Friday, January 3, 2020

Summer Brooms

Cat Balco, Large Red Beach, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 72 inches. All images courtesy Rick Wester Fine Art/© Cat Balco, 2019.

Exhibition Review

Cat Balco
Rick Wester Fine Art
526 West 26th Street, Suite 417
November 7, 2019 – January  25, 2020

The works in Cat Balco’s current exhibition, “My Exploding Stars,” are an antidote to the horror of our current political situation: they present a meditative space that is buzzing with positive energy. They also show a significant shift from the artist’s earlier paintings of just this year, center-focused abstractions made up of handmade strokes in pastel-colored patterns which Balco called “Stars.”

Balco says she developed the recent compositions by zooming in on sections of her previous  paintings, yet the strokes are so enlarged that it is not easy to find a direct correspondence. Made using push brooms, in a move reminiscent of Ed Clark, the new paintings are built with foot-wide or larger slabs of color. They are almost landscapes, but can also be seen as purely indexical marks on canvas, a record of their own making.

Cat Balco, Wide Open Angles, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 72 inches.

An obvious influence is Franz Kline, who famously blew up his ink drawings with a projector to arrive at his signature black and white abstractions. Here, Balco has figured out how to make a Kline work in saturated color. Her paintings also have an affinity with Frankenthaler’s vivid late-1960’s compositions, and with de Kooning’s Parkway Series, or his Door To The River.

Cat Balco, Blue Diamond, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 inches.

The exhibition consists of twelve medium to large paintings, all square, ranging from 40”x40” to 72”x72”. These ambitious body-sized works grab your eye and then don’t let go. And the bigger they are, the better. Diagonal strokes suggest a vortex pushing back into space, and many of the top layered strokes are at put on at angles to the square. (Three of the paintings have “triangle” in the title.) Occasionally Balco uses color to create a drop shadow, a technique that appears often in the Star paintings. This has the effect of teasing open what remains a determinedly shallow depth.

Color in the paintings is summery, with super-saturated reds and yellows, pinks and oranges, cooled by medium and light blues. Titles like Large Red Beach, Summer Rectangles and Red Blue Sail conjure a seaside mood, and triangles of blue often evoke water. The brushstrokes, or broomstrokes, are intensely visible, and strokes with splatters at the edges can be quite moving. Transparency is also effectively used. These paintings are performed, expressed, but not contrived.

Cat Balco, Red, Blue Yellow Triangles, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 inches.

Balco has said, as quoted in the gallery press release, that she tries to make the works in nine or fewer strokes, and one wonders if there is some relation to “Seven Plus or Minus Two,” the number of items we can keep in short term memory at one time (the reason for seven digits in phone numbers). Maybe nine strokes is the largest number of elements we can simultaneously keep in mind while looking at a painting. There is a great deal of hope in Balco’s paintings, communicated in the intensity of the colors and the power of the strokes. I walked through the gallery drunk with a kind of joy.

--Jeff Frederick

Cat Balco, Red Blue Sail 2019, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 inches.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Drawn Habitats

Linda Matalon, Untitled [diptych], 2019, graphite and wax on paper, 50 x 76 inches

Exhibition Review

Linda Matalon
Emmanuel Barbault
325 Broome Street
November 5 - December 20, 2019

Linda Matalon’s thoughtfully installed exhibition of careful yet strong graphite and wax drawings is called “Canto,” ostensibly as an homage to the poetry and sensibility of Dante.  Certainly, the works have enough suffused brightness to merit the epigraph from The Divine Comedy in the gallery catalogue:  “When the dawn opened, and the night was not.”  But “canto” also translates to “I sing,” and the drawings do come across as arias with sensitively rendered shapes emerging, off-center, from densely layered fields of marks and diverse visual textures. 

The overall effect of the erasures, oily saturations, small rips and abrasions, smudges, and shadowy underlayers is of a thoroughly lived-in world.  The shapes that populate this world — many of them proto-circular, though no circle is closed or even close to round — appear hopeful in an effort to find their form, yet register a slight sadness in their inevitable incompletion.  Such is life.  Life also emerges from the drawings — which range from a small, older sample to mostly medium-to-large works — when they are examined over time.  Lines that are in dialogue with the primary shapes can be seen lurking beneath the picture plane, behind more defined forms. 

Linda Matalon, Untitled [diptych], 2018, graphite and wax on paper, 30 x 44¾ inches

The cumulative experience of the drawings takes hold after sitting on the bench in the center of the gallery, which Matalon designed and produced for the space.  The wide, thick, buffed wood — and the raw wood support underneath — complement the drawings, so that the furniture becomes part of the overall installation and architecture.  A visible seam in the milled surface even echoes the compositional structure of some of the drawings (including one duet of large, erased photographs), which consist of adjoining sheets of paper.  

