Rachel Bingaman is not only a highly prolific artist, most commonly painting trees and sylvan landscapes, but her work is also surprisingly diverse in a breadth of topics and subjects for a painter who refers to her art as abstract realism, a term that seems to be extraordinarily confining. And yet, Bingaman has found ways to break free from the restraints of her chosen style and produce art that is rich in elegance, refinement and charm.
Let us first examine what artists mean when they discuss “abstract realism.” Speaking as a poet, I can easily say that the term is an oxymoron, which is any two paired words that appear to contradict each other, but that’s not enough to describe the art form. Canadian artist and teacher, Elizabeth Reoch, describes the style as this:
Abstract Realism is an art movement that is not easily defined because it is a marriage of two contradictory terms, Abstract art and Realistic art. Abstract art has no reference to real objects. The abstract artist uses lines, shapes, colours, texture and pattern to create a rhythm. They [sic] will look for balance, colour value and sizes of shapes and lines. Their focus is on the elements and principals of design to give a visual sensory impression of feelings, thoughts or experiences. Realism attempts to capture real life moments in time, an image and the personality of individuals or objects who resemble real life. (www.elizabethreoch.com/abstract-realism/)
Conflating the two styles and philosophies enables the artist to both represent (realism) an identifiable subject while also imparting through the canvas his or her own emotional connection (abstraction) as a more potent driving force. The canvas becomes a bit less about feeling the textures and atmospheres and a bit more about feeling the heart of the matter with more impact.
However, since it was the impressionists of the 19th century who began to move away from realism into abstraction, albeit with small steps, abstract realism as it is applied today, is, paradoxically, as much of a movement forward in art as it is a throwback to the impressionists of old. Édouard Manet is one of the earliest artists to step away from realism just a tish. In fact, to our modern sensibilities, the abstraction is barely discernible, but for Manet’s contemporary artists, it was an enormous step forward, while, for coeval critics, it was a leap back toward something one might find painted at the zoo in the gorilla habitat. (Note Manet’s “The Luncheon on the Grass” (1862) and “Olympia” (1865) that were both harshly criticized.) Since we live in an era when abstract art holds sway, combining it with realism creates an arch of sorts bridging the gap between us and artists of Manet’s time. Today, such abstractions and, let’s be honest, such fascinating paradoxes give viewers a little something extra to enjoy in the art of Rachel Bingaman.
Largely a painter of trees or tree-like plants of ambiguous size, Bingaman’s art is intensely expressive in all its permutations. One of her least frequent but more provocative tree painting styles is her woodland scenes such as in “Somewhere Ever After.” In this painting, the viewer is gazing through an evening forest toward a light source, ostensibly, the moon, creating a number of trees shown in silhouette with beautiful, curving stylized branches that are almost Art Nouveau. It could almost be a scene out of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, and it is graced with the same charm. A distinct sense of depth is created by the colour variation in the trees: the closer trees are darker, while those further away are in ever lighter shades of blue. With a bit of imagination, a viewer can smell the dampness within the undergrowth and feel the evening mist and the chilly late-summer air. It’s almost enough to cause a person to wrap a sweater more tightly around his body. It is in every way a realistic representation of a woody area combined with the interpretive touch of the artist’s skilled hand.
In a more common theme, Bingaman presents what I like to call the “solitary tree motif,” in which a single tree is presented in a distinctly recognizable but abstracted landscape, often with a stylized sky. The variation that Bingaman is able to bring to this motif is far too broad to examine in this type of forum. Suffice it to say that these tree images offer the sense of a portrait, regardless of the fact that they are presented as a landscape and that the tree as a subject seldom takes up more than a quarter of the canvas. The tree in these images never seems to feel lonely, however, just like a person in a portrait never seems to feel lonely. If you regard the image called “Twilight” you’ll understand. The sense that comes across is not one of loss but of inspiration, as though the tree itself were standing outside simply to gaze at the stars.
The tree presented in “Twilight” shows Bingaman’s common technique for creating trees and giving them a sense of roundness: near the centre of the leaves, the paint is applied with a large palette knife, while around the edges of the same area, the paint is a darker hue and is applied with a smaller tool or even a brush. But even with that technique that typifies Bingaman’s trees, there is no way to put a limit on the presentation of the trees as a group; they are as varied–one to another–as any group of people would be. That, in itself, accentuates the wonder of Bingaman’s art.
One noteworthy variation of the solitary tree motif is the close up as in “Thriving No 3,” (shown at the top of the page) in which the sole tree is brought up so close to the viewer that the branches and leaves take up the entire upper half of the canvas. This variation removes the sense of “star gazing” that the other style gives, but there is no less a sense of joy. This variation allows the artist to explore the textures of the tree trunk, elaborate on the leafy top and even give a bit more information regarding the ground in which the tree is planted. This variation offers the viewers an explosion of intense colour and excitement with no less elegance.
Finally, within Bingaman’s repertoire is the theme exemplified by the painting, “By the Night,” in which, perhaps on a fit of whimsy, the artist will use her woodland theme or her solitary tree to add in a couple on a romantic evening. There is a fairy-tale feel to these as the couple–sometime young lovers, other times young love birds–are depicted as a tiny part of the canvas, yet it is clear that they are the subject. The colour and lighting always display the proverbial “warm glow” of love sometimes with a starry night sometimes with just a glowing moon, but always with enough romance to get even an old heart like mine beating with that youthful vigour. As a Shakespeare character my say in soliloquy, “Ah, me! C’est L’amour, no?” It’s enough to make you want to break out in sad song.
Click on any image to see a larger view. Article continues the wrap-up after this gallery of her paintings.
Bingaman doesn’t stop there, but there is simply too much to discuss. She’ll often step into the style of abstract expressionism, or she’ll paint a tornado instead of a tree, or she’ll paint a plant that might be a tree but viewer’s aren’t given enough background to determine if the subject is a tree or the power-puff of a flower. Whatever her topic, however, one thing is absolutely certain: Bingaman’s art will melt your heart.
A. J. Mittendorf is a published author with two books to his credit, the second of which is to be released in July, 2016. It is called, “Carnival of the Animals.” It is a collection of fables in verse that have each been inspired by the music of composer Camille Saint-Saens- -music of the same name as A. J.’s book.