Abstract Critical

Seen In New York, January 2014

Written by Paul Corio

Lori Ellison, Untitled, 2012, gouache on wood panel, 12 x 9 inches. Courtesy of McKenzie Fine Art

Lori Ellison, Untitled, 2012, gouache on wood panel, 14” x 11”. Courtesy of McKenzie Fine Art

One of the things I like best about the resurgence of abstraction in New York is the shear number of shows. The quality is uneven to be sure, but that’s the point; one is given the luxury of exercising judgment. I can remember several junctures not that many years ago when there were so few exhibitions of abstract painting that you were sort of starved or blackmailed into viewing them in a positive light. One could always recharge at the museums during the drought periods, but the idea that little was being added felt gloomy. The new year opened in New York with a veritable avalanche of abstract paintings, and what follows are some of my favorites.

Michael Brennan and Lori Ellison both make an excellent case for the small scale picture; the largest canvases in Brennan’s solo show at Minus Space measures 20” x 16 ” and Ellison’s largest pieces at McKenzie Fine Art are only 14” x 11”. Michael Brennan’s figuration (which really defies definition as such) exists as fleeting images in peripheral vision – he has an abiding interest in scary movies, particularly the ones where you never really get a good look at the monster, and his fast-moving, heavily veiled specters are perpetually dissolving into the shadows. Brennan’s pictures have always oscillated between materiality and the photographic, but in the new work he’s increased the distance between those two readings by making the material application more lush and impastoed than ever – the built up smears of wax and oil paint in certain passages have a topography that catches light and casts shadows which then blend with the pictures’ illusionistic chiaroscuro. I really enjoyed Grey Razor Painting (Vampire), parts of which looked like they were made from smooth leather, and Grey Razor Painting (Slate Eyes), which had two coexistent spaces; an ambiguous ghost and what looked liked a section of paint that had been torn away.

Michael Brennan, Grey Razor Painting (Vampire), 2012, oil and wax on army duck, 20 x 16 inches, #MB14

Michael Brennan, Grey Razor Painting (Vampire), 2012, oil and wax on army duck, 20 x 16 inches, #MB14

Lori Ellison’s obsessive, contemplative patterns hum and vibrate with good-natured energy – gently humorous but never a gag. Each is essentially a two-value monochrome, with a fully saturated hue and a tint of the same, and the overall effect of a room full of them is tantamount to being at a tiny circus. The spatial effects are surprisingly varied given the all-overness of the compositions and the relatively consistent part-to-whole scale relationships; depending on the motif, some seem to rotate, some endlessly flip figure and ground, others seem to slowly march from side to side like the old Space Invaders video game. The size necessitates close viewing, and the velvety facture (gouache on wood) and meticulous application are the reward when you get your nose right up to them. I enjoyed the large selection of drawings in the show as well, but the paintings were the real jewels. The three pictures of swirling, snaky vortices built out of small triangles (all Untitled) were my favorites. 

Anoka Faruqee, 2013-76 (Circle), acrylic on linen on panel, 45 x 45 in (114.3 x 114.3 cm), Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York. Photo: Evan Whale

Anoka Faruqee, 2013-76 (Circle), acrylic on linen on panel, 45 x 45 in (114.3 x 114.3 cm), Courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York. Photo: Evan Whale

One of the reasons Op has become relevant again is because of the digital revolution and its attendant imagery – the original “Responsive Eye” generation from the 60s now seem as though they had a crystal ball. Painter Anoka Faruqee uses this language as a touchstone in her solo show at Koenig Clinton, making buzzing moiré patterns in wave and spiral configurations. But Faruqee makes a much more explicit reference to the screen by using a process of paint application and subsequent sanding that results in a smooth, semi-matte computer display presentation. The interesting by-products of her process are the flaws – seriously wobbly edges and intermittent blobs of color interrupt her otherwise perfect CG, sci-fi signal patterns. The man vs. machine tension this conjures up is, for me, far more interesting than the celebrated Wade Guytons which are hanging only a block away. The spirals were, not surprisingly, hypnotic, and I really enjoyed the more metallic-looking ones: 2013P-74 (Circle), 2013P-76 (Circle), and 2013P-81 (Circle). The subtle reference to the shiny side of a CD invoked technology on the brink of obsolescence, which fit nicely into the overall program (no pun intended).