Installation view, Linda Matalon, Canto, 2019

These drawings are daring without having bravado.  Their smudges and waxiness have much in common with large drawings by Roni Horn and older paintings by Brice Marden (especially his unfinished bottom sections).  Their palette, layered density, and reference to an Italian classic suggest the work of Cy Twombly.  Florence Derieux's catalogue essay suggests a connection to Eva Hesse, which fits the sense of fragility in translucent materials.  Still, Matalon’s formal language expands on her own unique vocabulary.  After spending time in this beautifully considered exhibition, everything else I looked at — not only the outside world, but other exhibitions — seemed garish.

— Karen Schiff

Linda Matalon, Untitled [diptych], 2019, erased photograph, 16 x 45 inches

Saturday, November 18, 2017

External Reflections

Patrick Berran, Untitled (PB 641), 2017, Acrylic and toner on panel

Exhibition review

Patrick Berran
Chapter NY
249 East Houston Street
September 10 – October 22, 2017

Patrick Berran’s latest paintings at Chapter NY have the electricity of a classic Jackson Pollock: what at first appears to be a complicated visual explosion is in fact a carefully regulated site for contemplation. But instead of being gestural, Berran’s paintings are the product of a mechanical process that seems to remove the hand of the artist.

The artist’s sketchbook drawings, which may be non-representational or representationally inspired, are enlarged on a photocopier to the point of breaking up into irregular spots, like a television static pattern or animal-print fabric. Berran then uses a solvent to transfer these patterned fields onto canvas, interlacing them with sharply defined or soft-edged fields of color. Layers are piled up and sandwiched to create semi-permeable screens. Berran’s paintings are full of skittery, off-register marks reminiscent of Rauschenberg’s Automobile Tire Print (1953). Warm peachy pinks and hot oranges and reds glow from beneath the surface like blood under the skin.

Patrick Berran, Untitled (PB 645), 2017, Acrylic and toner on panel

Patrick Berran, Untitled (PB 643), 2017, Acrylic and toner on panel

The exhibition includes six solidly medium-sized paintings and one small canvas; all are Untitled, 2017, and all are acrylic and toner on panel. Each is satisfyingly layered with areas of color and pattern overlapping in bar-like rectangles. Long, thin forms at the sides or running through the middle echo the edges of the canvas and the stretchers that support it. Streaked or cloudy atmospheric passages, as well as frequently asymmetrical compositions, create tension between the hand-made and the mechanical. Subtle shifts in color appear as you get closer, with gradients spanning multiple hues. While in Berran’s previous work the forms were often laid on top of a white background, here the figure/ground relation is more ambiguous. Dark or saturated colors may serve as ground, like the black edges in Untitled (PB 643) or the reds and yellows of Untitled (PB 645). Yet all the paintings have white showing through, reasserting the originary canvas. The complexity and generosity of the compositions has a Turneresque sublimity, but the consistently reasserted rectilinear framework reassures us that things won’t get out of control. In contrast to the calm clarity of Diebenkorn’s rectangle-based Ocean Park series, which is equally abstract and contemplative, Berran's work is infused with a punk rock style informed by surfer and skateboard culture. The affect is similar to the heavily postered, torn walls of Jacques Villeglé. Berran’s contrasting hot and cold colors (icy blue reappears), along with his liberal use of black, give the paintings a contemporary, digital severity.

Patrick Berran, Untitled (PB 646), 2017, Acrylic and toner on panel

In one work, Untitled (PB 646), an insistent smaller frame in the middle of the image suggests a mirror. But instead of seeing ourselves or the world reflected in it, we see a patterned surface of warm gray and black that closes off vision, and redirects our view outward to the margins of the canvas. Berran’s paintings are viewfinders on an internal world, screens on which raw visual experience is distilled and transformed into rich, layered notations. They invite us to look inward as we are looking out, and to recognize the buzzing complexity within.

--Jeff Frederick

Friday, December 30, 2016

Performing Dissolution

Image X:  Emily Mullin, Untitled (2016)
Three ceramic vases and painted steel shelf, 30 x 18 x 8 inches
Image courtesy Lucien Terras. 

Exhibition review

Lucien Terras.
325 Broome Street (Lower East Side, NYC)
December 8, 2016 - January 29, 2017

Emily Mullin is a subtle polyglot.  Her works – tableaux of glazed ceramic vases that hold exotic plants, and sit on painted steel shelves – combine elements of ancient Egyptian and Sumerian clay pots, Modernist patterning, machined construction, and hand cut flora so masterfully that days after seeing them at Lucien Terras  I find their effects difficult to shake. The pieces seem simple at first, but gradually deliver an unanticipated experience where rich optics and sharp formal play usurp the primacy of their own materiality.

Featuring a single pot covered in regular, long, fingerprint-shaped patterns and a tuxedo-blue shelf, Untitled (image X) is inviting, odd, and structurally succinct. Like all the pots in the show, this one is smallish and would fit easily in two open hands. Eight fountain-like arms elaborate a facade that works together with wax resist and glaze to form a texturally dense, semi-regular visual pattern running parallel to the piece’s stage-like front edge. Flowers twist upward with violet notes that burn; a counterpoint that foregrounds and amplifies the work’s otherwise low-chromatic air.

