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Woolyheads 10" x 8" Oil On Canvas

“I think I’ve been making the same painting for a long time and it just keeps ending in a different place at a different point,” Rebekah Callaghan told painter Aubrey Levinthal in a 2015 interview in Title Magazine. The conversation focused on Callaghan’s process of working from her immediate surroundings – her home studio and the garden of potted plants that she tends there. Now, four years later, she continues to cultivate and expand upon this familiar material to make layered, luminous botanical paintings that invite sustained looking. Walking from one deft, concise painting to the next in her current exhibition “Brighter Later,” at Gross McCleaf in Philadelphia, the groupings of new works constitute a coherent series exploring variations of light, color, shape, and texture on a single theme.

Installed in a row, the modestly sized paintings Silver Mound (2018), Sandy Bottom (2018), and Little Jewel (2019) are each built of layers of paint, many of them semi-transparent – dark brown organic blobs and black outlines under glowing lilac glaze, for instance. This creates the impression of an ever-shifting surface, mimicking the natural play of light and shadow on a windowsill or the subtle movement of foliage over the course of a day. A limited oil palette of highly saturated blues, purples, reds, and yellows that appear to have been applied directly from the tube recurs across many works, connecting them as if multiple renderings of the same encounter.

The exhibition’s title points not only to Callaghan’s formal concerns – light and color – but also to questions of time and change. The paintings’ layered structures prompt us to visually retrace her decision-making process as she gradually altered each composition, eventually leading if not to completion then to a tremulous pause in which reanimation might occur at any moment. While not entirely repetitious and certainly not mechanical, the paintings in “Brighter Later” embrace a kind of seriality in which strategy is as important as subject matter, and in which individual works contribute to the artist’s solving and then re-scrambling a tricky problem in order to return to it from another angle. As Callaghan put it in her  conversation with Levinthal: “I’ll keep painting to a place where the end might look like the beginning, and then I get to try again.”

“Rebekah Callaghan: Brighter Later,” Gross McCleaf Gallery,  27 South Sixteenth Street, Philadelphia, PA. Through March 30, 2019.

About the author: Bea Huff Hunter is an independent writer, editor, and researcher who regularly covers Philadelphia-area contemporary art in Artforum. She has written for Frieze, Sculpture, and Art Papers, as well as numerous exhibition catalogue essays, and she works as a staff writer at the University of Pennsylvania.