Painter Colleen Randall connects with the energy of abstraction

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    Colleen Randall, "Gust of Light," 2019, oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist. Hood Museum of Art

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    Colleen Randall, "Syncope 56," 2010, acrylic on paper. Courtesy the artist. Hood Museum of Art

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    Colleen Randall, of West Lebanon, celebrates 30 years as a professor of studio art at Dartmouth College with "In The Midst of Something Splendid," an exhibition of her paintings at the Hood Museum running through May 31. "I want people to be physically involved with them," said Randall in Hanover, N.H., Friday, Jan. 17, 2020, of the textures and rhythms she uses to capture her impressions of nature. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 1/29/2020 6:37:00 PM
Modified: 1/29/2020 6:36:55 PM

“In the Midst of Something Splendid,” an exhibition of work by painter Colleen Randall at the Hood Museum of Art, takes its title from a poem by the late Russell Edson that describes what happens when a dream yellow taxi crashes through the wall of a man’s apartment, letting loose an ecstatic explosion of color and form. The man realizes that he is in “the midst of something splendid” and surrenders to the experience, rather than try to impose logic on it.

Randall, who has taught in Dartmouth College’s department of studio art for 30 years, likes Edson’s metaphor as a way to get at what fuels her work, and what it means to make it.

Rather than think of a painting only as something to be completed and exhibited, she said, “I became more aware of what I was experiencing while I was painting. … I’m not painting an object, but how it feels to be in that space.”

The exhibition, which includes oil paintings on linen and acrylic paintings on paper, is on view until May 31. Randall will give a talk about her work, titled “The Abstract Sublime: Vision and Process,” at 4:45 p.m. on Thursday in the Hood’s Gilman Auditorium. A reception will follow.

Faculty members exhibit at the museum after they have taught for a certain amount of time, which also permits museum staff to familiarize themselves over the years with an artist’s work, Hood Museum Director John Stomberg wrote in an email.

“It takes time and personal investment to move into her paintings. They encourage contemplation and require a level of comfort with ambiguity,” Stomberg wrote.

Randall had toyed with the idea of a retrospective, she said, but in the end took up the challenge of making new work for the show. She has always been an abstract painter, although she was taught by artists who leaned toward figurative art.

“(Abstraction) came naturally in terms of the formal qualities and the sense of surface,” Randall said in a recent interview in the galleries. “I felt at home in that world, I got a lot of pleasure in working in that way.”

Many of the paintings in the exhibition measure 28 by 32 inches, not quite perfect squares, which gives the viewer a “stable space to immerse yourself in. I try to keep them human scale.”

When working on a canvas and then hanging it, she prefers that it not be too far above her head, or too low. The paintings hit the viewer with that same head-on perspective.

Randall layers the surface with thick applications of paint, sawdust and wax so that the canvas seems almost to grow outward, and the materials appear to vibrate. Each painting has a particular color field; yellow, ocher, red or green might seem to predominate. But, when you look more closely, the range of colors and variety of surfaces and textures expand, sucking you in at the same time that the energy of the surface radiates outward.

“Every time I work on paintings, I want to reconcile opposites,” Randall said, so that the works appear “calm but frenetic, or opaque but transparent. … I want people to feel the rhythms and colors in them.”

When she begins work, she tries to let go of any expectations of what form a painting might take. “It takes a while to begin working, I try to empty my head and be present and trust my instincts and responses and follow them and see where that leads me,” she said.

Randall, 67, was born in the St. Croix River Valley in southeastern Minnesota and grew up in suburban Minneapolis. Both of her parents were teachers, and she was the oldest of six children.

Her parents never discouraged her from pursuing what undoubtedly would be a difficult and uncertain path, but they did emphasize to all their children the importance of doing a good job at whatever they turned their hand to, Randall said. She always leaned towards arts and crafts classes in high school, and began making ceramic wall pieces.

She received a bachelor’s degree in art history from Macalester College, in St. Paul, Minn., which is where she became more serious about pursuing art as a profession. During a trip to New York City to visit relatives, she made a pilgrimage to the Museum of Modern Art.

That was almost the first time, she said, that it “dawned on me that artists were alive in the world.” Monet, Pollock and DeKooning, all well represented in the MoMA collection, spoke to her with their “joyful and celebratory” canvases, and their dynamic handling of paint.

Randall earned a bachelor of fine art degree from the University of Iowa, moving there with her partner Jeff Friedman, who was studying poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. After Iowa, the pair moved to North Carolina. They were married in 1975. In the early 1980s, they moved to New York. Randall worked as a paralegal while she was working on an M.F.A. at Queens College, part of the City University of New York.

In 1989, Randall began applying for teaching jobs. She came to Dartmouth for what she thought would be one term of teaching and essentially never left.

She has also held numerous residencies over the years, at Yaddo, the McDowell Colony, the Millay Colony, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and was the recipient of a Whiting Fellowship to study the House of Livia murals on the Palatine Hill in Rome. She and Friedman live in West Lebanon with two dogs.

Randall teaches four classes in the academic year. “I love teaching and my students, so many of whom are now artists themselves. It’s very gratifying.”

Although women and artists of color have made progress in breaking into the museum and gallery worlds, which have been largely the preserve of white men, there is more work to be done to make galleries and museums more receptive to new voices, Randall said.

As a teacher, Randall has seen “how important it is for students coming up to see people like them and a range of races, sexes, religions and cultures,” particularly at a time of life when the struggle is to define who you are going to be, and how you are going to get there.

That definition can change as you get older, of course. While Randall’s younger self was at home and thrived in cities, her older self cannot imagine, she said, returning to a large metropolitan area, because so much of what she does is rooted in her sense of the natural world.

“I’m just really aware of the sky. I love the views passing through. The change of seasons is always miraculous and enlivening. I’m amazed every day at the quality of the weather,” she said.

Concomitant with that respect for nature is her concern that the norms of climate that people have taken for granted in the last two centuries are shifting. “To live in a natural world that’s compatible with us and to lose all that is really unimaginable,” Randall said.

Her paintings are not overtly political, Randall said. But they are statements about the freedom of the imagination, and the alternate realities that art can offer, she said.

“How can you lead a life of value? How can you not create harm? … I wanted to do something that made a contribution to truth and beauty in the world.

“It’s great art in the world that makes life worth living,” Randall said.

“In the Midst of Something Splendid” continues at the Hood Museum of Art through May 31.

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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