Image Y:  Emily Mullin, Untitled (2016)
Two ceramic vessels and painted steel shelf, 30 x 24 x 8 inches
Image courtesy Lucien Terras.

Untitled (image Y) features two plump, Sumerian-style vases. Leaning unevenly, the pair activate space with anthropomorphic charm. Martian red tones and hand-painted, checkered patterns graft the vessels and shelf together, flattening the distance between the middle and background by inviting the eye’s fluid movement back and forth across the forms’ silhouettes. Fresh foliage tucked into one pot offers a vital release of rich green, and the boldness of its counterpoint further intensifies the tableau’s tight visual hold.

Untitled (image Z) would be playfully excessive, if it were not so cooly removed. The piece is challenging, and rewards consideration. Its vivid, peppermint white-and-red, tic-tac-toe scheme borders on acrid. Three short, waffle-cut pots repeat the larger grid pattern. Two of them are set parallel to the front plane, while the third is intentionally shifted, creating a play between fractured, fabricated space and actual space. Red flowers wrench the eye a bit, their round petals blotting and breaking up the tense visual matrix. 

Image Z:  Emily Mullin, Untitled (2016)
Three ceramic vessels and painted steel shelf, 30 x 26 x 8 inches
Image courtesy Lucien Terras.

These works successfully aggregate a broad set of disparate histories, substances and formal devices. Very much like the shallow space of a painting, they weave and bend a convincing optical fabric with threads coursing through a boxed front, middle and background. In each piece the fourth wall is enforced and then broken. Vectors of pattern, color, tone and line flow through everything, dissolving clay and steel into tightly compressed spatial systems. The vessels’ chunky forms and the exotic plants’ natural presence assert “real-ness”, but they don’t compete; the sets absorb them and steal the show.

Mullin’s work is keen in its casual appeal and masterful in its execution. The exhibition staggers by transforming physical elements into raw illusory events. In this way, the works are surprisingly more visual than physical, more virtual than real.

–– Michael Woody

Sunday, December 11, 2016

This is The Cake

Sarah Faux, Swells, 2016, Oil on Canvas

Exhibition Review

Mandy Lyn Ford and Sarah Faux, “Touching in the Dark”
yours mine and ours Gallery
54 Eldridge Street (Lower East Side, NYC)
October 21 – December 11, 2016

Mandy Lyn Ford and Sarah Faux have a sharp, raucous show together. Their work is smartly hung and impressive in its carnality, with strong optical and thematic elements to match. The sensory logic of both artists’ work is as compelling as any you are likely to see.

Sarah Faux’s painting falls comfortably into the sensualist lineage of Tracey Emin, Cecily Brown and Rita Ackermann, but her work isn’t as lofty or removed. Swells features a pair sexually engaged, one participant’s point of view replaceable with our own. Both hover in space and are pressed forward in the picture, engaged in awkward self-display. Their strange, imperfect, impeccably painted bodies offer an immediately accessible version of paint as naked flesh and process as hedonistic event. The pair’s greedy hands are lined in electric colors; one seeks and invites while another (the other’s) works at arousal. The piece comes on with a rich mixture of tightly packed forms and heaped-on paint, suggesting open and familiar intimacy. A fullness and specificity accords with the work’s simplicity, making it feel like an actual memory, a “this looks like someone I know” report that surprises by being both pointed and personal.

Mandy Lyn Ford, 666, 2016, oil paint, acrylic, sparkles, and canvas on wood panel

Ford’s work is, like Faux’s, exceptional in its density. While less overtly erotic, Ford’s pieces have sensual appeal like a fantastic dessert. The work’s conceptual vehicle is a loose but deliberate placement of screens in screens, and paintings on paintings. Ford unleashes the power of these self-referential meta-devices without letting it overwhelm her difficult improvisations in tactile variety: quick, easily circulable images get met with the indisputable immediacy of anthropomorphic embodiment. The work is chaotic and sometimes garish, but it speaks clearly, foregrounding the peculiar dynamics of its material world.

Mandy Lyn Ford, New Wave, 2014, Oil paint, acrylic, sparkle foam and canvas on wood panel

In New Wave, panel, paint, canvas, foam and pen come together in an amorphous object that is as likely sculpture as it is painting. Its jagged edges are paired with regular, horizontal lines etched into its face, referencing its pulpy substrate and also accentuating the full form and subtle turns of its torn, rolling surface(s). There is a strange muscularity in its minutiae and you find yourself exploring corners and crevices with deep, impressed focus – an experience that attests to the artist’s uncommon attention, risk, and hard-won reward. Ford sees to the whole and manages the tiniest bits equally.

Works like these are supported by a history of art that invites materials to perform in certain ways. Both Faux and Ford accept these rich histories, but their works move beyond easy citation. They make leaps from reflection to revelation with persistent insistence and undeniable freshness. The exhibition has gravity, and is as intelligent as it is audacious.

