PURCHASE, NY — To paint pictures on the thin surface of a canvas is to relegate the canvas’s armature to an invisible role. For some, this hierarchy won’t do; painters in the 20th century consistently questioned their substrates, as in Lucio Fontana’s slashes, Lygia Clark’s planar constructions, Helio Oiticica’s spatial interventions, and Howardena Pindell’s incorporation of collage and sewing into the very fabric of the canvas. Often, these efforts pushed painting toward new fields, like sculpture or architecture.
Engels the Artist doesn’t seek out these other vocabularies — he is firmly a painter, but one who employs a number of deconstructive tools in his work: canvases are ripped and punctured, wooden stretchers protrude, staples are applied to the paintings’ facades. From a distance, the semi-abstract “Across the Border” (2016) suggests a bird’s-eye view of a desert scene, its rich, dark orange yielding to ambiguous figures and their narrow shadows. Stepping closer, the picture fractures: sand dunes are creases along the canvas’s uneven surface, and the figures are composed of staccato brushwork and deliberately placed staples. In the adjacent “I Don’t Know Why” (2013), the canvas is delicately unfurled around its wooden stretchers, offering a glimpse of its skeleton. Here, the viewer is a voyeur, faced with a composition in a state of undress. And, in “I Cannot Paint” (2011), Engels is at his most playful, wrapping the paintbrush itself in a shroud of canvas, an ironic mummification of the painter’s tool.
Throughout his current retrospective, Art Got Into Me, at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Engels’s provocations yield moments of genuine delight: scribbled-on chalkboards peeking out from frayed plywood, crumpled fabrics escaping ornate frames, and delicate paintings within paintings. Compositions invite viewers to alternately see past the pictorial illusion and give into it wholeheartedly. In “Unveiled” (2010), raw cotton pulls up to reveal a frame and rusty landscape beneath, as if the canvas were a blind obscuring the painting’s image. In the most intricate compositions, like “Jolie Julie” (2013), the frame’s cross beams act as marks winding in and out of the picture plane.
A trio of monochrome works from 2017 tend toward the sculptural, recalling carved plaster or stone. “Cotton Pearl,” the largest, is like a swell at sea or glaciers calving. Its title references Engels’s native Haiti, named the “Pearl of the Antilles” by the French for the immense wealth that the colony’s enslaved labor force produced. That the material of the canvas itself is representative of a history of displacement and slavery is not inconsequential for Engels. The artist’s strength is his ability to treat materials as both tools and symbols, allowing for elements of the paintings to waver between mark and referent.
A reverence for the tools of painting is apparent in Engels’s practice; his transformation of the canvas into the artwork is like building a reliquary from the bones themselves. I am still thinking about the armies of staples that invade those canvases, their endless readings from above. They were wandering migrants, glinting schools of mackerel, messy morning stubble. This is the crux: to reveal painting’s mechanism without compromising any of its joy.
Art Got Into Me: The Work of Engels the Artist at the Neuberger Museum of Art (735 Anderson Hill Road, Purchase, New York) continues through December 22.
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