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Painting may no longer be considered central, as it once was, but despite this commonplace evaluation there is certainly a lot of wonderful work being made these days, even if it is seldom celebrated. What makes this work so strong is that it doesn’t hanker after some illusion of a golden moment. I have an innate distrust of work that has a whiff of nostalgia drifting off its surface, whether it is for Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, or, further back, Albert Pinkham Ryder. Nostalgia often leads one to become a torchbearer, someone who wants to have followers.
Chie Fueki, Didier William, and Alexi Worth are painters who are not nostalgic for a past style or a historical moment, which is why I want to call attention to their work, examples of which can be seen in the group exhibition, ZIG ZAG ZIG, at DC Moore Gallery (June 21 – August 10, 2018). Their work was hanging in the gallery’s front space, and I have to admit that by the time I got to the next room, my eyes had been so overtaken and I could not focus on the paintings of Doron Langberg and Bridget Mullen, which were mounted there. Nor could I really experience the films of Duane Michals, or take in the large, impressive painting, “Jeez” (2012), by Joyce Kozloff. The works by Fueki, William, and Worth made such a strong impression — leaving me hungry for more — that I decided I would write about their work before I would revisit the rest of the exhibition.
Although Fueki, William, and Worth make very different kinds of painting, the underlying connection is their devotion to a variety of techniques that they have developed in pursuit of something fresh. In each case, the technique is intimately linked with the hand and a reimagining of processes and materials. Fueki uses acrylic paint, ink, and colored pencil on mulberry paper, which she mounts on wood. She collages precisely cut, painted sections to the overall surface to assemble her compositions, which, in the works on display, evoke a young woman driving a car. The upper half of the painting, full of fantastical forms, is equated with the windshield.
Born in Yokohama, Japan, raised in São Paulo, Brazil, Fueki attended the Ringling College of Art & Design in Sarasota, Florida, and received her MFA from Yale University. Synthesizing diverse possibilities — from Japanese prints to inlaid jewel boxes to embroidered kimonos to kitsch figures to digital screens — she generates a vision of uncertainty to carry with us as we head into the future, exhilarated and apprehensive.
Didier Williams, who was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and raised in Miami, Florida, combines woodcarving, ink, collage and wood stain on panel to depict unknowable black creatures whose skins are covered with eyes. Each creature appears to be on a stage or platform; they have been put on display. The carving and the collage imbue the work with a visceral presence, a faceless black body looking back at the viewer. In “Pye m pa pou mwen” (2018) — the title is in Creole — Williams depicts the feet of a creature on a stage. Our viewpoint is from below the stage, so that our eyes are level with the feet. Who is this Other that we cannot see but who sees us? Whose eyes are gathered below the platform? Without spelling anything out, Williams gives viewers a lot to think about.
Alexi Worth, who is the only one of the three artists represented by the gallery, paints on open linen mesh, which can be seen through, as if it were a gauzy curtain. In the three paintings sharing the space with those of Fueki and Williams, he depicts a transparent box containing a pile of curled sheets of paper. The titles frame how we are meant to see the paintings: “Suggestion Box”, “Donation Box, and “Ballot Box” (all 2018). The boxes might be transparent, but the sheets of paper remain remote and their blank surfaces are indecipherable. The painting’s diaphanous surface, with its stretcher’s cross brace visible, conveys a state of fragility, while the box’s transparent planes prevent us from reaching for its contents. The muted tones make everything seem slightly off-kilter. Desire and frustration become inseparable.
Fueki, William, and Worth construct their paintings. Although their work is very different in subject matter and technique, it shares two features: it is brimming with anxiety and it acknowledges itself as a surface (Fueki’s windshield), an object on display (William’s figures on stage), and as a reality we might want to grasp (Worth’s transparent boxes). They are artists who seem to be facing their state of uneasiness directly, making it the subject of their work in ways that extend beyond the personal or anecdotal. We are in the same car with Fueki’s young woman, whose eyes we glimpse in the rear view mirror, looking back at us. We are the audience in William’s mysteriously theatrical paintings, gazing at creatures we cannot know, much less understand. William’s creatures see us looking, with torment and a desire for dignity seeming to exude from every eye. They are witnesses. Worth tempts viewers to reach across the porous surface and take hold of what cannot be reached. In these works we look at focused manifestations of our fretfulness and cannot pull away.
ZIG ZAG ZIG continues at DC Moore Gallery (535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 10.