It’s a display of mostly gallery artists, perfunctorily titled Fall 2014 Group Show and hung without an apparent organizing principle. There isn’t even an official closing date.
Once you’ve settled into the exhibition, however, the vagaries of the arrangement quickly turn into a kind of energizing force, as each distinctly different artwork thrusts its elbows in the direction of its neighbors, some more insistently than others.
This being McKee Gallery, the big draw of course is Philip Guston, whose estate has been handled by the gallery for many years. Two large oil paintings, one on either side of the room, are all that’s needed to anchor the space: the apocalyptically comic “Track” (1978), in black, alizarin, silvery gray and pink, which depicts a dismembered foot beside a stone or ball resting on a running track; and the comically grotesque “Sheriff” (1970), an oil on canvas from the onset of his late, funky, figurative period.
“Sheriff” features Guston’s trademark hooded Klansmen (one of whose headwear is unaccountably covered in red brush marks) facing off as a third character, presumably the sheriff — shown from the back of his large, bulbous, pink bald head — arrives between them. It’s an open question whether he is there to restore law and order or to don a hood himself.
The difference between the flat simplicity of “Sheriff,” whose forms float within a monochromatic pink field as if they were doodles on a notepad, and the lushly rendered, solidly painted “Track,” is a reminder of the ever-ripening evolution of Guston’s final flowering, which would end with his death in 1980, two years after he finished the latter work. They also mark a deepening of his iconography, from the narratively ambiguous “Sheriff” — which plays on imagery from his early days as a Social Realist — to the existentially ambiguous “Track.”
The body parts strewn about Guston’s late works, including a third piece in the show, an ink drawing titled “Tide” (1976), are obdurately graceless, wholly inimitable inventions — the physical manipulations of his materials bred into the particulars of his Beckettian mordancy, riding the razor’s edge between acute erudition and ramshackle despair. Despite their abounding popularity and influence, the paintings and drawings from Guston’s last decade are irreducible, neither precursors nor summations, explicable only within the circles sealed by the artist’s death.
Just as striking in many ways, and done around the same time, is Daisy Youngblood’s “Black Horse (Biting Horse)” (1979), which confronts you at eye-level as you enter the gallery. A horse’s head formed out of fired clay with eyes and nostrils as black and empty as its wide-open mouth, the sculpture feels both alive and mummified as it thrusts forward, baring its enormous, curving teeth made from rib bones — a mounted trophy (attached to the wall by jarringly undisguised loops of wire) of mute defiance and rage.
Between “Black Horse” and Guston’s “Tide,” the installation tacks toward serenity, with Vija Celmins’ graphite on paper, “Holding Onto the Surface” (1983), a drawing of the night sky punctuated by stars, many of which appear as fuzzy as nebulae or distant comets, all of them varying in tone and texture, simultaneously holding the surface, as the title attests, and receding into deep space, all to mesmerizing effect.
And so the exhibition goes, with tone shifts tallying more disparate than harmonious moments, but the innate handsomeness of each piece — there is a masterful sense of polish evident everywhere, even in the most emotionally raw works — transforms disjointedness into surprise.
Toward the back of the gallery there are two works that I took from a distance to be photorealist paintings, but one turned out to be a bas-relief replica of an Early Modernist house, and the other was a life-size photograph of a nude. The bas-relief is Lucy Williams’ “66 Frognal” (2014), which uses miniature red bricks, Plexiglas, paper, cork, balsa wood, piano wire and other materials to assemble a scaled-down version of a house in London at the address provided in the title.
The existing house was built by the architectural firm of Connell, Ward and Lucas in 1938 — one of many sleek Modernist structures Williams has reconstructed as a meditation on the Utopian visions of the early- to mid-20th century, a period when culture and history seemed to be on a double track, surging forward and sliding backward at the same time. Although its straight-on, toy-like depiction appears to be set on resisting nostalgia, once you know the backstory (which I discovered only after seeing the show), an air of wistfulness clinging to those gleaming surfaces seems inescapable.
