I will say it again: I am an unabashed fan of Eleanor Ray’s modest-sized paintings of interiors, exteriors, and the landscape. While I have followed her work for the past few years, and have written about it twice before, I realized that her debut exhibition at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery (January 6–February 10, 2019), simply titled Eleanor Ray, encompassed the largest number of her works that I have seen at any one time. There are 25 paintings done in oil on panel, most of which measure around six by eight inches, the size of an inexpensive paperback.
All the paintings are based on direct observation. The places include various interiors and exteriors of the Judd Foundation in Marfa, Texas; views of Robert Smithson’s iconic earthwork, “Spiral Jetty,” extending out into the Great Salt Lake in Utah; the inside and outside of a modernist house in Wyoming; Agnes Martin’s adobe house in Galisteo, New Mexico; the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, with its cycle of frescos by Giotto; the Convent of San Marco in Florence, with its frescoes by Fra Angelico; views of the hills and fields of Wyoming and New Mexico.
When the subject is architectural, such as the various views she finds in Marfa or the house in Wyoming, she uses the structure of the walls and windows or Judd’s outdoor sculptures to geometrically section off the horizontal panel. The views are for the most part frontal and the space is layered, moving from the inside room to the outside view, or the reverse, from the outside wall to the inside room. In either case, the shift is marked by a darkened interior and a sunlit exterior — dark and cool or warm and bright set inside its opposite.
As much as we might read this configuration formally, it seems to me that Ray’s evocation of the two spaces (interior and exterior) can be interpreted a number of ways. The unoccupied interior or landscape becomes a sacred space, a place of solitude and reflection. The windows remind us that there is an exterior and interior world, and that we always occupy both.
The sites that Ray picks are where art has been made or carefully placed. In the case of the Scrovegni Chapel and the Convent of San Marco, the art is an inextricable part of the architecture, just as Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” is a permanent part of the lake and surrounding landscape. It is clear that she visits and paints these places as a way of paying homage to her inspirations, the artists she regards as feeding her work.
The way she uses the architectural elements to section off her rectangular formats owe something to the asymmetrical compositions of Piet Mondrian, an artist she has evoked in some of her earlier paintings. The views she picks are never casual. When she depicts the inside or outside of a building, she is highly attuned to the way the underlying geometry merges with the landscape – the sky, field, and mountain. Strong vertical and horizontal bands are offset by shorter, thinner diagonals, as in “Marfa Window” (2018), where the top edges of Judd boxes become diagonal lines. There is something smart and quietly witty about rendering Judd’s work as diagonals, given how strictly his world is dominated by x and y axes.
Ray uses thin textured paint, sometimes applied in layers, whose grained surface prevents us from reading the work as purely optical or solely as image. She is interested in light and reflection as palpable presences in a restrained, sensual world. The cropping makes us aware that the view is partial — we are seeing only a piece of the room we are standing in, while the window before us frames the landscape, allowing us to see only a small section of that as well. An open door reminds us that there is another room we have not entered. Standing outside, with the corner of a porch and the plains before us, we are reminded of the vastness of the world. There is a deep, warm solitude running through all the paintings in the exhibition – a sense of being alone and luxuriating in the human silence and changing light.
In the two paintings titled “Wyoming Window, June” (2018), the rectangle is divided into two distinct areas, with a vertical band running down the middle, from the top to bottom edge. There is a window in the lower right quadrant that is topped by a gray rectangle in one version; in the other, the rectangle is blue-gray.
What changes the view is the light, which is reflected in three distinct shapes on the wall above and to the left of the window. In one painting, a buttery yellow rectangle floats horizontally above two vertical ones rising from the bottom edge.
In the companion painting, the rectangles are salmon-colored and aligned vertically and horizontally, echoing the architecture. In both paintings, the rectangles of light reflected on the cool, dark wall are as palpable as the architectural elements. Their fleeting presence reminds us that we exist in time, even if we think of this moment as timeless.
At the same time, the geometric shapes — which brought to mind the paintings of Burgoyne Diller — add another layer of perceptual complexity. Ray is interested in setting rectangles within rectangles, and shifting from dark tones to light ones, while also being attuned to tonal shifts. The colors are dusty and chalky. The division between abstraction and representation is porous, and the tension between flatness and layered space helps lock the compositions tightly together.
When Ray stacks up rectangles of color in a painting like ”Marfa Exterior” (2018), she is merging Judd’s modular “stacks” and interest in light — evidenced particularly in his use of Plexiglas — with hers. She is also satirizing Judd’s famous claim that the problem with painting is that is rectangle on the wall, and that its shape determines the shapes inside.
At times, I have thought of Ray’s paintings as moody and even softly haunted. Other times, I have felt that they were filled with a blissful solitude. The fact that they can be both and more is what elevates her work to a singular place in my mind. She has taken her love for art and for figures as distinct as Judd and Giotto and made their inspiration into something that is hers alone. In contrast to the solid structures housing their work, she has made small, easily transportable panels. That too is part of their meaning.
Eleanor Ray continues at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery (327 Broome Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 10.