At the Galleries
As if to compensate for all those months of cancelled exhibitions and closed galleries, the past season offered a notably diverse assortment of shows, albeit with restrictions for safety. Painting dominated, from the explicit and politically charged to cerebral abstraction, and a lot in between. The fall began with the brilliant Black, Texas-based Trenton Doyle Hancock’s “Something American,” at James Cohan’s two Downtown locations, a frighteningly relevant double header pillorying many of our current difficulties through metaphors both fierce and comic. On the Lower East Side, Hancock showed ink on paper drawings from an ongoing graphic novel about the Moundverse, a mythological world that pits evil Vegans, threatening policemen, and other villains against such good guys as Torpedo Boy, the artist’s disarmingly tubby superhero alter ego. We followed the panels of the current chapter, savoring Hancock’s loaded, lucid drawings and wondering what would happen next.
In Tribeca, a remarkable variety of paintings pointed to new directions, while also summing up many of Hancock’s continuing concerns—issues spectacularly accounted for in his vast installation at MassMoCA the summer before last, an extravaganza he described as a “theme park” of everything he was interested in. The canvases at James Cohan ranged from stark black-and-white near-drawings to brilliantly hued, obsessively patterned, often aggressively textured, fraught encounters between Torpedo Boy and Philip Guston’s Klansman. These one-on-one confrontations vied for attention with oversized, grotesque heads and a knock-out, incomprehensibly intricate black-and-white vision of Vegans depositing tofu in the tofu bank (you have to tune into Hancock’s mythology). A new note was sounded by two all-over “abstractions”—Jackson Pollock co-opted for vernacular, politically-driven ends —in which swirls of black, gray, and off-white gazed back at us, like creatures hiding in the underbrush, punctuated by collaged fur and plastic bottle caps. Red, orange, and yellow flickers were alluded to in their playful titles, Bringback Condiments: Ketchup and Bringback Condiments: Mustard, Mayo, and Special Sauce, which made us smile but didn’t account for the paintings’ uncanny power. “Uncanny” is the operative word. Somehow, Hancock manages to invoke, with equal seriousness and effectiveness, cartooning, the history of modernism, and uncomfortable realities, capturing our attention with bold drawing, charming us with whimsy, and making us wince at allusions to racial inequalities. We admire his skill as draftsman and painter, remaining engaged by the visual opulence and wit of his best paintings, at the same time that we feel guilty about not doing more to help right present-day wrongs.
“David Humphrey: Arms of the Law,” at Fredericks & Freiser in Chelsea, explored related territory even more explicitly. In his most successful works, Humphrey referred to recognizable, disturbing, recent events without lapsing into illustration or compromising his long-standing investigation of the expressive possibilities of different painting languages—collisions of Ab Ex swipes, hard-edge description, near-commercial patterning, and more, in the same painting. The allusive titles—As One, No Knock, On the Ground—needed no expansion for anyone even marginally aware of Black Lives Matter protests and the horrific incidents of police brutality that provoked them. I suspect we react to them the way the first viewers of Géricault’s enormous painting of desperate shipwreck victims did to “Shipwreck Scene,” the original title of The Raft of the Medusa, when it was initially exhibited. Those shorthand indicators encouraged us to read the more open-ended images as Humphrey intended, reinforcing the visual clues. The title, As One, for example, prompted us to intuit overscaled, silhouetted splays and splotches as a milling crowd, even as the blunt, dark shapes unspooling against an expanse of pale orange and blue threatened to become an inkblot-like abstraction. But when we began to focus on the meticulously catalogued debris that established a ground plane and noticed the small, stylized figure, lower left, that expanded the space, we found ourselves witnessing a rowdy, albeit nonspecific protest. Similarly, the bulbous, brown-black knot that filled most of On the Ground, against a loosely brushed field of luminous blue and dull purple, began to declare itself as a compressed version of the perpetrators and victim of “an incident involving the police,” transformed into a single, indescribable, eloquent shape, poised above a plane littered with carefully depicted, sinister detritus. Provoked by the title and informed by all we have read and seen of the George Floyd killing, did we interpret the burgeoning shape more specifically than we might have under other circumstances? Maybe. But On the Ground was a dazzling painting nonetheless.
