Ambition has nothing to do with scale. The largest painting in Eleanor Ray: paintings at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (November 18–December 24, 2015) measures 10 x 8 inches. Rather than a sign of the artist’s modesty, I see Ray’s intimately scaled paintings as an implicit rebuke of the art world’s current obsession with McMansion scale. This was also true of Thomas Nozkowski’s decision in the late 1970s to work on store-bought, prepared canvases measuring 16 x 20 inches, which registered his rejection of large- scale, post-easel paintings and, later, the Neo-Expressionists’ oversized declarations of innate genius. By halving Nozkowski’s scale, Ray ups the ante, as she quietly reminds us that the shrinking middle class must settle for smaller digs these days.
The art world is an amnesia machine that’s as quick to forget its oversights as it is to cover up its former enthusiasms. Persistence and a belief in paint and painting — which isn’t about how much something sells for — is another matter.
What I love about Eleanor Ray’s recent paintings is that she makes it possible to cite Donald Judd and Giorgio Morandi in the same sentence. Until I saw her current show I did not stop to think about what these two artists — an American Minimalist sculptor whose sleek works were fabricated by others and an Italian painter known for his hushed, hand-hewn still lifes — could have had in common, namely: an interest in light, geometry, gravity, symmetry and asymmetry, transparency and the relationship between interior and exterior space. Albeit in very different ways, both artists pared away what they thought was unnecessary, as if the world was too much with them, too cluttered and messy. Both ended up living reclusively.
If admiring both Judd and Morandi, as she does, initially seems like a contradiction, Ray doesn’t stop there. She is a restrained painter who loves to tease nuance and tonal shifts out of thin layers of textured paint applied to lean wood panels whose edges are often chipped. As much as Ray admires Judd and, I suspect, Robert Ryman, a subtle tonalist in his own right, she is decidedly unfussy. She isn’t preoccupied with the object, but with translating a three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface, of finding a way to use color and composition to give weight and weightlessness to things, which is where her love for Morandi comes in.
As for subjects, Ray has painted exterior and interior views of Judd’s 101 Spring Street loft (the doors are French blue!); Paul Cezanne’s last studio in Aix en Provence; the outside of Henri Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence; historical exteriors and interiors in Italy (Assissi, Ravenna, Florence and Rome, among them) and the Brooklyn studio of her friend, Nora Griffin. The exhibition forms a diary of the artists and art she holds in high esteem, what the poet Robert Creeley would have called her “company.”
Being a late arriver — which is to say coming after hundreds of years of great, inimitable art — doesn’t mean you have to reject it, dismiss it, or copy it. Ray’s unironic paintings are both homages and straightforward ways of locating herself, of making up the history (family tree) to which she has chosen to belong. She doesn’t seem driven to overthrow the past so much as absorb what she can of it into her own practice. In this regard, she is fearless and open rather than egotistical and competitive.
There’s a painting by Ray of Fra Angelico’s fresco of the “Annunciation” as seen from the bottom of the maroon-carpeted stairs in the Convent of San Marcos in Florence. By positioning the viewer at the bottom of the stairs and framing the fresco with the doorway, she initiates a dialogue between the modernist pressure toward flatness and Fra Angelico’s unsystematized evocation of space. Ray’s lopsided framing — only one side of an arched doorway is visible on the right-hand side — echoes the off-centeredness of the “Annunciation,” suggesting that the dynamic relationship between surface and space, and order and disorder, can still be discovered and personal. Ray finds a lot of these connections and echoes in her work, which adds another layer to them.
Ray uses a limited palette that often runs from whites and grays to blues and browns, with bits of red and yellow popping up like flowers in a plain room. Her desaturated colors share something with those employed by the great Danish painter Wilhelm Hammershoi. Her often chalky colors evoke autumn and winter, while the subdued light infuses many of her views with a melancholic whisper. Typically, Ray employs the architecture of her subject (walls, windows, doorways) to divide the painting’s surface into distinct areas, with careful attention paid to solid and transparent surfaces, tonal and coloristic shifts, light and shadow. Within the order established by the subject’s structure, she is keenly attuned to what interrupts and inflects the proportions. The tension between flatness and space locks many of Ray’s paintings into place, makes us aware that we are looking at and through things. In some works, she seems to want to paint the dusty air of an uninhabited room where a wan sun is casting its light.
Umber door hinges, snow in light and shadow, the white walls of connected studios receding in space — Ray brings a level of attention to the surface of these paintings that invites us to reconsider what it means to be attentive. I am reminded of Jasper Johns, who said that he chose the flag and the target because “[they] were both things seen and not looked at.” The art world’s obsession with McMansion scale is about the opposite–it is art to be swooned over, not looked at or thought about.
Ray uses severe cropping to define a layered space in which a change in color or tone might indicate a spatial shift. The framing establishes a formal tension between surface and space, a friction that makes us conscious of looking. We see only part of Judd’s blue doorway, with the variously sized rectangles recalling Mondrian’s Purist paintings — a deliberate trace on Ray’s part. Her cropping also reminds us that every view is partial. We cannot step back and see everything; we can only get closer. Within these demarcated areas, Ray uses a lightly textured skin of paint to delicately register tonal changes, compelling us to look even closer, to see that the painting is both an architectonic space and physical paint. She wants us to recognize the dialogue that paint can establish between surface and space, which to some people means that she is a conservative artist. That designation ignores what is radical and resistant about Ray’s work. There is something moody and quietly haunted about her paintings, a sense that everything you see is visited alone, imbuing the views with an awareness of mortality, a depth of feeling that is all too rare in much of today’s art.
Eleanor Ray: paintings continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street and 237 Eldridge Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through December 24.