—Michael Woody

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Fresh from the East

Arlan Huang, "Zenkoji Black 6" (2015)
acrylic and oil on mirror plexi, 6 x 6 inches
photo courtesy Lia Chang

Exhibition review

Arlan Huang, "Recent Paintings"
Andre Zarre Gallery
529 West 20th Street
September 8 - 27, 2016

Arlan Huang’s solo exhibition of “Recent Paintings” contains many gems of painterly refreshment. The most stunning are small, square compositions of abstract marks and lines, made during Huang's 2015 residency at the Zenkoji Temple in Nagano, Japan. These 6x6-inch paintings evoke branches of flowers against empty skies. Their casual humor and studied delicacy gets expanded in the larger works in the exhibition.

Huang begins with pre-fab mirrored plexiglass industrially painted in black, blue, gold, green, or silver. He sands them unevenly, and produces surprisingly subtle atmospheric effects by counterposing spare compositions, bright pigments, and thick textures against his burnished surfaces. His finesse with plexi derives from his experience with glassblowingBut working in glass suggests a light touch; Huang paints lush and bold. His quick, deliberate daubs in vivid colors recall Vincent van Gogh’s impassioned impasto in a related scene.  They also resemble the "spontaneous" yet pictorially complex strokes of Chinese brush painting.

Arlan Huang, "Zenkoji Blue 2" (2015)
acrylic and oil on mirror plexi, 6 x 6 inches
photo courtesy Lia Chang

The background colors in Huang’s paintings index lacquers, gilding, and glazes from traditional East Asian crafts. But his abstractions look thoroughly contemporary, and spiced with a hot (fluorescent) red! In titles of larger paintings on sanded plexiglass, “Pink” and “Pinky” refer not to this bright pigment, but to the hand-mixed pale background tint. The wit in these titles matches the red-fluorescent effect: “Still Pink After All These Years” makes faint rosiness dance with the jazzy melancholy of the classic Paul Simon tune to which it alludes. Simon told Dick Cavett that he might add an unforeseen chord to the unfinished song, to create a “refreshing” sound; they agree that repeating such a surprise will quickly make it go stale. So I expected that Huang wouldn’t keep using that wild red…but he does. The real surprise is that this move keeps succeeding.

Arlan Huang, "Still Pink After All These Years" (2015)
acrylic and oil on canvas, 36 x 72 inches
photo courtesy Robert Costello

The exhibition contains one red herring, the elephant in the room. “Non Dimenticar” is an enormous canvas of long lines without smaller marks. The lines riff on Sol LeWitt’s gouaches of undulating horizontals (Huang has been LeWitt’s New York framer for decades). The title, from the song made famous by Nat King Cole, hints at ruminations on times past: this work did begin as one of Huang's “Pink and Blue” paintings of wavering, watery lines. The instruction “Non Dimenticar” — “don’t forget” — functions ironically: Huang’s lines try to obscure something that lurks below the surface, even as it presses toward us from behind the tangle.

Arlan Huang, "Non Dimenticar" (2016)
acrylic and oil on cotton duck, 90 x 72 inches
Photo courtesy Arlan Huang

I wondered whether this unique painting simply should have been omitted. And is its highly worked surface overworked? Perhaps, in relation to Brice Marden’s similarly structured, revised, eastern-oriented paintings. When I imagined Huang showcasing only paintings on plexiglass, however, I saw my error. “Non Dimenticar” reveals the compost that fuels the rest. 

In "Recent Paintings," Huang wrestles not only with art historical antecedents and material/cultural traditions, but also with his own personal and career trajectories (see his interview after winning a 2014 Joan Mitchell Foundation award) as he paints afresh.

-- Karen Schiff

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Framing the Push

Sharon Brant, “An Uncertain Geometry” (2016) Oil stick and alkyd on canvas, 36 x 48 inches Image courtesy Minus Space
Exhibition Review

Sharon Brant: Paintings 2004 Through 2010
Galerie Tanja Grunert
May 5 - June 18, 2016 (extended)
Brant / Brennan / Zinsser
Minus Space
June 4 - July 2, 2016

Sharon Brant’s paintings, from two distinct phases and in two handsome exhibitions, create palpable forces and spaces. At Tanja Grunert in Manhattan, the hard edges of rectilinear forms mostly hug the borders of small, variously sized rectangular paintings, highlighting the material details of the fabric supports. At Minus Space in Brooklyn, Brant’s more recent paintings stretch the canvases into longer horizontal dimensions, and the painted forms relax into themselves, with rougher lines and a more limited palette. Travel across boroughs offers you a mini-survey of powerfully “empty” fields.

