Josephine Halvorson, “Southern 992321″ (2012), Oil on linen, 38 x 30” (Image courtesy of the artist)

A studio visit prompted these thoughts about Josephine Halvorson’s paintings, which Nancy Princenthal has characterized as “resolutely airless and mute.” (Art in America, January 2012)

Halvorson depicts close-up views of largely flat surfaces, often with a rectangle framed within the painting’s rectangle. In addition to conveying little depth, the surfaces usually contain a space we cannot see into, or they feature a closed door or doors. These tensions inflect our experience of the artist’s work, with its slow dance between the visible and the hidden, and between sight and touch. She seems to want the viewer to smell her objects as much as see them, to become familiar with the scarred and punctured surface (or skin) of their silent “faces.” For her, painting isn’t confined to sight. She lives in a world of things, not images – a three-dimensional realm far removed from the flattened realm of popular culture and the mass media.

By “bumping up against” trompe l’oeil masters such as John F. Peto, as she has put it in an artist’s talk, Halvorson concentrates attention on the porous relationship between surface and object, the visual and the tactile, whole and part, subject and context. Her refusal to step back and give us a larger, more conventionally complete view amounts to an aesthetic and ethical decision. She doesn’t want to give viewers a way out of her paintings, and a punctured surface (an empty screw hole, for example) is a black hole, both literally and metaphorically speaking. We are looking at things that have endured time’s commonplace depredations.

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This is what I wrote about her 2011 exhibition, “What Looks Back,” at Sikkema Jenkins:

Halvorson’s non-functional, obsolete objects are surrogates for painting and the death of painting. We are looking at different areas of painting’s “carcass,” as she titles one of her paintings, but only a small section of the body is visible to us at any one time.  Given that so much in the artist’s paintings evoke a world that is hidden or beyond our purview, it is as if we have yet to see the whole “picture” (or body) despite painting having already been pronounced dead. It is this state of mortality and death that would seem to trouble Halvorson. But instead of averting her eyes, she moves closer. Rather than being content to listen to what others have said, she wants to see for herself.

More than a year later, I see little reason to change what I wrote. Rather, I want to advance another viewpoint, which first occurred to me while I was sitting in her studio, looking at a number of paintings, including the ones that she recently showed in two group exhibitions: “The Big Picture” at Sikkema Jenkins, New York (6/8/12 – 7/27/12) and “Still,” which was curated by Peter Flessig, at the Frith Street Gallery, London (6/29/12 to 9/15/12).

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The canvas that provoked me to formulate another way of looking at the artist’s work was “Southern 992321,” a salmon-colored painting measuring 38 x 30 inches. Halvorson is a tonalist who works with a palette of muted colors. James Whistler, Jasper Johns and Robert Ryman border the domain she explores.  The artist did “Southern 992321” while she was teaching in Tennessee. The ostensible subject is a small area of a rusted boxcar. (In a recently released episode featuring Halvorson, from the television series Art21, you can catch a glimpse of the painting set up on an easel in a railroad yard).

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Halvorson is an observational painter who strives to dissolve the border between her painting and the object of her attention.  This is where she bumps up against Peto, and paintings such as “The Cup We All Race 4” (c.1900), which Johns has alluded to in a number of works.

In “Southern 992321,” Halvorson brings us in intimate contact with the decline of the American industrial empire, the irreversible decaying of its infrastructures. In doing so, the artist establishes a dialogue with the Precisionists, the optimistic American modernist movement that emerged in the 1920s, and included artists such as Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth.

In contrast to Sheeler’s idealization of American industrial plants in “Classic Landscape” (1931) and Charles Demuth’s celebration of the burgeoning agribusiness of American farming in “My Egypt” (1927), Halvorson’s “Southern 992321” shows us one outcome of that dream. In place of the austere linearity and sharply angled, flatly painted, geometric planes that are characteristic of Sheeler and Demuth’s mature works, Halvorson arrives  with subtle shifts and changes in color, which underscore the worn and weathered surfaces of her subject. The side of the boxcar is stained with grease and dirt. The letters and numbers have faded.  Everything is in a state of entropy.

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I doubt that Halvorson was thinking of Charles Demuth’s, “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold” (oil on cardboard, 35 ½ x 30 inches, 1928), and the poem by William Carlos Williams the painting is based on, when she started “Southern 992321” (oil on canvas, 38 x 30 inches, 2012), but they have a number of things in common. They are nearly identical in size, they incorporate letters and numbers, and they define a view that is both partial and complete, based on something observed.

Charles Demuth, “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold” (1928), oil on cardboard, 35 1/2 x 30 inches

Demuth’s “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold” is one of eight abstract portraits made of friends between 1924 and ’29. This is the source of painting:

“The Great Figure”
Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
fire truck
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

Williams’ poem “The Great Figure” begins with a detail the poet sees: the number 5 painted on a red fire engine racing “tense, unheeded” through the city streets at night. Sight (“I saw the figure 5”), sound (“gong clangs”), and touch (“Among the rain…”) are brought together. With this mind, the “figure 5” could be referring to our five senses, the ways we apprehend the world.

In his painting, Demuth repeats the “5” in increasingly larger sizes as he moves it closer to the picture plane. He makes visual references to buildings and the fire engine, and he includes the words BILL (the top of the letters cropped by the painting’s top edge) and Carlo (with part of the O and the S of “Carlos” completely cropped), recalling the poet’s nickname and middle name. The repetition of the circular streetlights, the tight rendering, and the play of the curved lines of the numerals against the straight, slanting lines of the buildings’ edges evoke the “gong clangs,” and speed of the racing fire engine racing and the wet, nighttime streets.

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Halvorson’s “Southern 992321” is a discolored monochromatic plane in which the figures and letters are slightly lighter than the ground.  The painting focuses on two letters (TH) and two numbers (23) from the title — we are seeing a small area of the boxcar. Stains are visible beneath the row of rivets that span the surface just below the numbers “23.” They are like rivulets of dried blood.

The entire surface comes across as stained, scarred, scratched, and marked. Everything is in a state of decomposition. The oxidization cannot be halted. Halvorson is haunted by time passing, and the painting should be seen as evincing it on two levels, the historical and the geological.  Although the object of her attention – a rusted boxcar – is something we associate with a bygone era, there is nothing nostalgic about the painting. Deterioration is an unavoidable process that we must all submit to. That Halvorson can look at such a state of disintegration so long and carefully as well as transform it into a painting to be looked at again and again is what makes her work extraordinary. Instead of trying to escape time, as capitalism promises we can do, Halvorson chooses to live in it.

John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...