“Romancing the Light:
Ann Carstensen, Leslie Ebert, and Diana Milia”
essay by Richard Speer
The exalted and quotidian, visible and invisible, conscious and unconscious commingle in the work of artists Ann Carstensen, Leslie Ebert, and Diana Milia. Based in Portland, Oregon, the artists are friends and critique-group colleagues who inform and inspire one another while delighting art-lovers across the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Although their practices differ, they are all captivated by the nature of light across its physical and metaphysical spectrum: the enchantment of light glinting off metallic surfaces, the mysterious dance of waves and particles beneath the threshold of unaided vision, and the searchlight of the psyche raking across human experience in a quest for self-knowledge and meaning. To see the trio’s output exhibited in tandem—as in the exhibition Light and Abstraction at 510 Museum & ARTspace (Art Council of Lake Oswego, Oregon)—is to behold an ongoing aesthetic inquiry and symbiosis.
Ann Carstensen, perennially taken with the allure of geometry, reflectivity, and repurposing, alchemizes everyday materials into historically and symbolically redolent talismen. Her artistic syntax falls in the lineage of minimalism: repetition, grid, stripes, and the infinite permutations of pattern. In the vein of Agnes Martin and Sean Scully she deploys the minimalist vocabulary with keen observation and meticulous attention to detail. She gravitates toward discarded, found, and gifted media such as corrugated lightbulb paper, packaging material, and sheer airplane polyfiber, transmuting chaotic mélanges of ephemera into rigorously ordered objets-d’art, which evince the ordering hand and rational mind. A recent body of work bore witness to her interest in the culture of Ancient Egypt: gold metallic packing wrap elevated beyond utilitarian function to evoke the sarcophagi and burial masks of the pharoahs and queens of the Nile River Valley.
Guided by her background in architecture, printmaking, and painting, Leslie Ebert uses a digital camera on macro settings to document and interpret the play of light as it dances through space. She does not merely photograph light; she ferrets it out, chases it across rooms and continents, and invites it into collaboration. The products of this duet become sublimation-dye prints on aluminum panel, a presentation that heightens the drama of her subject matter. She is a portraitist of light, capturing it in habitats through the seasons and around the world. Simultaneously realist and nonobjective, her vignettes portray ambient luminescence even as they present as immaculately composed abstractions á la Gottlieb and Rothko. Ebert holds an overarching respect for the ideals of beauty and abundance and considers the picture plane “a window for the soul to travel through.”
Diana Milia brings expertise in psychology and art therapy to her enigmatic paintings, which draw from the Surrealist conception of automatic drawing. In these works, iconic images float in a dream-like atmosphere, by turns communicating and withholding, like runes or petroglyphs, primal and uncanny. These are tableaux at the precipice between the seen, unseen, and unseeable, suggestive but ultimately indeciperable. The artist, who has led a peripatetic life, addresses in her work a sense of uprootedness and impermanence, using her non-dominant hand for mark-making as she engages the unfamiliar, the non-native, as a means of expression and self-centering in a world whose sands are forever shifting underfoot. Haunting, even ghostly, the paintings unearth the viscera beneath the skin of our psyches, encouraging viewers to face buried fears and reclaim aspects of themselves they may have long repressed.
Installed together, Carstensen’s, Ebert’s, and Milia’s artworks seem almost to sing to one another and to the viewer in a spatial and thematic call-and-response. There is a respiration and interpenetration between them. As sovereign as their conceptual agendas are, their obsessions overlap at the intersection of transcendence and illumination. Carstensen converts the commonplace into gleaming geometric études that shine a spotlight into the reaches of the deep past; Ebert captures that which would otherwise remain invisible, allowing viewers to glimpse maze-like cellular structures at the liminal boundaries of perception; Milia uploads the vagaries of the unconscious into images that are markers, beacons, lighthouses alerting us to dangers and epiphanies hidden beneath the waves that roil the surface. In their various practices, each artist accesses a meditative focus. Together they admonish: The beautiful and the arcane are all around us—in the cardboard we were about to throw out, the reflection of a bare lightbulb on the bathroom scale, the girding underlying seemingly mundane thoughts that flutter through our synapses as we wash the dishes. There is fascination around every turn. There is enchantment where we wouldn’t dare to look. There is romance in the light.
—Richard Speer is a Portland, Oregon-based art critic, curator, and author. His reviews and essays have appeared in ARTnews, Art Ltd., Visual Art Source, Fabrik, Salon, The Los Angeles Times, and The Chicago Tribune. His biography of Outsider artist Matt Lamb was published by John Wiley & Sons in 2005 (second edition 2013). Current curatorial projects include exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art
“Ann Carstensen’s…interest in referencing the ordinary…works with corrugated paper-the fragile kind…The paintings mimic the ‘60s Op art experiments of painters such as Bridget Riley.”
Pat Boas, Artweek
“…from the distance the wavy, repetitious grooves of the paper …seem to shift… While Carstensen’s work has always been eye-worthy, here for the first time, she is eye catching.”
D.K. Row, Oregonian
“A seductive tabula rasa…Carstensen is doing her own thing. ‘One,’ is incandescent in its power… If it’s possible for paintings like this to shine, this one does, and in the most meaningful metaphorical sense of the word.”
D.K. Row, Oregonian
“Carstensen weaves scruffy, textured surfaces…which oblige the eye as objects of meditation… …these are quietly seductive paintings, understated…”
D.K. Row, Oregonian
“Ann Carstensen admits she is “more interested in textures than colors… and her minimal palette reflects that. With her work the viewer becomes more involved in the textures of her media and the balance and shape of the lines than the symbolism displayed.”
Keith Halladay, Arts & Culture Fall
“Ann Carstensen loves intense color, minimalist forms and rough surfaces, and puts them all together for an effect of surprising intensity. ..”Mixed Signals” is one of the most resonant pure abstract paintings seen in this town in a while.”
Randy Gragg, Oregonian