Immediately upon entering Galerie Tanja Grunert, I was struck by Brant’s understated command. The artist sometimes coats her fabric supports with a clear medium; sometimes she articulates them with all-over, lush, white brushstrokes through which the raw fibers seem to be straining to surface. These textures become highly noticeable because Brant outlines the space of the canvas using carefully applied, thin lines of colors (black, the primaries, silver) which boldly offset the raw fabrics’ hues: straw, jute, sackcloth, and clay. Her outlines trace the edges of the rectangular pieces, or create a square or rectangle within the larger field. Either way, your attention is made to focus more precisely than in Jo Baer's outlined fields: Brant’s paintings are small enough that you perceive tiny details such as warps in a linen weave, slight diagonal deviations within the border lines, nubs of congealed paint, a crease in the underlying canvas. Works in the back of the exhibition substitute porous graphite lines for the wide painted ones, foreshadowing Brant's movement toward edgeless, drawn forms.

In contrast to the earlier, tentative airiness of the graphite lines, current paintings in the Minus Space exhibition play at full throttle, weaving black or carmine gestural forms into heavily worked white surfaces. They appear to be figures on grounds, but are they? The “background” textures are as malleable and charged as those of the color-saturated lines and shapes. No wonder she calls these works “uncertain geometries”... When Brant layers white over some painted lines, the underlying colors simmer with occult force. While the earlier works had reversed the figure-ground relation, now form and negative space are in constant, fluid interchange. Brant reveals the insistent quality of all matter -- solid (shapes), liquid (paint), or gas (“backgrounds”). And now, when she obscures lines that limn a horizontal edge (don’t miss the painting in the office), the half-buried borders indicate hidden layers of deepened space.* I think of Susan Hefuna’s layered grids, Terri Rolland’s wicket shapes, and the expert freedom of Katherine Bradford’s brushwork.

Coincidentally (?), all the artists I immediately imagined as Brant’s reference points are women. From 1989 until 1996, when she was in her 40s, Brant was a member of the A.I.R. Gallery, created by and for women artists. If Brant's strong, sensitive technique is dubbed feminist / female, is the work constrained or enriched? In any case, now that the New York Times is trending seasoned and laudable women artists, Brant too deserves more recognition.
– Karen Schiff

* The hints of color that sometimes line the outer edges of Brant’s canvases are echoed in Michael Brennan’s oil paintings of ghostly effects on the opposite wall. And while these bodies of work support each other, John Zinsser’s large red square gives the room a center of gravity. (At Tanja Grunert, Brant’s paintings are also presented with other artists’ works, but there the space is organized so that each has a separate exhibition.)

Sharon Brant, “Nov. 9, 2008” (2008)
Acrylic and graphite on linen
Image courtesy Galerie Tanja Grunert

Sharon Brant, "An Uncertain Geometry" (2016)
Oil stick and alkyd on canvas, 18 x 72 inches
Image courtesy Minus Space

Friday, June 3, 2016

Oil And Water

Patrick Shoemaker, Hindrance, 2016
Oil on canvas, 46 x 44 inches
Image courtesy Anna Zorina Gallery, New York
Exhibition Review

February 25 – April 2, 2016

Figures intertwine in Patrick Shoemaker’s paintings, yet it is unclear if any given interaction is a dance or a fight. In Hindrance, a couple tilts this way and that, swinging vertiginously against an ochre background. Are the two locked in a tango, or are we witnessing the final blow of a wrestling bout? The painting’s title suggests the second, but the image looks incongruously joyful. In other works in this exhibition, the contest is between a person (or multiple people) and an animal, such as in Beast Beating, where five figures dressed in glowing yellow, red, and blue, grapple with a bear-like animal against a maroon and pink background. Altogether “Fire On Fire,” the artist’s first-ever solo exhibition, featured fourteen small to medium-sized paintings ranging from 15x13 inches to 58x58 inches.

While the works are not exactly narrative, visual themes and archetypes recur, including the fire of the show’s title. Flower forms crop up throughout the paintings, perhaps more symbolic than real, since they always conform to the idea of a cartoon rose or a tulip shape. Water takes on the feeling of a freighted symbol: Bringing Water is a close-up of a person carrying what looks like a book, but could be a fire bucket. The figure in Soft Traipse certainly carries a bucket. Translucent layers in the paintings look like water as they interact. Many works contain “rays” like those in Charles Demuth’s My Egypt, where the picture is sliced into subtly different-colored wedges. In Pour, one of the larger works, such a layer turns objects a different color, from burnt sienna to pinkish beige.

Shoemaker’s surfaces are thickly painted in oil so that no texture of the canvas shows through. The compositions fit tightly together like jigsaw puzzles. Surfaces are glossy, but at the same time soft. Contours are blended with a dry brush to leave feathered, irregular edges, and colors glow through the shallow spaces between different layers of depth. Shoemaker’s figurative paintings recall Milton Avery’s: solid planar backgrounds, broad simple shapes, and figures with no faces. Like Avery, or Bob Thompson, he uses colors with lots of white added to them. Rather than being pretty, here the colors create a somber effect.

