The experience of visiting the new SBM Gallery in what was once the nether regions of Manhattan’s West Side is disorienting in all the right ways. Traipsing through the Garment District, one gets an authentic New York experience of old school industry and dive bars. Then, passing through the ornate, stylized entrance way of 320 West 37th Street, the surroundings change to coffered florets on the ceilings and walls and a mural of the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom and crafts, Athena.
SBM gallery, located on the 7th floor, continues the sensory stimulation with its exotic multi-colored Italian plaster walls, leather sofas and Persian carpets; one could mistake the place for an uptown high-end kitsch gallery except nothing here strikes a false note. Hugh Millard’s new paintings add to the drama; the canvases, often in diptych or triptych formats, are a celebratory mash-up of traditional Eastern and Western painting styles.
Millard’s oil paintings are often large and saturated with swirling passages of color and flung paint, in some cases, untouched drips flow upward or across the canvas suggesting the act of painting for him is a physical process. In fact, the sheer variety and inventiveness of mark making on display could be a primer of Abstract Expressionism’s first and second generation painters. There are fragments of things observed and moments of specificity but the overriding spirit of the body of work revels in the possibilities of openness and multiplicity; allowing for abstraction to compound the experience of what we see.
With Millard’s work, one can deduce a kindred spirit with painter’s like Joan Snyder and Pat Steir who came to recognition in the 1970s and have helped to reinvigorate Abstract Expressionism’s painterly idioms, including all-over fields and poured paint. As in the case of Steir, Millard appears to share an interest in an Eastern/Daoist re-imaging of Pollock’s drips with spills or free flowing swathes of liquid that come straight out of the natural world (wind, water, corrosion or body fluids). Image and process fuse inextricably with each other. The large and minimal canvas “634 Hippocamp” (2011), is a tossed furl of cool viridian and topaz and a feat of daring execution. The subject matter suggests primal nautical underpinnings, possibly the evolution of man from sea to land. In this work, and throughout the show, serpentine motifs recur that could be the tails of sea horses or scorpions or even vertebrae.
The gallery has two annex spaces; the front is wine colored and has the calm of a chapel, while the rear is brightly lit with a window overlooking nearby West Side rooftops. The latter space displays two large triptychs that hang opposite one another and feel like mediations on garden and sea. Much of the action in the painting titled “634/2” occurs on the periphery, anchored in an unseen grid. The work with its pinks, yellows and green floral shapes shares a similar pictorial strategy and subject as Joan Snyder’s expansive “Oh April.” There are dreamy after-images and improvisatory calligraphs that evoke the tendrils of a vine or a flower bed springing to life after a fresh rain, recognizable fragments forming part of a story laid out in units.
In an artist’s statement, Millard mentions that the genesis of this recent work comes from representational watercolor paintings of the interior of his studio. Through a process of recombining and collaging disparate images he arrives at new and different forms, playing up the ensuing abstraction but keeping an eye on the spatial and surface geometries of the picture plane. From such modest sources comes a wellspring of imaginative possibility.
Hugh Millard’s New Paintings continues until April 7 at SBM Gallery (320 West 37th Street, Suite 704, West Side, Manhattan).