We Run Things at the Y Gallery, featuring the artists Mie Olise, Manuela Viera-Gallo, and Summer Wheat, is an excellent show. The work is all inventive, expressionistic figuration that is approached in a unique fashion by each artist. Mie Olise’s work is the most challenging for me in terms of making out what precisely the image consists of. Take her “Loaded Ship” (2016): I can tell I’m dealing with a water vessel because of the oarlocks on either side, but then there is a jumble of cargo in the middle, where the objects are constituted through both negative and positive space, in such a way that it’s not quite possible to be sure what I’m seeing. Some figures may be decorative, or refer to physical freight. But I don’t mind staying for a while in this place of not knowing, because Olise makes the experience of this tension generative: I spend my time weaving together possible solutions and explanations.
Manuela Viera-Gallo is quite different — where Olise’s art is graphic and relies on stark contrasts, Viera-Gallo creates figures that are hidden in a forest of colorful expressionist forms. Find the eyes in her work. If you find them you can be grounded in the painting and make your way through what the poet Jorie Graham calls a “blizzard of instances,” an expression that describes the chaotic topography that Viera-Gallo depicts in “I’m Afraid of Human Beings” (2016). It’s an unruly, corybantic setting that keeps the eye moving through it to find what else that’s recognizable might be there.
Summer Wheat is my favorite featured artist. For this show she’s made tapestries of aluminum mesh punctuated by gold leaf, paint, and buttons that operate as figurative elements such as eyes, eyelashes, tears, fingernails, and also do double duty as large push pins that affix the whole work to the wall to keep it vertical. In the smaller works, like “Pot of Gold” (2016) or “Bug Squasher” (2016), the scenes are simple portraits with a palpable feminine touch (you can tell this by the choice of topics, the shoes, accessories, and other typical appurtenances of femininity). The larger work, the eponymous “We Run Things” (2016), is a fascinating combination of odd figuration laid out in a larger scheme, “Guernica”-like, that seems to aim for a narrative payoff. The work bridges those gaps between and amongst illustration, craft, and metaphorical flight. I particularly like the clever delineation of space through the placement of the gold leaf that becomes breasts, hair, a dress, or a backdrop against which the characters stand out.
The gathering of these women together for this show does not feel primarily like a feminist stratagem — though it would be fine if it were so, and though it could still be. The exhibition feels to me like a gathering of astute and perceptive practitioners who are working in that very fertile ground of a highly stylized figuration on the verge of abstraction and figuration on the brink of narrative exposition. In showcasing women who are making intriguing work it accomplishes a great deal in their small space.
We Run Things continues at the Y Gallery (319 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through September 6.