The strongest works were the most ambiguous, reminding us of recent iniquities without letting us stop thinking about the history of painting. The modest but powerful No Knock dazzled, at first, with its pale, light-struck planes and starburst of pink and green, floating above the small, trapped figure of a brown-skinned woman with a troubled gaze. But we soon recognized the shape on the right as the back of the enormous bullet head of a white-skinned man, cropped by the canvas edge. We noted how the pink of the starburst repeated on his ear, knitting the collapsed space together, chiming with the woman’s green shirt and a blotch of more intense pink. That blotch suddenly began to read as a wound, as the title wrenched us from appreciating Humphrey’s visual intelligence to thinking about the assault on Breonna Taylor. Not every painting worked on so many levels. Some became overly specific. We could acknowledge Humphrey’s playing fast and loose with spatial reference, touch, and painting languages, but stopped there. The best works kept us toggling between aesthetic considerations and awareness of our distressing times.
Yet another approach to relevant subject matter could be seen Upstate, at Pamela Salisbury Gallery, in Hudson, N.Y., where the accomplished, disconcerting abstractions in “Lisa Corinne Davis: All Shook Up” explored, we learned, “themes of racial, social, and psychological identity.” Some years ago, in an essay, “Towards a more fluid definition of Blackness,” published in the online magazine artcritical, Davis wrote, “Many African-American artists feel the obligation to represent Blackness. My position as an abstract painter allows me to manifest my own sense of self—my black self—as an expression of self-determination and freedom, while avoiding an oppositional stance.” Self-determined and free as Davis obviously is, as an admired artist with a distinguished career, represented in significant public and private collections, currently Head of Painting at Hunter College, her paintings seem to be about contingency (among other things), which could be read as a distillation of the instability of perception and the inequalities of the society we live in. Or not. Whatever motivation we assigned to them, her complex, layered abstractions in Hudson, made between 2017 and 2020, with their warped grids, luminous hues, and syncopated rhythms, kept us off-balance, provoking often contradictory associations, from the natural to the man-made, the ephemeral to the mechanical, the organic to the technological, all of it, perhaps, visual, wordless equivalents for how we see each other and how we see ourselves. Davis superimposes tangled, knotted, irregular grids of different kinds—delicate and coarse, angular and curvilinear, frayed and continuous, suave and staccato—punctuating them with nodes of more intense hues, now widely dispersed, now rhythmic, now dense. We shifted between seeing a pulsing whole and focusing—or trying to focus—on individual layers, then followed the irregular path suggested by the scattered solid fragments, always aware of how the grids, even the most geometric, refused to respond to the vertical and horizontal edges of the support. The result? Even more animation and invigorating tension. And, no matter what else the paintings triggered in us, we also capitulated to the seductive rhythms of the grids and patches, the sense of light, and the clear, fresh color.
In some works, such as Flitting Foundation, with its disjunctive lavender and green drawing, throbbing zones of pale blue, and implications of overlapping, the layers suggested fictive depths, as if we were staring into moving water, while the dramatic scale shifts in the vertiginous Illusive Index suggested the built environment, seen from a distance. The exhibition included large and small canvases and works on paper, all ringing changes on related themes. Whatever the size or material, they were unignorable and powerful. I was specially captivated by Deceptive Dimension, 2020, a small, lively canvas in which an unstable checkerboard of white and intensely colored not-quite squares hovers over a fragile web of short, slender lines and patches of paler hues; it was impossible to decide what was on top of what, which kept me fascinated and a little uncomfortable—a remarkably satisfying combination, as it turned out.
In the Carriage House of Pamela Salisbury Gallery, “Seth Becker: Terrarium” presented intimate, intense, lushly painted images that at first seemed to be straightforward, casual, firmly structured records of perception, but soon became stranger and stranger. We stared down at a box of sardines, angled a little against the rectangle of the support, then discovered that we were offered the same viewpoint of Becker’s small black dog barking at his shadow. Both paintings were noteworthy for their pale, earthy hues, assured brushmarks, and deadpan subject matter. The piled fish and the dog’s open-mouthed shadow became immensely important. So, in other works, did the contrasting paint colors and doorframes on each half of an attached house and a spray of fireflies hovering in front of a corner building.
Still other works took as their point of departure the Museum of Natural History, whose illusionistic diorama backgrounds were, we learn, the first paintings Becker encountered as a child. “They formed the documentary nature of how I see,” he writes in a text accompanying the exhibition, “and instilled a sense of wonder at the phenomenal world.” Among the most mysterious paintings in the show was the moodily lit Scene from the Hall of Ocean Life, 2020: a large, pinkish, near-spherical fish, hung high above the pier of an archway, casting a round shadow on tawny stone; against the pier, a minimally indicated, abruptly cropped figure. We were denied a place to stand, forced, instead, to con-front the suspended fish and its shadow, and to consider the relation of those circular shapes to the curves of the archway, just as we confronted the sardines and considered their box in relation to the rectangle of the panel. Throughout “Terrarium,” we were made to concentrate on things that we would otherwise fail to notice or to think of as significant. Perhaps spending time with Becker’s work could sharpen our perceptions.
