At the age of 27, painter Eleanor Ray has already made something of a critical splash. Last year, New Republic art critic Jed Perl wrote about her first solo show at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects; New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz listed the exhibition as one his 10 best of 2013. As of this writing, her second show of 40 paintings at the gallery has very nearly sold out.
Ray’s success is notable not only because of her youth but also because of the stylistic caution of her work, which consists almost entirely of tiny landscapes, city scenes, and interiors painted in a fairly traditional style. Her brushwork and surfaces suggest a modest, straightforward efficiency, and she rarely strays from a certain strategy for light: natural dramas of illumination, with glimpses of scenes framed by windows and doorways.
Why the acclaim then? A lot of current art relies on spectacle and effect, and Ray’s rejection of these could be considered a kind of performance in itself. But her paintings reveal other qualities, too — ones more compelling than their style or subject matter. These have to do with the historically intrinsic and unique powers of painting. Ray possesses a keen sense of the weight of color; she weights hues so that they tangibly embody, rather than merely denote, the visual aspects of a scene.
In the five-inch-wide “Woodstock Snow” (2012), for instance, a swath of ultramarine blue resonates as the shadowed half of a snowy field. The remarkably spacious depths of this blue are contained by hues of very different character: the brilliant, cool lights of the field’s sunlit portions, the sky’s unmodulated cerulean blue, insistent yet remote. In this seemingly simple scene, Ray makes every element count; she captures a group of houses — jostling in various degrees of half-light — within shadows that are in turn circumscribed by sunlit planes: worlds within worlds. A handful of colors tell us what it means to be earth and sky — or more exactly, this earth and sky.
Ray preserves a colorfulness even between the highest lights and lowest darks. She ruminates among at least a dozen individual shades in “Sculpture Studio at Dusk” (2013) — warm, cool, heavy, elusive — before moving to a distant, brightly lit doorway. In another particularly vivid painting, “San Marco” (2013), the rich reddish-brown and blue rectangles of a doorway evocatively frame another glimpse of distant lights.
Occasionally the artist’s observations seem merely clever. A painting of an umbrella opened on the ground feels more like an idea of intrigue than its visual expression; its colors are surprisingly inert. A notion of a wrought-iron gate before an orange plane remains exactly that: a notion. And at points throughout the exhibition, one senses a certain lassitude of drawing: a passive appreciation of the overall order, as if one had simply to sort through the aftermath of selecting a motif. Such paintings tend to be bright in their moments of color, but anticlimactic in the gathering of events.
But when Ray hits the mark, the results are quite stunning. “Big Painting Studio” (2013) palpably captures, in warm and cool grays, the solemn luminosity of tall walls rising above the small darks of chairs. Its discreet radiance recalls Vuillard. Almost as compelling is “February Windows” (2014), an exuberant tussle between the horizontals and verticals of a coffee shop’s interior. Viewed through the floor-to-ceiling window, the street and buildings outside become medium-blues, dense and deep enough to turn the dull ochres of tabletop, wall, and floor into buoyant notes. Surrounded by chair backs and intervals of the blue street, the beige of the table hovers deliciously in space. The painting’s densest warm note — the side of the counter — deflects the speeding horizontals of table, floor, panes of window. Echoing these streaming rhythms, two orange-red flowerpots anchor either end of a long shelf.
It’s just a coffee shop — in fact, only a visual impression of it — but we sense we are in the middle of a remarkable conversation. Painters as various as Giotto, Rembrandt, and Mondrian show us that the most irreducible elements of painting — patches of pigment, rhythmically arranged — can characterize deeply. Whether through instinct or study, Ray has clearly caught on, and the eloquence of her color looms large in this small panel.
Eleanor Ray continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 20.