Sometimes the artist uses background patterns that gesture toward Matisse, as with the rough plant-like forms of Zig Zag. The lower part of Red Boot is taken up by a shape that echoes one of the modernist master’s cut-outs: palm or seaweed, divided into sections of pink, green, and blue. The unmodulated flatness and anonymity of Shoemaker's shapes and figures, instead of making them generic, allow them to feel universal and timeless, even iconic. The paintings grab hold of you quietly and insistently, and their vibrations mesmerize. Shoemaker manages to evoke something ghostly, wistful, and genuinely moving.

--Jeff Frederick

Patrick Shoemaker, Beast Beating, 2015
Oil on canvas, 48 x 46 inches
Image courtesy Anna Zorina Gallery, New York

Patrick Shoemaker, Pour, 2016
Oil on canvas, 54 x 44 inches
Image courtesy Anna Zorina Gallery, New York

Friday, October 30, 2015

Lots With Little

Exhibition Review

JOSH SMITH “Sculpture”
September 11 – October 31, 2015
New York

Doing something unexpected has become expected of Josh Smith since he first made the infuriatingly egotistical yet ingenious move of painting his own name.* By repeatedly finding new ways to challenge the public, he has built up a contemporary legend rather than an easily pinned down body of work.

Smith’s current exhibition at Luhring Augustine Chelsea features painted works on cradled plywood rectangles, whose mainly white surfaces are marked by skittery lines of graphite. Most of them have splotches of color from ink, watercolor, paint pen, or grease pencil. Earlier marks have been painted over in white (or erased), and the surfaces are artfully scuffed and smudged, which adds to their richness. Several of the smaller works show a delicate pattern of vertical cracks all over, as if they had been left out in a barn for some time.

The initial impression is that these redo Cy Twombly’s drawings, especially those of the 2000s, like the spiky Sesostris series. What color there is matches Twombly’s palette: reds and violets, a touch of green or turquoise. But Smith’s pieces also have the wide-open white fields and sparse, simple delineation of Miró’s mid-1960s paintings, and Smith’s vertical or angled linear marks sometimes resemble birds or insects.

The artist doesn’t give you much. There is an almost perverse reserve in his laying down only a few, skinny, countable marks on each surface. Yet somehow, maddeningly, the pieces work. Though they remain ciphers, they manage to create space and to suggest movement using limited means. Their complex textures are engaging. The scale is satisfying.

The twenty-two works in the exhibition (ranging from 32 x 26 inches to 63 x 51 inches) are a perfect fit for the gallery space, distributed according to size in the various rooms. Not easily distinguishable at first glance, the works are more compelling together than any one would be alone, as was also the case with the monochromes Smith showed as part of his double New York exhibition in 2013. Here you sense that the artist may have created many more of these works than are on view. 

The first paintings I saw by Josh Smith were on plywood panels, 5 x 4 feet, hung on the wall with washers and screws at the New Museum in 2009. Smith later made works with the same dimensions but on canvas, perhaps having been encouraged by his gallery to create what collectors understand as “paintings,” namely works on canvas with stretchers, which can be sold for more money. In the current exhibition, each of the works, on plywood mounted on foam, is framed in a white shadowbox, and the checklist gives a thickness for each (2-1/2 inches) in addition to its height and width. Hence the title of the current exhibition, “Sculpture.” One can imagine Smith saying, as he showed his new batch of panel paintings to the gallery director: “This is what I have been working on lately. So call them sculptures.”  

--Jeff Frederick

* The “name paintings” build abstractions around the absurdly obvious structure of the letters of the artist’s own name. Their unconstrained self-aggrandizement taps into something primal, both in the making and in the viewer's reaction. They are graffiti as a protest of the baldest and most desperate kind against death.

Images: all works Untitled, © 2014, 2015 Josh Smith; courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

You Had To Be There?

Full installation view, "Return to Problem," 2015
Image courtesy Reena Spaulings Gallery, New York

Exhibition review

ED LEHAN, “Return to Problem”
May 17 - June 14, 2015
New York

Ed Lehan’s “Return to Problem” exhibition at Reena Spaulings has ended, which makes this writing timely. For most of the show’s run, words were required to access its primary focus: opening night. 

Lehan created an installation: a dropped acoustic-tile ceiling over most of the exhibition space, and his carefully scrawled word “experiencer” on one wall. During the opening, he served mojitos from industrial buckets on the gallery’s already raised wooden floor. After opening night, visitors encountered just the leftover, off-Minimalist stage set. The air was lightly scented by undrunk mojitos, prompting the question: what happened at the reception?

Mostly the usual: talking and drinking. The show’s economic critique – no framed works to buy! – was conventional; the Relational Aesthetics dynamic was familiar. But Lehan’s mojito fest closely resembled Rikrit Tiravanija’s Thai feasts. It also recreated Lehan’s installation of the same show in London,* where he lives, and recalled “The Opening” exhibitions by Merlin Carpenter, Lehan’s colleague and friend from art school, one of them even at Reena Spaulings (see this excellent review of Lehan’s show). Was this really just another (conceptual) art reception?