Melissa Meyer’s painting occupies a space in between gestural abstraction and calligraphy; it’s neither and both. More importantly, she can make a mark that seems like a natural occurrence – there isn’t a single contrived curlycue among all the ribbon-like strokes in her current solo show at Lennon Weinberg, and if it looks that easy it invariably means it took years to hone. The paintings have all of the most appealing qualities of watercolor, especially transparency, but with a scale and color saturation that isn’t available in that medium. The stand-out for me was the large-scale Devlin, nearly 7’ across – it looked like a huge watercolor that had its color intensified in Photoshop, with oranges and reds that glowed like stained glass. 

Mike Childs, Left, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 30" x 40". ©2014 Mike Childs/ Robert Henry Contemporary

Mike Childs, Left, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 30″ x 40″. ©2014 Mike Childs/ Robert Henry Contemporary

In his just shut solo exhibition at Robert Henry Contemporary, painter Mike Childs uses a nuanced approach to the familiar architectonic vocabulary of geometric abstraction – he mixes in cues taken from nature’s architects, with a particular nod to bees and spiders. The results are still quite abstract (no illustrations of Charlotte’s Web here) but these references give the pictorial order a kind of breathing imperfection that I found welcoming. Color and interval are the real keys to these pictures, with large areas of uninflected hue giving way to slightly wonky patterns comprised of different sized modules – they swell right up to the picture plane and quickly recede in quite organic fashion. I liked Left best; the dominant red seemed as though it was casting a glow over all the other colors in the picture – including the greens.

Vince Contarino, NT/NF/12, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 11” x 14”

Vince Contarino, NT/NF/12, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 11” x 14”

Painter Vince Contarino really stands out in a three-person exhibition at Stephan Stoyanov gallery (along with painters Jenny Ransom and Kenny Rivero). In a strong group of modest-sized paintings, he seamlessly moves back and forth between the gestural, hard-edged, and atmospheric. The various pictorial languages never seem like a post-modern pastiche of styles, and at his best there are shades of Miró and Hans Hoffman. The tiny NT/NF/12 tied together the hard-edged and feathery through simple but keen analogies of color. Swap Meet wove the gestural and geometric by a constantly shifting figure-field arrangement. The broad scale changes between the various square and rectangular elements made the small canvas (28” x 24”) feel big.

Vince Contarino, Swap Meet, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 28” x 24”

Vince Contarino, Swap Meet, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 28” x 24”

Osamu Kobayashi’s large-scale abstract paintings have a kind of muscular simplicity; although I generally avoid the term “reductive,” it’s unusually apt here. But their engagement with both landscape and the shear love of paint make them something different from the late modernist strategy that term calls to mind. Slathered impasto butts up directly against passages so thinly painted and brushstroke-free that they appear to have no surface at all, and almost necessarily suggest the contrast between earth and sky. Slyly positioned diagonals create references to perspective, upsetting the strict identification with the shape of the support that one would expect from pictures that structurally evoke minimalism and Ellsworth Kelly. The titles reinforced the affinity to landscape, and I particularly liked Red Shore, with a large section of thick, tarry black in the center supported by a narrow strip of red that looked like satiny ribbon. Pink Waterfall was especially lovely, with a central geometric concavity recalling the organic shape in the title and disappearing into a mist in the lower corners. Kobayashi is in a two-person show at Storefront Ten Eyck, along with sculptor/furniture-maker Björn Meyer Ebrecht.

Osamu Kobayashi, Red Shore, oil on canvas, 66 x 60 inches

Osamu Kobayashi, Red Shore, oil on canvas, 66 x 60 inches

As I close in on the 1500-word mark, I find I’ve had to skip quite a few things I enjoyed. Here are a few, in brief:

By really sweating the small details of scale, surface, framing elements, canvas color, and especially subtle fluctuations of temperature, Daniel Levine assembles a really engaging group of white fields in his solo show at Churner and Churner. The superficial analogy would be to Ryman, but upon the briefest analysis it’s clear that Levine is doing something really different; he’s making paintings as opposed to things that are “about painting.”

Jason Stopa is a very young man (30, I believe) who mixes a keen understanding of abstraction with loopy, autobiographical childhood memories. The halo is a recurrent theme in his solo show at Novella Gallery, and Pink Rim was a playful mix of formalist abstraction, pre-renaissance devotional painting, and basketball. He’s only going to get better with age.

