For her first solo exhibition at Sundaram Tagore New York, American artist Olivia Munroe presents new paintings and works on paper that expand on two previous series within her four-decade career—her collage paintings and Histories series.
Munroe, who is formally trained as a printmaker, creates sublime paintings with imagery inspired by archetypal forms of the circle and the square. Employing tools and processes from her printmaking days and using everyday materials of enduring cultural significance—wax, paper, cloth, graphite and dye—Munroe’s abstract compositions are formed through a unique and intensive process of layering pigment and wax-infused linen and string in elemental geometric formations which are mounted on cloth or panel and often burnished to create a palimpsest-like, tactile surface. These works can be called “collage paintings” to capture the constructed nature of their form.
Munroe began developing her collage painting techniques in 2004. Experimenting with both materials and process, the current work builds on her original series using wax and cloth to create bas-relief paintings. As with earlier works, the artist’s central imagery remains the circle and the square. Munroe’s concentrated focus on, and experimentation with, these forms, is rooted in her studies of sacred geometry, which takes the circle and the square as the basic forms and symbols of humanity’s representation of the universe.
In a departure from previous iterations of her collages, which often incorporated more complex configurations rendered in vibrant color schemes, the artist has refined the compositions of these new works, distilling her subject matter to its simplest form. Munroe’s consciously minimalist methodology gives each visual element significance and weight. With her methodical, almost architectural approach to creating dimension by building out her surface with layers of woven stratum, Munroe creates engaging spatial environments that play with light and shadow, compelling the viewer to examine the work up close and from multiple angles.
Munroe’s carefully selected color scheme, a subtle palette of soft whites, grays, blues and gold tone, likewise allows for the texture and the subtle shifts in tone within the layers of cloth to become a focal point, again emphasizing depth and dimensionality. In the artist’s hands, the circle and square, these simple rudiments of geometry, are transformed into a rich, visual experience that evokes ideas of tranquility, purity, memory and transcendence.
Also on view will be a selection of works on paper from Munroe’s Histories series, began in 2013, which offer a different aesthetic from her collage paintings. These intimate calligraphic paintings on paper reference the practice of writing from across time and culture, from Egyptian hieroglyphics to East Asian calligraphy, and from French medieval to Persian illuminated manuscripts. These works are made on a cache of 19th-century paper from France that has long been in her collection; when this delicate, handmade cotton paper runs out, the Histories series will end. Munroe continues her use of geometric archetypes as primary subject matter for many of the works. Here they function as a nonliteral rendering of ancient iconography and written forms articulated in a radiant spectrum of color, which is built up with many layers of brilliant hues of yellow, pink, red, orange, purple, blue and green. Histories are a timeless evocation of the age-old practice of writing as both an expressive and divine form of art.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Olivia Munroe was born in 1953 in New York City, and along with her three sisters, was immersed in art from an early age. Her mother, Enid Munroe, is a painter and the family traveled extensively while she was growing up, spending summers in Italy, Southern France, and Greece to absorb the region’s art, architecture, and cultural history. When she was a teenager, her family moved to Japan, where she was exposed to Eastern art and thought. Her observations—the use of iconography as subject matter, woven textiles as media, and alternative formats of presentation, such as hanging scrolls—were and still are an inspirational force behind her practice.
When she returned to the States, Munroe studied printmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design. After graduating with a BFA, she moved to New York City to continue her printmaking, attending classes at the Art Student’s League and spending two years refining her practice at the Printmaking Workshop, an influential nonprofit art space founded by foremost American art lithographer Robert Blackburn. While she experimented with different techniques, Munroe ultimately gravitated toward intaglio printing, in which the pigment that forms the image is printed only from recessed areas of the etched metal plate. This intensely process-driven approach, with each step building on the proceeding one, still informs her practice today.
Munroe has exhibited her work extensively and her award-winning etchings published by John Szoke Graphics are included in prestigious collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C. She lives and works in Bridgeport, Connecticut. This is Munroe’s first exhibition at Sundaram Tagore Gallery.