What was this experience about? What is an experiencer’s role? What kind of fun was this party? Asking these questions must have been part of the evening. Let’s explore some answers through unexpected precedents. 

The low-ceilinged space suggested Floor 7½ in the Spike Jonze / Charlie Kaufman film, Being John Malkovich (1999). A chute from this floor leads into Malkovich’s mind, where many visitors share one character’s refreshed feeling: “I knew who I was...everything made sense.” Soon visitors get ejected alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. The Reena Spaulings stage set similarly proposed an alternative reality. Lehan wanted his word “experiencer” – plus the alcohol of opening night? – to nudge visitors beyond our tired Marxist roles of producers/consumers of culture, toward a “crisis” (“What are we doing here?”) and heightened awareness (the same question, in another key). Then we got ejected alongside Canal Street.

But experience is not always coherent, or uplifting. In Remainder (2007**), the hit novel by Lehan’s compatriot, Tom McCarthy, a rich, amnesiac everyman tries to restage situations where living had felt "fluent and unforced. Not awkward, acquired...I wanted to...feel real.” The plot turns exquisitely, intensely chilling as the man increasingly controls his reenactments and loses control. Lehan’s repetitions could likewise be traps as easily as springboards. The dropped ceiling evoked decades of generic institutional/office spaces (and a Richard Serra installation), but it didn’t necessarily help visitors see Lehan’s resistance to artistic uniqueness. His clue, “experiencer,” supposedly named his new role, but it could have been his command to us. I love multivalence, yet I wanted a more revelatory chute into Lehan’s mind.***

The exhibition deepened when I talked with the gallery’s representative. Visitors at the opening probably gained from their fun conversations, too. Lehan’s scrawled word invited us continually to “Return to [that] Problem”: what’s going on? Such dialogue is an excellent model for viewers engaging with art.

-- Karen Schiff

Buckets of moldering mojitos, and wall with Ed Lehan's handwritten "experiencer," 2015
Image courtesy Reena Spaulings Gallery, New York

* Lehan claims that the London exhibition was markedly different, perhaps owing to the characteristics of the space and the sociopolitics of drinking mojitos in Hackney. The New York gallery features peeling paint, red Chinese writing in the far windows, a windowed door high in a wall. In East London, mojitos are the yuppie drink which signals a decline in that neighborhood’s bohemian art culture. Beyond these distinctions, local cultural assumptions about the genre of the gallery exhibition itself most likely made Lehan’s work read differently in the two locations.

** McCarthy wrote Remainder in 2001. After enduring publishers' rejections, it was first printed by small presses in France (2005) and England (2006). It sold well in museum gift shops, then gained wide popularity and critical acclaim following the Vintage edition in the U.S. (2007).

*** Did “experiencer” indicate Lehan’s optimistic belief in a non-capitalistic reality? Was he cynically infusing the notion of experience with a fiction of escape? (How) is his decision to hold an exhibition, where the lowered partial ceiling imprisons visitors as subtly as any ideology, itself a complex gesture of hope? Do Lehan’s anti-narrative, anti-aesthetic repetitions (merely) fill McCarthy’s (and Simon Critchley’s) prescriptions for art, in section 14 of their “Declaration on Digital Capitalism” (Artforum, 2014)? Perhaps Lehan’s “crisis” is exactly about wrestling with these questions.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Muscular Atmospheres

Rebecca Salter, Untitled AG14, 2014
Mixed media on muslin on linen, 18 x 20 inches
Image courtesy Howard Scott Gallery, New York

Exhibition review

April 13 - May 23, 2015
New York

JOHN ZURIER, West of the Future
February 13 - April 18, 2015
New York

Soon after entering First Light,” Rebecca Salter’s new exhibition at Howard Scott Gallery, I started questioning my standards for abstraction. Salter’s grey, atmospheric canvases have such a consistent vagueness that I wondered: did their consistency make them strong? Or did their vagueness make them weak?

My real questions lurked deeper: why do I value “strength” itself, and what is that? Clearly I wanted Salter’s paintings to avoid the pitfalls of “zombie formalism,” and to be as tight and strong as the writing we aim for on Wallscrawler. But when is abstraction visually “muscular”? How could I assess this quality in artworks that look...soft?

In this exhibition, variously sized rectangular paintings suddenly seem to dissolve into deep chasms. Diverse greys and indigos accumulate into sometimes gloomy fogs. (Salter lives in London.) Spatial ambiguities emerge from scrims of painted gauze glued over the canvases, and because of shadowy spots that punctuate the lighter grey atmospheres. Up close, some spots have hairy edges, like the stray threads that cling to some rough contours of the applied muslin.

