While touring a few of the many small exhibition spaces scattered throughout the city, I was pleasantly reminded that painting requires neither heroic-sized canvases nor the prestige of whitewashed airplane hangars to succeed as significant art. Very small pictures, if painted by gifted artists and installed in an adequate version of what Dave Hickey once dubbed a “clean, well-lighted place,” can produce exhibitions just as ambitious and adventurous as larger-scale projects. This notion, admittedly a modest thing, came to me one afternoon as I found myself given over to three small paintings in three fairly small galleries that each delivered rewards beyond their size. Made by a trio of painters — Lois Dodd, Walker Buckner, and Suzanna Coffey — these canvases address significant issues related to their respective genres while averaging little more than a square foot apiece.
With a characteristic swerve from the conventional, Lois Dodd’s “Pink Scabiosa, Back View” (2013) presented in the Alexandre Gallery entry hall, is a small canvas depicting the back of a flower. Denied the full complement of its more alluring asset, viewers are instead offered the less glamorous rear elevation, with its sturdy, dependable green stem. We still get to follow Dodd’s treatment of the subject through her deft and uncomplicated brushwork, but the motif, seen from its strange, backstage vantage point, offers a fresh take on a genre too often assumed exhausted. Though its gentle humor is plain and foremost, the painting could also serve as an emblem of the compositional edifice that is Dodd’s unique gift. Moreover, for those of us who follow her work and wish to share our enthusiasm for it, “Pink Scabiosa, Back View” is an apt illustration of the structural integrity at the heart of her painting.
Walker Buckner is an overtly inventive painter, but the light in his paintings at Lori Bookstein Fine Art is unmistakable. The glow he manages to give each picture is to some degree the result of a yellow-orange ground, used in a similar manner to a key signature in music. Parameters set by this pre-established value generate patterns of harmony and dissonance with all subsequent hues. Buckner’s general sense of color falls somewhere between a direct observation of nature and a subjective memory of the same, leaving plenty of room for chromatic ingenuity. In “Full Sky IV” (2012), his free-form interaction with atmospherics barely implies the landscape that initiated its execution. And yet it retains a sense of light and space by anchoring its improvisations to a horizon curving halfway across the center.
Susanna Coffey’s paintings at Steven Harvey Fine Arts Projects make such leaps in appearance from one to the other that the installation at first sight resembles a group show. Known for her self-portraits, Coffey has apparently been subjecting her signature stare to a variety of technical and formal innovations. “Sharon’s Potion’s Breath” (2011) stands out. Its image appears as a cluster of overlapping arcs ranging from iridescent yellows to blues and violets that together outline a skull-like visage in the upper half of the panel. The warm light it creates then sinks into the cooler spectrum below, suggesting along the way a pair of shoulders supporting the head. I was able to spy a secondary face in the lower section — only with the kind assistance of the gallery director — defined by a bluish light emanating irrationally from the warm glow above, the two occupying a strangely contradictory place, like a “hallucination,” as Jennifer Samet puts it in the accompanying catalog essay.
Painting is an arm’s-length medium, and that human distance still offers an infinite range of possibilities. With so many artists today working in studios not much larger than the average Chelsea gallery vestibule, it’s possible to miss a great deal of what’s happening by touring only the large, cavernous showplaces.
Walker Buckner: Recent Paintings continues at Lori Bookstein Fine Art (138 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 8.
Susanna Coffey: Elemental continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 9.
Lois Dodd: Recent Paintings continues at Alexandre Gallery (41 East 57th Street, Midtown East, Manhattan) through March 1.
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