In Brooklyn, “Side to Side: Three Ways” presented works by Emily Berger, Manel Lledós, and Kim Uchiyama—each of whom I’ve followed for some time, but have never seen exhibited together—in a small, well chosen show, organized by Key Projects and installed at Trestle Art Space’s Gallery 22, in Industry City. Despite its deliberate sparseness, the selection revealed both the individuality and the commonalities of the three artists. All are abstract painters who create equivalents for light with orchestrations of color, constructing Apollonian images with geometric elements but disrupting that geometry in unexpected ways. All made us think hard about the nature of painting itself. Berger marshaled fluid, horizontal rows of loose, repeated vertical strokes, challenging a potentially unyielding structure with evidence of the hand. Lledós combined horizontal bands of varying widths, making edges curve where we least expected and changing color relationships to defeat our expectations of symmetry and prescribed order. Uchiyama’s apparently “pure” stacks of broad, horizontal stripes proved to derive from landscape and place, their structure generated by her experience of temples in Greece, Italy, and Sicily. Uchiyama sometimes animated the surface with brushy paint handling, reminding us, as Berger’s repetitive strokes did, of the history of the painting’s making and defeating, as Lledós’ subtle curves did, suggestions of anonymity or rigid preconception.
If the painters in “Side to Side” were both united and distinguished by their individual conceptions of the uses of geometry, they were also united by their reliance on glowing color as the carrier of emotion and meaning and separated by their different sensibilities. In works titled Days and Nights (August and October 2019), Lledós played with repetition and variation in a spare assembly of uninflected bands of acid yellow, light-struck blue, and snappy white, accentuating the spatial implications of the curves, so that the curve-edged bands momentarily seemed to break free and float, at the same time that the forthright paint application and full-throttle hues asserted the flat, continuous surface of the canvas.
Uchiyama made us consider the proportions and color of each band in relation to the others, to the intervals of raw canvas between them, and to the whole, but, especially in Paestum II, 2020, she added a sensuous note to this high-minded pursuit with color that triggered associations with earth, sky, sea, and vegetation, opposing her matter-of-fact compositions. The orientation and placement of Berger’s rhythmic vertical brushmarks seemed haunted by an underlying grid, but not controlled by it, the way the ornamented melody of a Baroque concerto is disciplined, but not constrained by the continuo. Berger’s vigorous Nocturne, 2019, with its loosely woven web of off-black and transparent blue-black, suggested a different time of day than Lledós’ high noon paintings or Uchiyama’s evocations of seaside Italian summer light, adding another mood to the ensemble. “Side to Side: Three Ways,” for all its economy, allowed each artist to emerge as an individual. It made me hope that I’d again see solo shows by each of them in the not too distant future.
In both of its Lower East Side locations, Karma showed recent paintings and works on paper in “Louise Fishman: Ballin’ the Jack,” a title that can refer to speed or gambling, with connotations of risk that seemed particularly apt for this exuberant, unfettered series of works. Most of Fishman’s recent canvases were more transparent, air-blown, and vigorous than ever. As she has taught us to expect of her, the works on view were pared down to the indispensable elements of gridded marks on a surface, but the broad, declarative strokes with which the expanses of intersecting color were woven threatened to dissolve as we watched. Some strokes were literally dissected, applied with the stuttering edge of a knife, so that we saw through them when we came close. Others seemed barely breathed onto the surface or read as if they had been wiped or blown away. The radiant, fragile A La Recherche, 2018, its Frenchness hinted at by wisps red and blue against a white ground, like the memory of a tricolore flag, seemed barely there, as if Fishman had invented an abstract equivalent for Proust’s description of the perfume of the madeleine dipped in tea. Dugout, 2020, proposed an entirely different conception of what a picture could be; despite ample zones of white escaping behind its layered, tattered swipes of black, brown, red, green, and blue, and despite scratchings out, it read as denser and more assertive than the other works.
The grid was the generating force of all the works in “Ballin’ the Jack,” with the exception of some small watercolors that suggested landscape allusions, but, her singlemindedness notwithstanding, Fishman does not have a single way of making a picture. Variations in the density, scale, and angle of the strokes, along with nuanced variations in color, made each painting unique, and even made us feel as if we had to readjust our perception for each work. The bold title piece, Ballin’ the Jack, 2019, with its blurred, dragged black-grey sweeps, imposed on blue-green lines, a trickle of pink, and a blush of transparent brown, seemed to shift in and out of focus, in part because of punctuating passages of mesh imprints, in part because of frayed strokes. The vitality of the painting seemed almost independent of its cool, restrained palette, making it tempting to think of it as a graphic self-portrait of the independent-minded, no-nonsense Fishman herself, charged with her energy and the athleticism that her paintings bear witness to.
