There is something at once unabashedly romantic and oddly remote about the sensibility evinced by Martina Gmür’s paintings on wood in this recent exhibition, “Das Loch” (The Hole). The 30-year-old Basel-based artist favors a muted palette of icy grays, slate greens, silvery blues and rust reds, and her application of acrylic, oil or gouache is thin and flat, even washy: the viewer can almost feel the paint gliding smoothly over the wood underneath. Gmür’s subjects include a bestiary (cheetahs, lions, horses), isolated human body parts like an ankle or a waist, and items like bananas and vases. But if her subjects are familiar, the way she renders them is not.
Gmür tends to isolate her subjects against a pool of pale, indeterminate space, or—in the case of a series of noirish paintings hung on one long, black-painted wall at Stampa—against a dark ground that evokes the depths of night. This lends her works a surreal quality that belies the ordinariness of their imagery. See, for example, the tempera-on-wood To Destroy, Build (2010), which features an abstracted, inkblotlike dark shape hovering in the center of a white ground. Such suspension of the forms in flat fields gives them a dreamy and ambiguous aspect, at once reticent and available.
This remains the case in Gmür’s treatment of animals, as in The Fish Has No Fear (2009), which depicts a spotted white fish swimming against a slate-gray field, or Cheetah Family (2007), in which cheetahs sprawl against a dark green expanse. The latter painting introduces a new feature: minute holes drilled into the wood ground, in this case serving as the cheetahs’ spots. This formal device, which explains the exhibition’s title, appears in a number of other works. The large-scale freestanding wood piece Abidjan (2010), for instance, features a smattering of holes through which light pours, while the painting Grotto (2009) has one large irregular hole, as if a giant fist had punched through its center. The lovely painting View (2009), meanwhile, offers only the illusion of a large hole in a rocky crevice, through which a shadowy figure looks out onto an ice-blue alpine mountain.
The dreamy pallor of Luc Tuymans’s paintings might come to mind, but Gmür’s precise engagement with her subjects is harder to pin down. Animals, body parts and alpine views do not quite add up to a coherent whole. Rather, they seem to speak of an ongoing investigation of some intensely personal terrain into which Gmür is just now stepping. Two of the small, standout paintings in the show might dramatize this. Barefoot I and Barefoot II (both 2009) each depict a foot on tiptoe, stepping behind a curtain, which is rendered a deep, dark blue in the first painting, a rusty red in the second. The elements of each painting are abstracted to such an extent that the line where floor and curtain meet could well be the horizon over a craggy mountaintop, the curtain the sky. What the foot becomes in this equation remains obscure, though perhaps it is that of the artist climbing the summit, moving just out of reach.
Photo: Martina GmuŐ?r: Barefoot II, 2009, acrylic on wood, 17 ¼ by 23 ½ inches; at Stampa.