A rearview look toward history is also evoked by “Nancy Recovered” (2011), a unique Ilfochrome (aka Cibachrome) photograph by Richard Learoyd depicting a young nude woman sitting on a white stool. Learoyd uses a camera obscura to make his images, exposing the photographic paper directly to light, without the intervention of a negative. This results in a picture that duplicates the shallow depth of field, dazzling detail and three-dimensional spatial effects found in copperplate Daguerreotypes.
Learoyd’s deliberately anachronistic process, despite the consummately beautiful play of light across the woman’s skin tones and tied-back chestnut hair, is more than a little queasy-making. The camera obscura process, for one, creates the kind of spotlight effect endemic to academic portraiture, diminishing the allover integration of the positive and negative shapes. Combined with the conventional pose and prettiness of the model, the overall impression smacks more of high-end commercial photography than a revelatory use of archaic methods. Still, the magnetism of the image is undeniable, and the artist’s page on the McKee site shows that his contrarian stance has occasionally strayed into some unexpected corners, as with his “White Flowers” from 2010.
On an adjacent wall, Leonid Lerman has assembled an entrancing installation of hand-sized sculptures in glazed terra cotta, most of them stylized human figures, many with tiny heads and twisting, baroque bodies, and others that are animal-human hybrids. Each sculpture sits on little shelf jutting from the wall in an overall diamond pattern, with three pieces hanging in front of the ensemble from monofilaments attached to the ceiling.
The individual pieces sitting on the shelves, with their squeezes and bulges, shimmering glazes and rich range of color, are enjoyable singly and in aggregate, but the intuitive leap of suspending three sculptures in front of the others, as if floating in midair, transports the installation into a terrain of childlike wonder. It’s a gesture liable to being dismissed as overly theatrical, but the interplay of solids and voids, gravity and anti-gravity, conjures up some startling spatial magic.
Marcel Eichner, a German artist born in 1977 and the only participant in the show not listed on the artists page of McKee’s website, contributes an untitled figurative painting from 2013 done in acrylic and ink on canvas. Hanging to the right of “Track,” the painting’s style, with its attenuated, abject bodies, seems to have soaked in more from the Expressionism of Erich Heckel and the Neo-Expressionism of Francesco Clemente than from Guston’s fleshily idiosyncratic approach.
While its schema is arresting, dominated by two figures (or one figure with a second, cyclopean head) in white against large planes of black surrounded by an astringent blue with touches of yellow and purple, the painting’s array of obscurantist elements, including sprite-like beings scribbled here and there, doesn’t do much to invite the viewer inside.
The emotional distancing felt from Eichner’s painting is not helped by its proximity to “Handstand Horizons” (1993), a smoldering hot abstract painting by Harvey Quaytman. Done in acrylic and rust, the 60 x 60-inch canvas is divided into four squares by blue and rusty orange bands, but it’s more complicated than that.
The blue bands are incomplete and interrupted, or turn into lighter, more stubbly and thinly painted versions of themselves, before they disappear off the right side altogether. The rust-colored bands, which overlap into a cross, vary in texture and are offset by two bright orange squares to the right of their intersection.
All four squares are painted Rothko red, but they contain variations as well, with two vertical bars done in a lighter shade, trimming the width of the two squares on the left side of the composition and affording them a vertical thrust. Throughout, the painting undercuts and complicates our expectations, as colors weave in and out and planes advance and recede.
Quaytman, who died in 2002, consistently engaged a limited vocabulary of geometric shapes with a sly, boundless resourcefulness. His work is a prime example of the liberating potential of structure, where dichotomies dissolve between mind and heart in what can only be described as a throbbing formalist passion; in his hands, the thoughtful construction of a picture is severe, playful, dense, light, balanced, unstable and bracing, an intellectual puzzle effervescing into euphoric release.
Fall 2014 Group Show continues at McKee Gallery (745 Fifth Ave, Midtown, Manhattan) for a few more weeks. Please contact the gallery at 212-688-5951 for more specific information.