Seeing a group show can be like going to party where you catch up with old friends and find out what new acquaintances are up to. That is how I felt when I went to see Outside In at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (November 30–December 31, 2016). The five artists in the show are Andrea Belag, Susanna Coffey, Elliot Green, Stephanie Pierce, and Eleanor Ray. I have seen work by all of these artists, previously written about more than half of them, and included pieces by two of them in exhibitions I’ve organized. So what was the party like? For one thing, what four of the artists are now doing is very different from the first time I saw their work, which, if my math and memory are correctly synced, was at least 30 years ago in one case.
Time neither flies nor crawls: it just goes by. I liked Outside In because I found out what five artists whose works I have followed are doing these days. One thing they have in common: they are not celebrities. They have not been featured in the pages of Vanity Fair, they don’t live in the Hamptons, and they aren’t the subjects of rumor or gossip. They are below the radar and that’s a good thing. You either dig the work or you don’t, but it is not about their lifestyle or who they rub elbows with, all that fluff that some people need to grovel after because it proves they are alive.
I realized that I had not seen Andrea Belag’s paintings in a while when I looked at “After Krushenick After Hokusai” (2016), and was immediately glad that I came to the exhibit. The painting is divided into four areas. There is a black band running along the right edge from the top edge to the bottom, evoking Nicholas Krushenick’s penchant for putting a black border around his solidly colored shapes — something he claims to have gotten from looking at Japanese prints. The rest of the painting is divided horizontally, with the upper half consisting of wide swaths of semi-transparent, deep blue paint sweeping from the left edge to the black band on the right. The lowest swath undulates across the painting like a gentle wave.
The lower portion of the painting is divided into a red arc bending from the left edge to the bottom, creating an incomplete circle in the painting’s left-hand corner. The interior of the circle is cream-colored with hints of red peeking through. To the left of the arc, the paint is light blue and as tactile as the paint above. I think it is particularly hard to pay homage to an artist, let alone two, and still be yourself, but that is what Belag has done in “After Krushenick After Hokusai.” She has also moved her work into what is for her new territory. There is something moody and evocative about the painting – two states that the art world ought to hold in higher regard.
I don’t think I am alone in thinking of Susanna Coffey as a painter of severe, symmetrical self-portraits that set one’s teeth on edge (but in what I would say is a good way). So you can imagine my surprise when I saw “Snow Blind” (2015), which convinced me that I was staring at a crust of ice and snow. The varied surface, which seems to condense in darker shades on the flanking sides of the central blue-white mass, has attributes you would readily associate with snow as it hovers on the porous border between abstraction and figuration, two increasingly meaningless generalities. Is this the first time Coffey used spray painting? Had I not noticed it before?
One of the interesting things about “Snow Blind” is that you feel as if you are looking at something and nothing. Wallace Stevens begins his poem “The Snowman” (1954) with one of the great first lines:
One must have the mind of winter
Written from the point of view of the snowman (who has the “mind of winter”), the poem ends:
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
It is hard not to think of “Snow Blind” as Coffey’s vision of mortality, and that, as the painting conveys – you can see it and you cannot.
I first saw Elliot Green’s work years ago — towards the end of the last century, in fact – when he painted strange, rubbery figures doing incomprehensible things; they were whimsical and sinister, which is one reason why I liked them. Years went by and I didn’t come across any of Green’s work. And then BLAM, I saw two of his paintings this past summer in a group show, Objecty, at Tibor de Nagy, which I reviewed. What I like about his paintings is that they come out of left field— meaning his own history – and they are unapologetic about their celebration of sensual beauty.
Green is a wizard with paint – he applies it in different ways, scrapes and pulls it up, all seemingly without effort. He can have the grooved brushstroke hold two colors, become dry as it is pulled across the surface, or stay lush and yummy. The brushstrokes become things that slip away from our ability to name them, even when he titles a painting “Green Helmet” (2015). He can evoke a landscape where four different kinds of weather are going on at the same time — it is like the island of Hawaii, which has the greatest concentration of different climates (from frigid to torrid, and rainy to dry) in one geographic area. The striking thing about Green’s work is the restraint running through it, as evidence the thin layers of paint, and the premier coup approach they convey.
“Untitled” (2016) is the largest painting by Stephanie Pierce that I have seen, and it is a knockout. The subject is a chair and plant before a large window that seems to be overlooking a river (the Hudson) with a city (Manhattan) on the far side. The scene, composed of faceted brushstrokes and splintered forms, seems to be jumping (or moving or multiplying). A diagonal lattice has infiltrated the view, materializing in front of the window, becoming both part of the image and separate from it.
At one point — and I have no idea why I had this association when it was clearly not what I was looking at — I had the sensation that it was a framed work that had been covered with masking tape to protect the glass, and somebody had come along and pulled the tape off.
It’s as if we are looking through some kind of window (the picture plane) that has been altered by the semi-transparent lattice. The painting is mesmerizing and ordinary, weird, dizzying, and just plain captivating. We are looking at multiple reflections and echoes compressed together — a discussion between seeing and memory about what we are actually seeing. No one is getting the upper hand in this argument and, if we are lucky, it won’t end any time soon.
I am an unabashed fan of Eleanor Ray’s modest-sized paintings of interiors and exteriors. In one, “Mondrian’s Room, Philadelphia” (2016), which measures less than seven by eight inches, there is a view of three Mondrians, two on the walls flanking a doorway and a diamond one visible through it, in an interior of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The sense of symmetry and asymmetry in the composition echoes Mondrian as well as pays homage to him. The dusty gray-white of the museum’s walls creates a counterpoint to Mondrian’s whites, as do the muted red and yellow seen in his paintings.
The dusty, muted colors evoke the unbridgeable distance between now and the time when Mondrian was alive. Can we see his paintings as fresh statements? Or can we see them only as part of our past, a legacy that didn’t work out, at least when it comes to Modernism’s utopian thinking and idealism. Perhaps the painting is really an elegy, a bidding of farewell, as the light begins to dim. Maybe these dark thoughts are inevitable in this political climate.
I am thankful for the nameless sensations and wild associations these paintings stirred up. The pleasures they offer are real, something to hold onto and remember. They have nothing to do with the authoritarian language wielded in terms such as deskilling and relational aesthetics. Something simpler and more direct is transacted between viewer and artwork: pleasure. All of these artists take us on a journey — we just have to be willing to go.
Outside In continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Bowery, Manhattan) through December 31.