“Simple Means” at Jeff Bailey Gallery explores the relationship between geometric abstraction and Shaker design. It’s an interesting thesis and the similarities are hard to ignore, but I must confess that the Shaker stuff tended to change into background as I enjoyed the paintings. I’ve always been a fan of Don Voisine, who has several solid contributions, and Michelle Grabner’s small gingham paintings were also particularly nice.

Ann Pibal just about broke my heart with the haunting OPTQ, part of a four-person exhibition at Hionas Gallery. Interestingly, she told me that she almost declined to hang it because she initially though it too romantic, but it was as good an evocation of night as I’ve ever seen in paint.


Paul Corio, New York City, 31/1/14

  1. Robin Greenwood said…

    Moffett, Wilkin and Carpenter are very seriously wrong about this guy Drapell – he’s so bad he makes me want to support the New Casualist Provisional DIYers.

    • Graham Peacock said…

      Ms Farugee’s earlier works show a very conservative, all be it academic approach to patterning . Her recent work illustrated here has a more adventurousness approach which does echoe quite closely the early 1980′s works of the Candain painter Joseph Drapell ,(1943- ). What Mr Greenwood thinks of Mr Drapell’s work does nothing to address the fact that Fargee’s current work is lacking in its originality, even though it shows much progress.

  2. Lucy Baker said…

    If Anoka Farugee isn’t a student or folower of Joseph Drapell, this borders dangerously on plagerism (copyright laws). I have never seen anyone copy Joe’s work soooo closely! I think it would be most advisable to find her own style. Joe might be flattered or not (I cannot say , but I will certainly ask him!) ,but he’s been painting in this style(his!) for now as long as I have known him! He started in roughly 1977-78!! And I hope she gives him full credit as he is the master of his own style!

  3. Brent Hallard said…

    oh dear Robin, the compact interview with Daniel is not ‘breathtakingly false’, but alarming…
    as it has set you off, which is very good!

    Very best regards, enjoy your writings, to which I have no complaint.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Glad we got the “compact” version, Brent. Anything longer may have resulted in permanent psychic injury to all concerned.

      Kind regards and best wishes.

  4. Karen Schifano said…

    Paul, it’s so nice to have your intelligence and sharp eye on view here as a regular gig. Really enjoyed this round-up!

  5. Julie Gross said…

    Nice to read your pithy comments..Paul
    All best..Julie

  6. Sam said…

    Paul, could you enlarge on the difference between making paintings, and making things that are about painting?

    • Paul Corio said…

      Re. “About painting:”

      While the modernists took a cue from Greenberg in applying the immanent Kantian critique to painting (i.e. using the facture of painting to circumscribe its imagery – distilling it from within), many of the early post-modernists used the self-reflexive critique from without – the meta-view of the act of art-making itself. The overwhelming majority of this work was not painting (often programmatically so) but Ryman is a good example of someone who took up a more conceptual stance while continuing to paint.

      The consequence is that the aesthetic aspects in Ryman are strictly secondary – light, space, scale, and all the related issues that painters concerned themselves with from Giotto to Olitski. Ryman takes a birds-eye view of the activity of painting, and the image is simply a result of that activity and the materials used therein. Given that statement it would be tempting to compare what he does to Pollock, but I think that would be a mistake because of the emotionally wrought, deeply autographic nature of the drip pictures. Pollock’s paintings were still primarily aesthetic.

      Malevich and Newman were also still working from an emotional-aesthetic standpoint I think the painters who form the bridge between that and the strictly analytic, emotionally detached position are Reinhardt, Stella (speaking mainly about the black paintings), and Ellsworth Kelly. None of them fully gave over to that level of detachment (although Reinhardt’s prose would lead you to believe otherwise), but they opened the door for the minimalists and conceptual artists who would soon follow.

      • Daniel said…

        Painting about painting for Ryman involves the work being “about” painting as much as being a painting itself (and an important part of Painting’s history). “About painting” means Ryman makes clear the materials used: this is paint, this is paint on canvas, this is a brush stroke. Ryman’s also made paintings that were meant to be read as objects, not dependent on hanging on a wall, and using non-traditional painting supports (fiberglass, metal). And the color that Ryman is mostly identified with is white. So Paul is saying that while the work has maybe an unavoidable relationship to Ryman, it is not dependent on that reading, and should be looked at in it’s own light.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Well, Sam, you did ask…
      My personal interpretation of Levine’s white monochromes is that they are paintings about pictures of Robert Ryman’s paintings about painting.