Roughness also appears in idiosyncratic details such as an off-center water stain in Untitled AG14. It permeates the off-kilter grids that structure the paintings’ ethereality. Salter creates geometric fields by folding her materials, overlapping wide lines of thin pigment, and (as in Untitled AG25) extracting threads from the fabric at irregular intervals. 

These techniques aerate the dense markmaking from Salter’s earlier work at Howard Scott and in a two-venue retrospective in New Haven. Throughout, her layered glazing of materials reveals her years of ceramics training in Japan, and her subtle gradations of dark tones echo her experience as a printmaker. If fields and grids aren’t your taste, you might see the work as esoteric tie dye. With time, the paintings gather steam -- build muscle.

This phenomenon reminded me of visiting John Zurier’s recent exhibition at Peter Blum Gallery, West of the Future.” At first the show looked like vacant neo-expressionism, but soon a sensibility surfaced. A bright atmosphere filled the room. It turns out that Zurier had been moved to represent the “soft” summer light of Iceland’s northern Skagafjörður region...just as the work in Salter’s First Light was inspired by the return of daylight at springtime in the Lofoten Islands, in northern Norway. Knowing these frameworks helps to identify these paintings’ underlying pulses, and to name the drives that keep them from being merely formal explorations of material effects. 

Inner compulsion distinguishes “muscular abstraction” from a “zombie” mimicry. Purpose cannot simply be declared in a press release; it must be palpable in the artwork. For artist and architect Maya Lin, “a strong, clear vision” emerges from a white-hot impulse. Expanding on that insight obscures it; paring down again allows it to reveal its elemental power.

A strong motive does not require articulable content or political injustice; it can manifest in a feeling or a mood. Salter abstracts a shimmer from murkiness. First Light beckons like a quiet buoy in Chelsea.

-- Karen Schiff

Rebecca Salter, Untitled AG25, 2014
Mixed media on muslin on linen, 43 x 59 inches
Image courtesy Howard Scott Gallery, New York

Friday, May 1, 2015

Exhibition Review: TRUDY BENSON "Shapes Of Things" LISA COOLEY

Trudy Benson, Re: Composition, 2014
Acrylic and oil on canvas, 77 x 80 inches
Image courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley, New York.

Exhibition review

April 4 - May 3, 2015
New York

Trudy Benson’s “Shapes of Things” promises to be one of this year’s ten best shows of new paintings.  The exhibition of nine works on canvas, six medium-to-large (the largest is 76 by 108 inches) and three small, at Lisa Cooley gallery, shows Benson moving in a new direction with profundity and skill.

Benson’s earlier canvases featured an accumulation of wide, obstructive planes, often with figural geometric objects anchoring the centers. These works dealt in super-saturated color, borrowing garish 1980s graphic motifs, specifically early MacPaint software effects.

The new paintings are more airy, open, and provocatively incomplete. Painted elements build up into layers of screens. The initial impression is of black and white paintings with one color added. Upon further inspection other colors may appear in scattered pockets.

Because of the openness of Benson’s intersecting systems, the buff color of the raw canvas becomes an important part of the palette. As one title reveals, the works are “Tan Grams”, a reference both to the color and to the tangram, a Chinese puzzle whose flat, moveable geometric pieces are evoked by Benson’s forms. Beyond the black, white, and tan, Benson’s colors are mostly intense: the unnatural green in “Thoth” could come from an overeager environmental group’s logo. The use of primary colors and graphic motifs give “Re: Composition” a strong affinity with Mondrian or Miró.

The airbrushed doodles of the initial, background layer of the paintings, in black or sienna, are another new element. These spindly jottings, sometimes looking like single-cell organisms or chain mail, are blurred at their edges, almost bleeding into the canvas. While reminiscent of Michael Williams’ graphomanic airbrushing, Benson’s underlayer marks are urgent and insistent, as though they have some news to impart. The airbrushed passages feel like the riskiest part of the works because they are so nakedly present. 

Over these, with plenty of space peeking through, are larger stenciled shapes, parts of which are masked off and rolled over. Linear slabs of paint are laid on so thickly that furry peaks stand up in them like frosting. Over the rolled passages, piped lines are extruded directly from the paint tube, into drawings that form frameworks or diagrammatic figures. In “Thoth” the lines create a cartoon beast who may be the Egyptian god of writing, a man with the head of an ibis.

Benson’s complex imagery feels sincere, as if there is a real need for these paintings to exist. The new work may demonstrate a greater sense of art historical consciousness, yet Benson’s paintings refuse to take themselves too seriously. In “Banana Phone,” a flat, white shape is banana-like, and airbrushed coils could be the phone cord. “New Shapes”, with its widely looping black and white paint, salmon slabs that look like pool noodles, and a two-tone setting sun, humorously recalls the graphics of the popular 1980s television show, “Miami Vice.”

New Yorkers are lucky to have Trudy Benson working and showing in our midst.

--Jeff Frederick

Trudy Benson, New Shapes, 2015
acrylic, enamel, and oil on canvas, 80 x 77 inches
Image courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley, New York