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In the not too distant past a painter would happily yield to the call of traditional materials for what would have seemed at the time rather obvious reasons. It was implicitly understood that one performed best on a platform suited to one’s talent. These days an artist’s choice of medium is riddled with anxiety, complicated by considerations other than innate ability. Because the now conventional (and highly questionable) notion that an artist must keep their precise intentions foremost in the eyes of the viewer, flexibility toward materials and techniques, coupled with an expanding availability of new media, has made committing to one path seem confining. And though an argument could be made that all this choice has made mastering a discipline obsolete, the number of artists that maintain visual credibility in a multi-discipline world remains predictably small.
At the newly established Dawn Hunter Gallery in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood, recent work by Jeanne Wilkinson and Maya Suess, installed in two adjoining rooms, offers a chance to witness a pair of unusually able multimedia artists executing a pas de deux of sorts, travelling in opposite directions to and from traditional and nontraditional media.
A veteran abstract painter, Wilkinson put her brushes aside a number of years ago and began inventing her subject matter through a troop of Barbie and Ken figures smeared with paint and mounted on plastic beasts of no particular era or locale. She photographs these toy wanderers at various locations, then inserts their images digitally between layers of other images that may include urban and rural scenes, photographs of her earlier paintings, art historical images from textbooks, all melded into painterly curtains of color and shadow that are dissolved further into projections on walls, scrims and gallery visitors whose silhouettes become part of the work.
Inspired by the narrative of her “Painted People,” Wilkinson is able to spread her creative energy across a wider formal space of computer-generated ephemera. Accompanying this evolving narrative, represented in the exhibition by a loop of several “Painted People” videos, are ink-jet prints, some on paper mounted on plastic, others on hanging silk banners, each constituting in effect a still shot from her digital stream of consciousness. They are not paintings, but they demonstrate continuity in Wilkinson’s picture making — the act of generating imagery processed by memory, time, and experience — that remain visually compelling and obviously informed by her earlier painting practice.
They range from the intense color of “Sky People: Ripple” (2008), to appealingly understated silk prints that hang banner-like from rods attached to the gallery wall. “Sky People: Ripple” depicts a mother and child riding on a blue tortoise though a canyon of Beaux-Arts architecture above water disturbed with concentric ripples ostensibly caused by a gentle dipping of the tortoise’s claw. Unambiguously collage-like in composition, its ethereal color is reminiscent of Maxfield Parrish. Apparently the interplay between printed and projected image is part of the appeal multimedia holds for Wilkinson. “Cave Horses 1,” for instance, has a physicality that reinforces its source material. Made of digitally layered shapes culled from familiar examples of Paleolithic painting, framed one over the other as they appear in textbooks, alternate the reds and greens of their otherwise identical compositions.
The inspired curatorial decision to pair Wilkinson’s ghostly traces with Maya Suess’s drawings reveals two artists passing each other in a restless landscape of genre alternatives. Where Wilkinson’s work swops traditional media for digital apparition, Suess is seen here leaving her performance video practice for the more mundane implements of an art supply store. Suess’s current project is called “Extras,” a series of color pencil drawings on heavy white paper depicting models dressed in garb suggesting wilderness survivors. Like Tim O’Brien’s grunts, these figures are defined by the things they carry. “Extra 1 (blowdart)” is a large drawing of a young woman armed so to speak with the tools of her trade. Improvised fishing gear and less practical items (a bottle of Merlot swaddled in a rustic holster) apparently prepare her for whatever event has compelled her to firing her blow dart tube. The incongruity of it all implies ritual rather than actual survival. Suess’s use of color pencils in a vertical hatching style, whether intentionally or not, resembles beadwork, reinforcing the archaeologist-gone-native aspect of her vision. What is most surprising for a performance artist is the competence of the drawings. They are confident and graphically sturdy. They avoid the banality of illustrations by judiciously leaving odd sections of the figure as blank as the paper they are rendered on. “Extra 1 (on red)” is a seated figure drawn on deep crimson stock used to its full effect by leaving sections unfinished.
Apparently both artists have benefited from alternating between media, allowing the work of one discipline to feed the other, which makes a case for the eclectic media approach so many artists rely on these days. But what this exhibition also demonstrates is how talent and ability, not just the technical characteristics of a genre, are still key to transitioning between intent and execution.
Jeanne Wilkinson and Maya Seuss’s Myth, Archeology, and Itinerate Futures continues at Dawn Hunter Gallery (200 6th Street, Gowanus, Brooklyn) through June 6.