      • Paul Corio said…

        Did you see these paintings in situ?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        You’re kidding, right?

      • Sam said…

        So you’re saying there is no need to, or no point?

      • Sam said…

        With the implication that they cannot have any aesthetic / visual qualities?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        You trying to start one of those internet troll fights?

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Of course they have aesthetic visual qualities (of a worn-out minimal kind), as does just about anything, but they offer nothing new or meaningful. They are intellectual posturing, as is confirmed by Levine’s interview http://brenthallard.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/white-things-daniel-levine/ which is breathtakingly false. So, no, I haven’t seen the work, and I don’t need to, because they are a conceptual conceit and have nothing to offer painting.

      • Paul Corio said…

        Well, I guess I did throw the first troll punch. I really think there’s no basis for judgement of these (or any monochromes really – Reinhardt, Marden, etc.) unless you see them in the flesh – a jpeg doesn’t carry any substantive info. I suppose you could try and discredit the whole endeavor, but that’s something apart from critiquing the actual pictures.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Since you are the one who has seen them, maybe you could critique them. What’s going on in their favour?

        I admit, my very strong inclination is indeed to dismiss the whole endeavour out-of-hand, since I consider it to be already discredited – or at the very least redundant.

      • Paul Corio said…

        In the main body of my piece I talk briefly about what I responded to in the Levine monochromes – just to add to that:

        I don’t think they these are conceptual in character, because they had a surprising amount of space and light – all had a small but discernible value range, moving from white to off white (sometimes towards grey, sometimes yellow, sometimes ochre) and the subtle shift made them glow – think of the way that Turner modulated from lead white to naples yellow in some of his depictions of the sky. This was intensified by the framing canvas color, itself light but invariably darker than the paint. The surfaces were built up, quick thickly on some, but because of the light colored paint they don’t have that heavy impasto feel (which I rarely enjoy). The topography lent a kind of Hoffman-esque push and pull between physical application and subtle illusionism. In the end I found them quite poetic, and essentially all of those key features, along with the scale, had to be seen in person, they really don’t survive the internet at all.

        I guess I don’t agree that the monochrome – or any motif or approach – is redundant or discredited, it all depends on what the individual artist does with it. Western painters got several centuries of solid painting out of madonnas and crucifixions. The lousy examples (of which there were many) proved nothing about the validity of the primary motive. I think the same holds true for the language of abstraction.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Thanks for that Paul, an interesting link with Turner, who we are discussing on the other feed. I respect your seeing so much in them, but, compared with good painting like Turner’s, they still sound so much of a nuance of a nuance. I suppose I’m very resistant to the “less is more” thing, and get very agitated when the accompanying text/interpretation gets as pretentious as the one Levine himself gives. If all they are is little nuances about shades of white, and they feel poetic to you, well, OK. I’ll pass. I want to see a considerable amount more ambitious momentum in abstract art. And I don’t, at the end of the day, believe in a “language” of abstraction, especially if it legitimises banality.

  7. robert Melzmuf said…

    What I enjoy about Michael Brennan’s paintings is the aesthetic for a spare, painterly space; beautifully executed. For me that is everything in the these paintings.

  8. John Scofield said…

    Wonderful piece by Paul Corio.

  9. Chris Hargens said…

    Thanks for pointing these out. Some really interesting painters to follow up on.

  10. Robert Linsley said…

    Check out the master of curvy moire patterns in acrylic, Joseph Drapell, who’s been making them for years.

    • Peter Stott said…

      Interesting links, but with a proviso; they seem to evidence a generic aspect to abstraction, artists seemingly doing essentially the same thing. Why,though? Possibly because they ARE painting the same thing, God, for want of a better word, or the Devil, maybe. After all, if the reality depicted in art actually came to be, it would be hell.

    • Lucy Baker said…

      Ty Robert! You are so right! I am appalled at Ms Anoka’s shameless show of copying Drapell’s work! You can also find more of his work on The New New Painters on Wiki and The New New Painters on Facebook (I am one of the NNP and I have exhibited with Joe for , well decades! Since about 1978 or so ! Ken Moffett exhibited one of his earliest a Red painting at The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and at Andre’s Emmerich’s Gallery back in the 70′s !! “Curator’s Choice” (catalog available , through me! )