Rachel Ostrow’s oil-on-panel paintings—which feature kaleidoscopic abstract forms nearly engulfed by pitch-black grounds—evoke two of the most mysterious, enthralling regions of human fascination: outer space and the oceanic abyss. Imagination compensates for what we don’t know about these places, and Ostrow utilizes this magical territory to initiate dynamic relationships between gelatinous marine shapes, cosmic nebulae, concertinaed ridges, and the yawning expanses they inhabit. Wonder and terror, magnetism and apprehension: These forces were key to the mesmerizing visual impact of the nineteen pieces in her solo exhibition, “One More Time With Feeling,” at Planthouse.
The artist, using variously sized squeegees, creates her images with quick gestures, pulling and blending the paint across a very smooth surface, leaving behind raised seams and dramatic shards. Some pieces are concluded in a matter of minutes, while others can take hours. Her scintillating hues and obsidian backdrops are worked simultaneously so that figure and ground merge gracefully into one enigmatic layer (the spaghettified maw at the heart of The Light Fantastic, 2018—accentuated by a visceral swath of red and a long scratch of arctic white—is one such thrilling detail). Textures are enhanced by safflower oil and mineral spirits—when Ostrow drags these media through the paint, she generates light-speed, blistering effects. The glossy finish and fluid marks recall the slick backside of a roiling wave, or perhaps the exhilarating crescendos one succumbs to in opera music. The Suspension of Disbelief, 2017, might have been the most symbiotic work in the exhibition. It read as a blazing, multidimensional galaxy that had been smeared by a rainbow—the whole thing plunged over an earthly scene that could be rock formations or a forest. The atmosphere between the two planes appeared torn, blurring the distinction between one reality and another.
Brevity is a factor in Ostrow’s production. It influences the emotional resonance of her paintings and makes one think that her imagery vanishes into the ether. After all, she gives us only fragmentary glimpses of things that seem no longer extant. Perhaps it’s a moment of fossilized history (see the feathered ligatures of Ideas of an Acrobat, 2017), or a secret divination of tomorrow. Here, the radial, golden arch of Water and Time, 2017, which is suspended over a liquid patch of blue, exemplified this evanescence. Other compositions rose and fell back into obscurity with the sluggish plumery of lava, including the cephalopod-like being of Temptation, 2018, a tableau of aquatic surreality.
A major glitch, however, is that even perfect storms can dissipate. One wonders—despite countless pictorial possibilities and the fruitful mechanics of her formula—if there is, ironically, a limitation to the longevity of artistic return on Ostrow’s process. How does she prevent her rich equilibrium, her marvelously astral subject matter, from devolving into mere assembly? For now, at least, Ostrow achieves a kind of gravitational lensing, bending light and warping space-time with paint. How her experimentation will develop is another great unknown.