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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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