Shafts of Light, Slants of Dark: Nancy Herman Paintings at the Cosmopolitan Club

Nancy Clearwater Herman is perhaps best known for her large, richly complex quilts and hangings. The present exhibit at the Cosmopolitan Club shows another aspect of her art. The mostly small oil paintings on display here, some executed swiftly en plein air and some based on photographs of street scenes, range from urban to suburban to rural environments, all in the Philadelphia area. They represent all times of the day into the night, some with titles—“8:30 a.m.,” “5:00 p.m.”—specifying them precisely. The unifying element in the majority of them is the play of natural light on forms, either depicted directly or symbolically in swatches of a distinctive white.

Herman’s palette is subtle and varied, but the ubiquity of white as a signature suggests it as the color from which all others emerge, the source that gives us sight, and that shapes not only the field of vision we ourselves inhabit but the riddling nature of perceptual experience itself. Everything is fully present but nothing is entirely stable, as if the objects depicted themselves, human ones particularly, are metamorphic. There’s more than a little of Edward Hopper here, in which what seems most immediately presented is also somehow unsettlingly other, or even absent.

A good example of this effect is “The Ghost,” which shows, or suggests, two figures seated on a park bench which itself seems in the process of being absorbed into the surrounding shrubbery. The most distinct figure is blocked from the waist up by an unfolded newspaper, her face invisible behind it if not indeed effaced by a block of Herman’s white that seems to come from no source and have no objective referent. The other figure is barely suggested at all, and the viewer, prompted by the picture’s title, is inclined to take it for the ‘ghost.’ The contrast between them, though, suggests two shapes at different phases of appearance and disappearance, so that we cannot clearly decide what is ‘actually’ there. A variation on the idea is “The Face in the Window,” whose pallor likewise suggests an apparition rather than a figure. At the same time, however, it is the only portrait in the series; that is, the only face in which we see discernible features. The strollers, street-crossers, and otherwise occupied urban figures depicted, for example the woman in “Feeding the Meter,” have identity only through activity. We do in fact see people in the street this way, as moving blurs, rarely coming into any kind of focus unless something brings them to our attention. In fact, material objects—passing cars, the red bus in the picture of that title, the shadowed store bench in “Feeding the Meter”—often seem to have the greater substantiality in Herman.

There’s a sharper edge to Herman’s work, too, for example in the ironically titled “Hope,” which shows a man entering a street whose buildings, rendered semi-abstractly, seem on the point of collapse if not self-cannibalization. Here, a white wedge of light seems to aim itself at a jagged red shape that descends toward it in what seems a posture of attack. Neither shape takes recognizable form and neither is wholly defined, which makes the generic menace of their posture all the spookier. The human figure seems oblivious to whatever may await him, but he sports a white patch himself on his jersey. Is he to be predator or prey, then, or will he simply walk harmlessly by? Herman suspends the choice, or perhaps leaves it to the viewer to fill in the existential blank. Similarly but more directly, the question mark in “Welcome?” leaves it us to decide what lies behind a door, part in sunlight and part in shadow, that features a brass knocker whose animal head—dog, wolf, or both?—faces us with an expression that suggests something besides hospitality inside.

How, then, shall we take Herman’s world, and our own? As her more rustic paintings suggest, the choice is ours in more ways than one. In these works, although the play of light and shadow is equally crucial and the observation sharp, menace is absent. It is certainly possible to suggest human expressiveness in landscape, as Charles Burchfield does. But Herman is not interested in using nature to editorialize. There are dark places and dangerous depths in it, to be sure. But real dubiety, she suggests, lies in the human heart.

About Robert Zaller 67 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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