Since 2001, Melissa Meyer has continued to reinvent herself without severing her connections to Abstract Expressionism or, more particularly, the brushstroke and drawing in paint. One of the central features of this transformation is watercolor, which she started using at beginning of this century. This inspired her to thin the oil paint — which, in her work of the 1990s, had been thick and greasy — to the viscosity of ink or watercolor. Her exhibition current Melissa Meyer: New Work at Lennon, Weinberg (March 31–May 7, 2016) is the fourth at this gallery since 2009, and it is her best yet.
Meyer paints on the floor. She uses long-handled brushes and, in her larger canvases, she works on all sides of the painting. Although the paint has been thinned, she prefers that it doesn’t drip, which is one reason she works on the floor. The grounds of the paintings, especially the larger ones, are made up of a patchwork of warm and cool whites. In one painting, “Draw the Line” (2015), which is done in warm and cool blacks, I counted at least three different whites in the ground. This kind of scrutiny is part of the way Meyer wants viewers to experience her work; she wants them to take it in from varying distances without privileging one over another.
Except for the watercolor, “Raycie Series III” (2014), which is vertical in format, Meyer’s paintings tend to be either on a not-quite-square canvas or a diptych. Nine of the eleven paintings in the exhibition are diptychs consisting of two equally-sized canvases abutted together. Compositionally, Meyer draws discrete, often zigzagging linear structures onto the surface’s subtly shifting white ground. If there were some abstract artists of Meyer’s generation who wanted to get rid of the brushstroke and to make paintings that revealed themselves at a certain distance, rather than invite further scrutiny, there was another group who took a different path. I am thinking of David Reed (born 1946) and Meyer (born in 1947). Both Reed — who has a show coming up at Peter Blum later this month — and Meyer decided that they had to figure out how to go forward, how to make work that wasn’t nostalgic, without jettisoning the brushstroke, as many of their contemporaries did.
When Meyer started using oil paint that was closer in consistency to watercolor, she broke through into a territory that is now all her own. In “Vivace” (2015), she uses draws in four different colors — pale yellow-green, cerulean blue, violet, and red — on a subtly shifting ground. Some of the forms are loosely rectangular, spanned undulating lines with the red seeming to be more viscous and blue appearing to be thinner. I began comparing the shapes, sorting through them, making categories that didn’t hold. I found that the distinctly colored calligraphic shapes vary just enough in size to be noticeable. Some of the brushstrokes move through space like sensual, grooved ribbons, while others underscore the painting’s two-dimensional surface. The ground can become a plane bending in space, its edges defined by four loosely applied brushstrokes. The painting becomes is a record of change and difference that both adds up and doesn’t add up. This is what I find so engaging about Meyer’s work, that you cannot put it into a particular perceptual category: it resists simplification.
The skeletal calligraphic structures are not arranged in any discernible order, either by size or color. There is a rhythmic dissonance to the paintings that held my attention, made me conscious of equating looking with examining. What is it about these two shapes placed side by side, like an incongruous couple? Why did the artist draw one shape over another, in a different color? Conversations of all sorts happen throughout the painting. As I focus on different relationships, areas, and configurations, I become aware of the variety of ways that Meyer’s shapes reinforce the physical edges and corners by their placement, size, and direction of their outer lines.
The other thing that becomes apparent is that the artist cannot go back. There is no rubbing out and starting over again: each structure is defined in its making. Nothing is fussed over. And yet, instead of codifying what she does, Meyer keeps finding ways to resist the desire to adopt a unifying order. This is what makes the paintings so compelling. In “Draw the Line” (2015), Meyer restricts herself to warm and cool blacks and grays. No brushstroke seems to possess exactly the same viscosity as any of the adjacent brushstrokes. Some lines are thicker than the ones beside it. Within the constraint of a limited palette, there is the possibility of myriad distinctions and differences, and Meyer takes advantage of them.
In an art world that has for many years celebrated copies and lookalikes, and where abstraction has long been another tool in the box, Meyer has taken a different, less rewarded path. She has not looked back or aligned herself with certain key figures, as male artists who still believe in the heroic are more than likely to do. And like a number of veteran painters — and here I am thinking of Suzan Frecon, Katherine Bradford, Gary Stephan, and Stanley Whitney — she came into her own during this century. The awareness of how much she had to work through in order to reach her own territory never deterred Meyer, and that belief ought to be valued much more than it is in a country that prefers knock-offs or expensively produced trifles for those looking to park their assets.
Melissa Meyer: New Work continues at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc. (514 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 7.