When I saw Lesley Vance’s paintings for the first time a few years back, I remember thinking that they resembled what I imagined an Old Master’s painting would have looked like had any of the Old Masters been abstract painters. The work was easel-sized and painted in a dark, earthy palette. The images consisted of colored marks and shapes that seemed to emerge from shadowy backgrounds – mysteriously illuminated like the figure in a Rembrandt portrait. I found them instantly appealing. Others seemed to like them as well, including the curators of the 2010 Whitney Biennial who decided to include her in the exhibition.
In her newest body of work, currently on view at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, Vance has made some noticeable changes. Her palette has been expanded and lightened considerably. The dark browns and inky blacks from her previous canvases have been replaced with bright blues and rich greens. Perhaps more significantly, there is a lot more white in these paintings then in her past work. Dark-colored oil paint is often transparent, allowing for thin, rich washes of color and the illusion of lightness and depth. White oil paint, however, is almost always unforgivingly opaque. In these new paintings, the white paint sits on the surface like an impenetrable wall, betraying every brushstroke and attempt at blending. Instead of inviting the viewer into the illusion of the image, Vance’s white paintings emphasize their existence as physical objects – their surfaces resembling the inside of an oyster shell. These paintings seem to insist on a more “all-over” compositional strategy in place of the traditional figure/ground structure typical of Vance’s work.
Vance, who began her career making representational still lifes, continues to start each painting with an object, photograph, or idea that serves as the impetus for the work. This is simply a strategy for getting some paint on canvas – a starting point. From there, she quickly abandons the original idea, often literally scraping the canvas clean with a palette knife. She then allows the painting to progress from that point based on its own internal logic. Many of the most dynamic moments in her paintings are a result of these scrapes. Her palette knife spreads and mixes thin layers of color over the stark white linen ground creating a radiant glazing effect. The results are similar to those achieved in Gerhard Richter’s abstract “squeegee” paintings, but on a smaller scale. Vance builds her paintings around these momenta, adding shadows to suggest pictorial depth or blending opaque colors together to suggest form. But despite momentary flourishes of representation, the resulting image is firmly abstract and always untitled. Vance is clearly more interested in painterly concerns such as color and light quality then she is in depicting any recognizable objects.
Even with the new developments in her work, the paintings in this show remain unmistakably Vance’s. Anyone familiar with her work could still pick one of these new paintings from a line up with ease. This speaks to the fact that, in a relatively short amount of time, Vance has managed to develop a unique and recognizable visual language in the well-tread medium of abstract painting. And with this new work she has proven that this language is nimble enough to allow for growth and change without losing its charm.
Leslay Vance is on at the David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles until the 4th of January.