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

No comments:

Post a Comment