“Misha Penton: Transparent Vulnerability”

The elegant, enigmatic watercolors in this CAMIBAart Gallery solo show evoke life across the universe from salt crystals to algae to galaxies

Sam Anderson-Ramos

Austin Chronicle

July 15, 2016

If I have any regrets about Misha Penton’s “Transparent Vulnerability” at CAMIBAart Gallery, it’s that I missed the sound. The show is described as a “watercolor and audio environment,” but I’m not sure if the audio was turned off during my visit or if by “audio environment” they were referring to Penton’s live performance on July 16, unfortunately a little late for this review. Thankfully, the watercolors were up, each deceptively simple and quiet in the way a photo of a distant galaxy can be: ethereal, smoke-like, and variant with movement and life, or at least with actions and reactions – in this case, the multiple chaoses of liquid on paper.

Watercolor is a medium that can easily be taken for granted. I often associate watercolor with something a grandma would paint flowers or cats with. Penton’s elegant works remind me that watercolor can also be enigmatic and powerful. My wife made the observation that Penton’s images are geologic. She pointed out the similarity to crystal, delicate and hard, and said some of the paint application even made her think of salt. This mineral quality is echoed by the steel plates framing each watercolor, and the metal fasteners (magnets?) holding the paper to the plates. The steel frames and metallic fasteners are sleek and subtle enough to accompany the watercolors without getting in the way, but once you give them your attention, they communicate a heaviness that is pleasantly counterintuitive to the featheriness of the paint. The black steel has a texture of its own, one that is similar to that of the celestial watercolors, giving truth to the maxim that there is no such thing as black.

Like the steel, the watercolors themselves shouldn’t be oversimplified. They do have that Hubble Space Telescope look – nebulous color, dense and soft, dark and not so dark – but they are also organic, such as Filament and Threshold, a strip that mimics algae, jellyfish, phlegm even, but also the vagina, which may be very far off-base, but if it is, with such teasing, fleeting imagery, it can’t be by much.

Fissure (opening) I sounds similar, but isn’t. Instead, it reminds me of a chasm in the ground seen from a thousand miles up or a map of an unknown Arctic sea, a massive ice-form revealing the darkness of an ocean abyss, the rust-red waters of unreachable shores, and the grayish blue nothingness/allness of a world of snow and mountains no human has ever set foot in. The variation mounts. Moment by moment, Penton’s imagery builds meaning, yet I have a feeling one need not only see them as a group. To return to the galactic reference, I might spend a lifetime poring over the multitudes of countless stars, mapping and learning their secrets, or I might look in awe on a single sun for a lifetime. The same might be said here, as each of Penton’s pieces is alike with, but unique from, those that surround it. Add to the color and form of the paintings the sculptural quality of their steel frames, and the conversation only goes deeper. I’m sorry I missed the sound element this time around, but not because the paintings on display needed it. I’m sorry because if the complexity of the work here can be so engrossing, and so satisfying, then the promised audio environment must be even more so. This is an awesome possibility.