Barbara Sternberger

Confluence:  Recent Paintings

Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland, OR

Review by Richard Speer

An unusual method of paint application informed Barbara Sternberger’s suite of abstract and semi-abstract oil paintings, collectively entitled Confluence.

Early in 2013, feeling curtailed by the need to constantly reload her brush, she improvised a solution.  She packed dry pigments, oils, and wax into a snow-cone cup, then painted with this repurposed tool, squeezing out more color as needed, greatly increasing the endurance of any given gesture.  This approach, coupled with traditional brushwork, yielded dramatic results:  broad, luxuriant smears counterposed against quick slashes and jots, leading to an emotional tenor that balanced serenity and nervous energy.

In some works, lines and shapes congealed into recognizable objects:  a woman’s shoe in Amble, a mason jar in Mason, a champagne cork popping in Release; but the strongest compositions were those with ambiguous forms, which lent themselves to the viewer’s imagination and projection.  In Segue Blue and Sojourn, a recurring motif emerged:  kernels of form floating atop a nuanced background, shapes relating to one another in dynamic spatial dialogue.  The artist set up two earth-toned masses in horizontal opposition to one another in Make Believe, leaving a passageway of negative space between.  The pregnant tension between these forms recalled the almost-touching-but-not-quite fingers of God and Adam in Michelangelo’s iconic fresco in the Sistine Chapel.

This conceit of partial openness also informed Beginnings, in which the topmost of three ovoids was left an incomplete outline, with color seemingly rushing in like water into a vessel.  As in previous shows at Elizabeth Leach, Sternberger made much use of a signature palette of periwinkle and gunmetal blues.  Perhaps owing to the greater freedom afforded by her new technique, the paintings in Confluence were less architectonically structured than past works, more buoyant and ethereal.  The intuitive deployment of gesture to stoke emotional resonance in the viewer placed the works squarely within the ongoing lineage of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting.


—Richard Speer