as “an iridescent world of humidity, rain, lakes . . .”
Painting water returned me to my Norwegian heritage, as my great grandmother was a “fishing Sami” living North of the Arctic Circle. The family legend is that she could catch a fish, embroider it on her apron and make a feast for a dozen in an afternoon. Besides inspiring me with memories from living on the lakes and rivers, water, constantly moving and completely abstract, satisfies my desire to paint formally as well as a need to be challenged.
I begin with several of the thousands of digital photographs I make of moving water. I look for images which stimulate my imagination and define the complexity of water in its many forms. I need opaqueness to see the story told by light, water and prevailing winds in isolation from the earth beneath. Urban, glacial, and deep seawater all have this quality, pristine rivers do not. For example, in deep Norwegian fjords, where fresh water mixes with salt from the sea, water appears to have a finite material depth and also to reflect the world outside it.
Some of the shapes I saw in fjord waters were similar to those found in Edvard Munch’s paintings in the Oslo Art Museum. It occurred to me that the towering streaming moonlight and other mutated shapes he used in his work could have come from looking at the local water. Similarly, when looking at the waters of the Pacific Northwest, I recognized forms from traditional Northwest Haida art. The digital camera had managed to capture shapes that were eerily similar to the ovoid eye forms I had seen in the Totem poles I had studied as an art student. Several other shapes repeated in the reflections were also common on boxes, masks and the decorations on carved cedar boats the Indians used to travel from village to village. These indigenous people could see these water forms and use them in their work without necessarily realizing where they came from. When I showed these paintings, many gallery visitors felt that the shapes I painted were imaginary; after spending time with the paintings, they reported seeing these forms in moving water for the first time.
Studying structures inherent in moving water, I wonder how much of art is an outgrowth of visual communication with water and the natural world shaped by its movement. Not only is water central to life, and the source of so much socioeconomic and environmental concern, but it also provides a unique way of connecting with our consciousness. We feel the rhythms of water in our bodies, sleep deeply hearing the music of stream or tides, and absorb water’s characteristic reflective shapes into our visual vocabulary. Most of these effects happen at an unconscious level. I make an active visual space for the mind to inhabit, a lively place that is simultaneously a place of rest. Following moving water, even in a two-dimensional painting, the absorbed mind can move out of conventional time into the spontaneous present. Hopefully, this pleasure will help integrate water into our conscious awareness.