Josephine Halvorson transcribes the anonymous, weather-beaten traces left by those who might otherwise have left no other mark of their existence behind. In her current exhibition, Facings, at Sikkema Jenkins, she continues to use a painting’s format and surface to align and condense the shape and shallow space of her subject matter: a slightly recessed, boarded-over window; clapboard’s tilting planes; the pockmarked surface of a concrete foundation; a woodshed window at night looking onto falling snow. Halvorson’s subjects are not buildings for human habitation, but highly circumscribed views of the decaying surfaces of sheds, calling to mind Henry David Thoreau’s declaration in a letter to Harrison Blake: “It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?”
It is either night or sunless day, akin to a nuclear winter, in the eleven paintings in Facings, including one that is comprised of seven panels. Tightly cropped and spatially claustrophobic, the close-up views Halvorson focuses on are blocked or closed off. In “Woodshed Door” (2013), the door no longer fits tightly in its frame, as it once might have. The door’s paint is peeling and the wood panels are cracked and slowly separating, letting the elements in. Halvorson, who is attentive to blemished, marked and scarred surfaces, registers the inescapable effects of time and neglect.
In these paintings, Halvorson, who has spoken of “bumping up against” trompe l’oeil masters such as John F. Peto, also moves around in a territory explored by such contemporary masters as Lois Dodd and Catherine Murphy, particularly in their depictions of windows and, more formally, rectangles within rectangles. And yet, even as she veers close to these two important and, to my mind, major artists, there is something she does that, I would say, establishes a significant difference between her work and theirs.
In both Dodd and Murphy’s work there are signs of human presence, a vase, for example, or curtains. This is not the case in Halvorson’s work. Signs of human presence are absent, with the two exceptions being “Heat 1” and “Heat 2” (2013), in which she depicts embers glowing in a fireplace, the heat rising into the air and distorting our vision. Even in these paintings absence is key, and we are apt to feel like intruders.
Otherwise, relying on a muted palette of grays, whites, yellows, browns and blacks, Halvorson concentrates on scarred concrete surfaces, paint’s cracked and blistered surface and weathered wood grain. Her attention to marred surfaces requires she use a small brush to accent the pockmarks and blisters, to imbue each blotch and flaw with a sense of depth or physical presence, however minute.
It is as if Halvorson has equated painting with forensic pathology, which is how she circumvents any potential for nostalgia. This is not to say that she is clinical in her examination of surfaces, because she is not. Nor is she trying to be morbid. Rather, there is a restrained but painterly exactitude to her transcriptions of blank but disfigured surfaces.
In “Woodshed (Vine)” (2013), she depicts a window molding into which a piece of wood has been fitted, covering over the sashes and glass panes. The paint on the window frame and board is bubbling up and flaking off, the result of extremes of weather. With consummate skill, Halvorson convincingly recreates the effect of peeling, cracked and blistered paint without trying to achieve a flawless image of the surface. We see the painting and we see the paint, its dabs and dashes. By collapsing image and tactility, she underscores that we do not live in a purely visual world.
Painting, like the window molding and board, must make its way in the world, despite our attempts to preserve and protect it in its original form. At the same time, in its use of white and sensitivity to tonal shifts, “Woodshed (Vine)” can be seen as Halvorson’s version of a classic Robert Ryman. According to Ryman, he began painting in 1953 while working as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, because he “wanted to see what the paint would do, how the brushes would work. That was the first step. I just played around. I had nothing really in mind to paint. I was just finding out how the paint worked, colors, thick and thin, the brushes, surfaces.” In this regard, he was a scientist testing his materials.
More than half a century later, Halvorson can no longer be so innocent. The subjects she chooses are often anonymously painted surfaces, which time has eroded with deleterious effect. We do not know what the number “64,” painted in orange on knotty, cracked, weather-beaten boards refers to in “64” (2013) or why it may once have been useful or even important. We don’t know what is on the other side of the door in “Woodshed (Door)” (2013) or behind the blocked-up window in “Woodshed (Vine).” Passages are blocked. We can’t go on, to paraphrase Samuel Beckett, but we must. Again, I am reminded of Henry David Thoreau, who famously stated: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Halvorson makes those unsung songs visible and palpable. She does so by exploring the world at hand – that which we see but seldom look at with any sense of curiosity. That’s the forensic pathologist side of her. Rather than being elegiac or grim, her paintings are careful and tender accountings of discovery.
Josephine Halvorson’s Facings continues at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. (530 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 1.