Farther uptown and farther west, Chelsea galleries came back to life with (relatively) heavily attended shows, despite requirements for appointments and other restrictions. Among the most satisfying of the fall offerings was “Harriet Korman: Notes on Painting 1969–2019,” a mini-retrospective at Thomas Erben Gallery. The selection, made by the artist, followed her evolution over the past half century. Since each work represented an entire family of related paintings, the narrative was, of necessity, discontinuous; the initial impression was of variety: pale, cerebral canvases; disjointed grids; overscaled patchworks of saturated hues; stripes; stutters; and defiant compositions unlike any of the above. “If you want to understand painting,” Korman says in a video on the gallery website, “you have to try a lot of things.” But, she adds, there is a common thread, if you look for it. At its simplest level, that thread was Korman’s constant acknowledgement of the canvas as a flat, confrontational expanse that could be brought to life in many different ways. She sometimes deduced structure from the givens of the support, in works divided into quadrants, such as a 2016 example, with each quadrant generating a nest of concentric bands, no two alike, or works from 1971 diagramming the dimensions of the support with overlays, scraping, or tidy rows of stripes. In a vertical canvas from 1977, nested bands, reaching top to bottom, kicked out in the middle, broadening until the distinction between figure and ground became irrelevant.
Grids were implicit in many works, disrupted or knocked out of whack, as in the “background” of a 1983 painting where slapdash red and green crosshatches surrounded a tilted, roughly brushed, fat band of off-black, crossing a vertical column whose many hues were cancelled by loose purple scribbles. Black grids, confined to brown compartments forming an oversized grid, frayed into disconnected lines in a 1991 painting. And more. Korman seemed determined to assert the fact of the canvas, freely or loosely, by reminding us of its verticality and horizontality, and refusing to violate its flatness with illusionism, no matter how energetically her colors responded to each other. It was also clear that Korman dislikes repeating herself, no matter how fruitful a given approach may have been. “When people say there’s no more that can be done in painting,” Korman says, “that’s when the fun begins.” Her fun has dramatically serious results.
At Hauser and Wirth, “Jack Whitten: I Am the Object” provided an overview of the late (1939–2018) Black artist’s rarely-seen commemorative and elegiac works, made between 1991 and 2000. Dedicated to figures as diverse as John Coltrane, Yitzhak Rabin, and Janet Carter, “a truly sweet lady,” and inspired, like Hancock’s and Humphrey’s recent works, by disturbing events of the time, such as the death of Amadou Diallo at the hands of New York City policemen, Whitten’s wall-mounted pieces, part painting, part constructed low relief, are memorials. “The preservation of memory interests me. Memory is preserved in the paint,” he is quoted as having written in 2000.
Meticulously pieced together out of “tesserae” (Whitten’s word) of dried acrylic paint chips, recycled glass, and occasional found objects, the layered, richly physical works on view provoked recollections of the ancient mosaics referred to by the artist’s term, with their complex, light-reflecting surfaces. Some were as opulent as their prototypes, while others, such as the expansive Memory Sites, 1995, were made sober and solemn by an off-white, gray, and dull ochre palette. Sheer size, in the largest works, allowed us to lose ourselves in their inflected surfaces, where accumulation, irregularities, and subdued hues suggested labor, age, weathering, and the effects of the passage of time. Variations in color and the occasional inclusion of found objects, in smaller commemorative constructions, were driven, it seemed, by the character of the subject. Scale was crucial. A few confrontational vertical constructions, with the proportions of a standing person, gained in impact and presence from that association. We emerged from “I Am the Object” with renewed respect for Whitten and new confidence that abstractness, deep feeling, and even specific meaning can coexist eloquently.
For those of us who braved Chelsea last fall to see real works of art “in person,” the modesty, intensity, and emotional resonance of Korman’s and Whitten’s work provided a welcome antidote to Julian Schnabel’s “The Sad Lament of the Brave, Let the Wind Speak and Other Paintings,” the pretentiously titled gathering of recent works at Pace Gallery. Made with overscaled gestures on the warm terracotta canvas formerly covering a Mexican fruit market, the enormous, irregularly shaped, splashy paintings were just that—enormous, irregularly shaped, and splashy—and bombastic and empty, albeit handsome. They might have been effective stage décor.