HUDSON, NY — Beneath their crude surfaces, Janice Nowinski’s paintings harbor a wealth of expression
In her third show at John Davis Gallery, Nowinski continues to combine a distinctly “low,” unpolished approach with high ambitions for painting. The artist’s fairly conventional motifs — figures posed in landscapes and interiors — conceal a sophisticated orchestration of line and color. Despite her inelegant attack, with its coarse brushwork, abbreviated forms, and predilection for darkish, grayed green-blues, the paintings possess a kind of brute grace. In the strongest of them, the effect is truly striking: a straitened virtuosity that could arise only from a keen sensibility, a blunt honesty, and an impatience with the superficial.
The rough cement walls of John Davis’s carriage house gallery provide an apt backdrop for Nowinski’s 18 paintings. Together, these small pieces suggest, with refreshing directness, the routine behind an artist’s calling. Nude models pose in interior scenes, while clothed figures stand casually in landscapes or gather sociably at a table. Poses seemingly inspired by Courbet and Watteau, as well as a study after a Masolino baptism, suggest an artist restocking her stores of inspiration.
Connecting the paintings is a subtle — delicate, even — sense of color and its power to locate forms in light. When a figure stands in the midst of a landscape, or extends a limb through space, the gesture convinces, weighted by the shifting energies of colors. For instance, “Reclining Nude” (2017) recounts, with luscious felicity, each event of a figure lengthening just below the onlooker’s point of view. The muted gray-brown of a lower leg turns abruptly into the brilliant beige-pink of an illuminated thigh. The slightly subdued glow of belly leads to the dimmer pinkish-brown of an arm — equally absorptive and reflective of light — that cradles the darkest note of all, the shadowed orb of the head. The facial features are little more than scribbles and the hand a crude mitt, but the figure unfolds across the small canvas with the gravity of mountains under a low sun.
Alongside “Reclining Nude” hangs “Figure Revealed” (2016), capturing a very different but no less intricate scenario of light. Here, a seated model’s head and arms occupy a zone of luminous shadow between a lifted piece of fabric — radiantly lit — and legs in deep shade below. The tangibly descending light animates each element, turning the dots of the model’s eyes into a human presence peering at us from the depths.
Other notable paintings include the image of a head framed by a pillow, its weight and volume captured in broad gestures of color, and a landscape titled “Opening a Bottle” (2016), in which the dramatically contrasting horizontals of a deep space silhouette a lone, shadowy figure.
Not every painting is quite as vivid, but every work in the installation reveals a determination to forge a semblance out of primal energies of paint. By the standards of a traditional academy, with its prioritizing of taste and finish, such works might seem naively inarticulate. But they are eloquent, often complexly so, as expressions of form and color — arguably, painting’s most unique claim to shaping the real.
Janice Nowinski: Paintings continues at John Davis Gallery (362 1/2 Warren Street, Hudson, New York) through June 18.