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

Why Wallscrawler?

       Are you a rockpiler* or a wallscrawler**?     – Joseph Roeder

Welcome to Wallscrawler, a gazette of pithy exhibition reviews and commentaries by visual artists. When a show (or some other art event) compels us to write, we will strive to deliver muscular substance in 500 words or less.

The past few years have brought a welcome proliferation of online sources for writing about art. Now that writing is often one of many competing obligations in an artist’s incessantly multimodal practice, these sources sometimes suffer from hasty editing. At the same time, many practitioners insist that the only way to produce high-quality work is to commit either to the visual or the verbal, so artists who write are expected to fail.

We offer an alternative perspective: we are grounding this project in our visual practice, as dedicated studio artists who happen to have an affinity for language. Writing helps us see our artwork more deeply, and our art-making helps us perceive the exhibitions we’re re-viewing. So, in this era of the “post-studio,” we dare to advance another paradigm: that of the expanded studio.***

Further, Wallscrawler’s debut coincides with Robert Storr’s forthright critique of many contemporary art writers, in a Yale University radio interview. This is the latest in a spirited series of dialogues about criticism, from panels at the annual College Art Association conference to debates in DUMBO. These developments affirm our conviction that individual, principled voices can have enormous impact.

We aim to post about the most consequential work we see, not to write about our friends. We labor for thoughtful rigor without “artspeak” or hype. We expect to focus on contemporary abstract painting by living artists. We do not accept advertising.


* sculptor or other 3D artist
** painter or other 2D artist
*** Our term nods to the persistence of Rosalind Krauss’s influential essay, “Sculpture In The Expanded Field,” October, Vol. 8 (Spring, 1979), pp. 30-44.