Nathlie Provosty’s current exhibition at Nathalie Karg Gallery, (the third ear), is a study in the emotional, sensuous (and sensual) potential of tightly bound, minutely considered, rigorously constructed abstraction. The show consists of three large paintings (grouped against a long wall, flanked by tall windows) and 12 smaller works, all abstracts in carefully controlled tonalities. Provosty is interested in inaudible sound and how it impacts humans; her work here explores its parallels in the color spectrum. It is an eloquent, supremely assured corrective to both discourses and practices prevalent in current abstraction: a counterpoint to critiques of fatuousness or irrelevance, it resonates by diving into itself, transports without shouting.
Three large black paintings — “Twice Six” (2016), “Gilles” (2014), and “West” (2016), all 84 by 92 inches — appear, at first glance, to anchor the show. They are multilayered, disruptive explorations of dichotomy (conceptually half of “black-and-white”) that quickly dispense with any essentializing notion of color. Provosty’s “blacks” are hardly straightforward: there are variations in texture and tone, in opacity and reflectivity. She flirts with a central shape, which gestures toward the figurative while remaining resolutely abstract. The works are demanding: looked at simply, head-on, they are black-on-black compositions. To see them fully requires approaching them very closely and seeing where the first layers of the paint — royal blue; deep violet; a near-cerulean so vibrant it’s shocking we could ever have overlooked it — bleed out at the edges of the canvases. They diffuse at the margins, resonating into space.
“Resonance II” (2016), occupies a conceptually and spatially transitional space in (the third ear): hung on the farthest back wall of the gallery, smaller (at 19 by 15 inches) than the black works, but larger than the 8-by-6-inch watercolors that round out the show, it works as a kind of oblique master key, foregrounding the colors that seeped from the edges of the black works; collapsing the scale but retaining the planar dynamics. “Resonance II” is exemplary of the operations in Provosty’s work. Here, her intensely cerebral engagement with surface relations is evident: seen up close, the work is a relationship of flat planes; from the side, seen at an angle, it becomes a Cubistic abstraction, an unfixable perspective whose careful construction gives the impression of objects compressed, off-kilter, into an impossible space. All this rigor might run the risk of making the work feel chilly or academic, but in fact the opposite is true: “Resonance II” feels warmly personal, even organic, an effect derived from a process which, in Provosty’s description, straddles the universality of geometry and the specificity of subjective perception. “The interactions of the quadrants was a visual/intuitive process,” she told me. “Once I decided where they would go, the movement became decided by color/space needs (what goes forward or back, warm or cool, range and harmonies).”
The works in the series Council, Untitled (2016) are small (8 by 6 inches); watercolor and ink on paper, they have the density and depth of oil, and this final compression of scale cements the dynamic tension of the show. Each is composed of two circles, vertically stacked; while they are quite flat, their mysterious quality brings to mind the word “orbs.” They are, like all the works in the show, asymmetrical to varying degrees. The light disconnect feels like a skipped beat in music — rather than plodding along the predictable path, it makes the mind reset, activating new pathways of interpretive possibility and raising questions about our own optical assumptions. Why do we expect the shapes to fit together? How do we feel they ought to fit into each other? They play with scale even within themselves, in the tight relationship between the two orbs in “Council, Untitled (15–52)” (2015); the orientation of the inky purple orbs is the same, while the size of their central ruptures is wider or narrower. In “Council, Untitled (15–53)” (2015), the orbs are nearly mirrored images (they seem a millimeter from kissing), and their ivory edges almost recede into the background; only up close do we see that they are actually, barely, touching.
Provosty’s work is masterfully executed, its formal rigor enriched by its deep sensuality. Organic, materially luscious in the way of ripening fruit, the split circles of Council, Untitled are at once elegant and inescapably seductive; an eloquent reminder of what abstraction can do, and of how it can feel.
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